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Dr. Patrick Fennell
Dr. Patrick Fennell

Study by SU's Fennell Identifies Customer Behavior, 'Guardianship' Policies Among Issues Exacerbating Employee Attrition

SALISBURY, MD---Employee shortages. Problem Customers. Shoplifting.

Separately, these are issues many retailers face in today’s environment. The latter two, however, may have an even bigger impact on the first than previously thought, according to a recent study co-authored by Dr. Patrick Fennell, Salisbury University assistant professor of marketing.

Published in the Journal of Service Research under the title “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys? Frontline Employee Perceptions of Customer Deviant Behavior and Service Firms’ Guardianship Policies,” the results revealed customer behavior to be the No. 1 cause of retail employees becoming indifferent and ultimately quitting their jobs.

“Recent disruptions, labor shortages and fiscal pressures, especially in retail service environments, have necessitated and highlighted changes in the roles and responsibilities of frontline employees, often requiring them to enforce mask mandates and police customer deviant behavior,” the study said.

Customer deviant behavior can range from shoplifting (cited by survey respondents as the top issue they faced) and incivility to aggression and fraud. Under pressures caused by labor shortages and inflation, many retail store owners and managers have added policing such behavior (“guardianship”) to many frontline workers’ duties.

Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, these behaviors cost retailers more than $60 billion annually, not including the cost of replacing employees who quit because of negative perceptions of their new guardianship roles or because they have not received proper training or compensation to undertake such duties, according to the study.

These problems have complicated issues that brick-and-mortar businesses in the U.S. faced even before the pandemic, as the retail landscape had begun shifting to online merchants such as, the researchers added.

Fennell and his co-authors, from Florida Atlantic, Ohio and Louisiana State universities, recommended that retail managers offset these issues by providing de-escalation and management training for frontline employees tasked with dealing with customer deviant behavior, clarifying guardianship policies upon hiring, and working to better identify potential employees with confrontation anxiety.

Data for the study was derived from a survey, three experiments and a series of in-depth interviews. The study is available online.

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