I glanced at the young lad as he loitered around the food hall in the BHS department store on Oxford Street and thought: “Here we go.”
One moment, he was tucking a cooked chicken and a bottle of cheap plonk into the large pocket of his oversized coat; the next, he was walking briskly out of the door and moving at pace. A member of the management rushed towards me and shouted: “Go on, get after him!” and gestured to another staff member to follow suit.
Within seconds, both of us were in pursuit of the shoplifter, and dashing towards Tottenham Court Road. Eventually, we cornered the young man and asked him to come back to the shop – at which point, he produced a knife and all bets were off.
I still look back on that incident shortly before Christmas in 1985, and wonder why on earth we were ever placed in such a position. The cost of the goods could hardly have been £10, but we were expected to risk life and limb, and embark on these chases on a regular basis.
Where were the security guards? Answer being that there weren’t any. It was the lot of the hapless retail assistants to take abuse from customers, inside and outside the store, and the Christmas period was always the worst time of the year.
Quite apart from employees having their ears assaulted by the likes of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, Mud’s Lonely this Christmas and Slade’s still popular Merry Xmas Everybody on a tape loop (which ensured we heard them five or six times a day from the middle of November onwards), there were the customers to contend with.
‘Three million unemployed – and YOU have a job’
Some of the men were merely confused or embarrassed about going near the perfume or underwear counters. But it’s difficult to respond to the inquiry: “Do you think she’ll like this?” when you have never met the woman in your life.
In one case, an elderly chap asked what lingerie was, even as water began dripping from the bottom of his trousers. No, it wasn’t the call of nature, but a melting packet of lasagne, which he had pocketed for his supper and was thawing under our noses. Why on earth did he stop for a chat?
The haughty woman with a receipt and a half-empty bottle of perfume – “I just couldn’t bring myself to like this” – who demanded a refund. The impatient businessman with a sandwich who couldn’t understand that the till was broken and hissed: “Three million unemployed – and YOU have a job.”
And the last-minute festive shopper who wanted a popular product on December 24 and refused to believe it was sold out. “You must have one upstairs.” “Sorry, sir, we don’t.” “Well, can you go and check? Or I’ll take this further.”
Make an effort to be kind
It wasn’t all negative interaction with the public. One afternoon, with the aisles packed, a shopper asked if I could find her some mince pies with brandy butter.
There were none on the shelves, so I headed up to the stock room, waded through what seemed like endless piles of Yuletide merchandise, and eventually tracked down the items. However, by the time I returned downstairs, she looked at me sweetly and said: “I’m very sorry, son, I think I’ll just stick with the plain ones.”
There was a pause for me to catch my breath. “But, here you are – and have a nice Christmas.” At which point, she slipped £10 into my hand and brushed off any attempt to return it.
Remember that shop assistants are trying their best and not being paid very much for their pains
This was in the 1980s, and most of us were simply grateful that we were in work. Fast-forward 40 years, and there’s an epidemic of shoplifting, much of it carried out by organised gangs, while an increasing number of stores have more self-service tills than actual human employees, and customers who are quick to complain if the robotic devices are out of commission.
So, please, whatever stresses you might be undergoing, and regardless of the problems you may have in your own life, remember that shop assistants are trying their best and not being paid very much for their pains. The least they deserve is a smile and a thank you.
And a break from Noddy Holder and Roy Wood, as soon as possible!
Neil Drysdale writes features for DC Thomson and is also an author