The idea was simple: bring your own bags from home, and, if you forget, there are multi-use, durable plastic bags available for 15c at the counter.
It’s been working in South Australia and Tasmania for years, and so, when the plastic bag ban was rolled out first by Woolworths then by Coles across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia it was expected that in time, these customers would similarly adapt.
Instead there has been a torrent of complaining and abuse so severe that in WA one Woolworths worker was throttled by a customer angered about not being provided with bags, and now Coles has announced a back-pedal so intense they may as well not have bothered in the first place.
Since customers have been unable to cope with the change, Coles will now be providing more durable plastic bags for free for the foreseeable future. Prior to this, these same bags were available for 15c as an incentive to both re-use them, and to bring their own bags from home.
There’s a deep thread of entitlement when it comes to customer service; the response to the plastic bag ban is just shining new light on an ugly and long-standing attitude
The fact that Australian shoppers have managed to bully, complain and abuse their way to getting what they want is depressing but unsurprising. There’s a deep thread of entitlement when it comes to customer service; the response to the plastic bag ban is just shining new light on an ugly and long-standing attitude.
Having worked in customer service, I’ve seen firsthand how often customers get disproportionately angry about minor things. Then they take it out on the people who have no power to either influence or fix things. It’s just a gross way of exploiting an uneven power dynamic.
Here are just some of the things I’ve been verbally abused over in various jobs: customers disagreeing over who should and shouldn’t receive concession prices at the cinema; not letting someone into a cinema despite the fact that the previous session was still going; and not breaking responsible service of alcohol laws by letting one customer take the lids for his alcoholic drinks after making a purchase at the candy bar.
In the latter case, it was a large man who had barrelled up to the counter with his wife and child in tow. Even though I explained to him why I couldn’t let him take the lids into the cinema—because it was illegal—he kept yelling and yelling until I got the manager.
The manager talked to the man in hushed tones, offered him things until he calmed down, essentially rewarding him for making a scene. Afterwards, with a smirk on his face, the man came back over to me and demanded that I apologise for my attitude. I didn’t. Instead I completed the transaction in silence, the only nod to “my attitude” being to put his change in a slightly difficult to reach place on the counter. His wife kept her eyes averted the whole time.
Often in those situations, even when you are being verbally abused, even when the customer most definitely isn’t right, you don’t have the power to speak back. Because you worry about your job. Because you’re trained not to. At those times the only option you have is to stay silent and get a manager.
Cool down. Write a complaint when you get home. Don’t yell at the teenager who has nothing to do with it
Sometimes your manager will back you up; sometimes they’ll tell the customer they’re being unreasonable, that they need to cool down, that they should get their own attitude in check. But other times they’ll go down the mollifying route, smoothing down the situation in the moment, yes, but validating the behaviour overall.
By backpedalling on plastic bags, Coles is telling those who abused their staff that their behaviour is justified. Shout loudly enough and you’ll get what you want.
I’d like to say that I don’t understand how anyone goes out into the world with the attitude that being inconvenienced gives them carte blanche to hurl abuse at people—but I can’t. Some people, given even an inch of power over someone else, will exploit it with relish. And when this behaviour isn’t called out, or worse, bolstered, their confidence builds. They do it again. And again.
So what can we do? First off, don’t be that person. If there is a problem with the service deal with it in a constructive way, by talking to people who can actually do something about it. Cool down. Write a complaint when you get home. Don’t yell at the teenager who has nothing to do with it.
The other thing we can do is, if it’s safe, if you’re up to it, step in. Say something. The power dynamic is off when it’s customer and worker. If it’s another customer who says something however, often the person raging furiously will deflate rapidly. That man shouting at the postal worker because stamps are more expensive this year? Tell him he’s being unreasonable. The woman yelling at the one barista trying to make 20 peoples’ coffees? Point out that everyone is in the same boat.
There are worse things in life than being asked to bring your own bags to the supermarket; sometimes it’s being the one asking you to do it.