, Salem, MA


December 28, 2006

Retail combat zones Rising shopper rage pushing shell-shocked clerks into counseling

The Fashion Place Mall in Murray, Utah, started the holiday shopping season with a near-riot.

About 15,000 shoppers swarmed the center the day after Thanksgiving, shoving and fighting their way to the bargains, mall spokeswoman Tamara DeMilt says. Police were called in six times. "They stormed the doors," DeMilt says. "Somebody hit somebody in the common area."

The melee was one of several incidents of shopper rage reported nationwide this year. As buyer-brawling and other abusive behavior mounts, the number of shell-shocked retail clerks is rising, too, and some of their employers are now offering counseling to help lower anxiety. One service, Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., says crisis sessions in which counselors travel to stores have increased 34 percent this year after a 26 percent gain last year.

Buyer rage is on the rise, retail consultants say, because of the limited supplies of popular or discounted items such as T.M.X. Elmo dolls and flat-screen televisions, inadequate store staffing, and everyday hassles.

Some sales clerks first seek help by calling ComPsych, which has 110 licensed clinicians answering several thousand calls a day on the 11th floor of its headquarters in Chicago. This time of year, retail staff are making what ComPsych counselors say are "acute calls" prompted by the overwhelming pressures of the holidays, including swearing and dangerous shoppers.

"People are frustrated and tolerance is diminished," ComPsych Chief Executive Officer Richard Chaifetz says. "Shopping is less of a leisure experience and more of a 'grab' experience. People are pushed and shoved and grabbed by the throat."

ComPsych, which counseled World Trade Center tenants after the Sept. 11 attacks, offers its services, including training in handling difficult customers, to employees at 7,000 organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. Its retail clients include Toys "R" Us Inc., Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. and Tiffany & Co.

The holiday stakes are high for retailers. About 32 percent of industry profits and 27 percent of sales come during the last quarter of the year, says the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

Customers are pressured by time constraints and family demands, while salespeople are working longer hours and juggling personal obligations, Chaifetz says.

"It's a reflection of the anger in our society," says George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, California. "Rather than rationally try to sort out the problem, they start screaming at the people working in the store."

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