The best ways to avoid situations that may lead to customer injuries; physical, emotional and financial.
I hope nobody thinks I’m trying to scare furniture store owners with this article. The fact is, during my 24 years as an RSA, store manager, and store owner, I only saw maybe a half dozen lawsuits of any kind, and they were very minor and easily processed in small claims court. That being said, however, it makes sense for store owners to pay attention to any possible liability hazards that might arise in his or her store.
While nothing major happened to me or the people I worked for in my quarter century in the business, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. The news is littered with horror stories of liability disasters that happened to other stores. We also understand that many of these lawsuits are frivolous, or often the fault of the plaintiffs, themselves.
Most of these lawsuit-causing liability hazards can be prevented, though, by keeping a close eye on your store and by being careful to avoid situations which could lead to customer injury; either physical, emotional, or financial. In this article, we’ll point out a variety of liability hazards that can arise during everyday operations and how they can be mitigated by using a little common sense.
Just for reminders, though, we’ll also include some scary stories that have happened to other people; stories which you always hope happen to somebody else, not ever to you.
Of course, every store should carry a liability insurance policy so that a disastrous accident of some sort can never put you out of business. But no one should consider their insurance policy to be a cure-all for gross negligence. There is no substitute for being careful.
It still amazes me when I find myself walking through a store and noticing all sorts of “attractive nuisances” and other accidents just waiting to happen.
Money Handling Hazards
Most people don’t think of handling money as a liability hazard. Certainly if handled the right way, it is the exact opposite. Handled the wrong way, however, it can really make life miserable, both for the store and for customers.
The big issue is the problem of protecting customer financial information. Every form of payment made in your store, with the possible exception of cash payments, represents an opportunity to interfere with a customer’s financial integrity. Checks, credit cards, and credit applications all contain highly confidential financial information. Not only can these documents include account numbers, social security numbers, etc., stores routinely ask for personal information to confirm to the store that customers are who they say they are. When we take a simple check in payment, we normally obtain not only the bank routing number, the checking account number and amount of check, but also customer’s address, phone number and possibly place of employment. We also get their drivers license number so that we have proof that the customer is not passing a bad check. The honest customer passes along enough personal information to create quite a financial dossier. By doing this, he or she has placed their trust in the store to safeguard that information from malefactors that would misuse that information. If that isn’t a potential liability hazard, I don’t know what is.
And, that’s just for a simple check. Credit applications involve a lot more information than that; the most important of which is the Social Security Number. The reason credit applications ask for so much information is obvious. We are asking the finance company, sight unseen, to loan money to somebody they don’t know, have never heard of, until now, and will never be seen again (it is to be hoped.) If all that data on the application matches their master files, and the applicant furnishes the correct security checkpoints, then the finance company feels satisfied that they will get their money back, with interest. The customer yields all this confidential information with the blissful assurance that it will never come back to harm him.
Credit cards, those little plastic instruments, pack the potential for more mischief, pound for pound, than anything else I can think of. Billions of dollars in on-line retail transactions take place every month between buyers and sellers using only the facility of a credit card. Both buyer and seller act on faith. Neither party ever lays eyes on the other one. And, amazingly, it works great, almost one hundred percent of the time.
Almost, that is, until the wrong person gets hold of the information. Is there anybody out there that hasn’t had at least one credit card malfeasance posted to their account? Credit card abuse has created huge industries whose sole purpose is to protect the consumer’s identity and credit rating.
But, what about the customer who trusts you to do the right thing in all these transactions? When we work in a store, day in and day out; we may take for granted all the easy mechanisms of collecting money that our society, culture and financial networks have provided for our benefit and convenience. Processing of checks, credit cards, credit apps are all built into the system. We hardly ever think about the potential consequences of misuse and abuse by dishonest workers; and the damage it can cause to the unwary customer. But, it happens.
What Do We Do About It?
Store management must be very careful to entrust the accepting of money only to employees who are absolutely reliable. Usually, in big stores, most transactions are taken to a payment acceptance department and they do all that work, thereby relieving the RSA (Retail Sales Associate) of the burden of handling money. In small stores, on the other hand, RSAs have to do pretty much everything. They not only sell, they also accept payments in all forms. In a lot of cases, they even load out products and keep inventory. In this day and age, with the term “Identity Theft” on everyone’s tongue, and with the rapid employee turnover we see so often, it becomes increasingly difficult for small store owners to ensure that employees are beyond reproach.
Some stores have begun to use camera surveillance of their entire operation, from front door to sales desk, to warehouse operations. Temptation to do the wrong thing can frequently be thwarted by the knowledge that an all-seeing camera is recording your every movement. These surveillance systems have become quite affordable in recent years and are not that hard to install. (So they tell me.)
Let’s look at the disposition of these various payment instruments that contain confidential information.
Check payments are usually deposited overnight, so they should rarely, if ever, be kept in the store where snooping eyes can read them. Credit cards are swiped or chipped and then returned immediately to the paying customer. Usually, a two part receipt is printed out, with one copy handed to the customer and one copy kept by the store and attached to the store’s regular ticket. Most credit card processors now offer the ability to obscure the bulk of the credit card number that is printed on the receipt. This facility prevents the usable part of the card number from being available to someone who might not have honorable intentions. Credit applications are a different story. The applicant must yield, in many cases, in written form, the sum total of his financial status with all supporting identity numbers, such as Social Security Number, driver’s license number, etc. I am informed that the law, in many, if not all states, requires that the retail store must keep these documents on file for a certain time period, even if they are turned down (TDed) by the credit agency. In those states where this kind of law applies, I would suggest that these documents be stored in files with lock and key.
This is a bit different from what we usually think of as a liability hazard, but it is still one, nonetheless; and, the consequence of this violation might be a visit from your friendly local Attorney General’s office. I have personally seen, strictly as an observer, the following abuse. The RSA takes it upon himself to advise the customer, “you can save the sales tax on this mattress if you bring me a Doctor’s Prescription!” Now, if the customer brings in a doctor’s prescription, of his own volition, CORRECTLY filled out with specific information, many states will allow a medical necessity exemption from sales tax. But, the RSA should never suggest this to the customer. Take note, however, that each state has highly specific laws on the proper usage of sales tax exemptions for medical purposes. It is in the store’s best interest to study and fully understand these laws and make sure all RSAs understand them as well. The state likes to collect its taxes. Punishment for violation of this law can be swift and painful.
Physical Liability Hazards
There are a million of these hazards that can cause customers and employees alike to get hurt. As the past manager and owner of several mattress stores, I am acutely aware of certain serial violations of common sense that I have observed over many years. Several will be named in this article. Liability hazards, unfortunately, do not confine themselves just to the bedding department. They can be located all over the retail store, starting with the sidewalk where customers walk in, all the way to the loading dock (especially the loading dock) where customers might be picking up a new sofa-love.
Let’s Start With Bedding
1. Open frames on the floor. Once in a while, a customer might buy a floor model. This means removing the mattress set, bagging it up, but leaving the open, uncovered bed frame on the floor. Don’t do this! Open bed frames are like a “shiny object” to children, and for some adults, as well. Nothing good can happen from an open bed frame on the floor. Unless you immediately put another mattress set in its place; pick up the bed frame and remove it to a storage room, warehouse, or somewhere that it will not come in contact with a customer. Do not just lean it up against the nearest wall. Open frames can hurt people. Hurt people file lawsuits.
2. Misplaced staples under upholstered furniture and box springs. Under every sofa, love seat, chair and box spring, there is a dust cover of some sort stapled to the bottom side of the frame. Careful observation will reveal that a lot of these staples have not been driven into the frame properly. Some of them, in fact, will have very sharp points sticking out. These sharp points can puncture customers' and employee's fingers. Watch out for and fix them.
3. Bunk beds are the ultimate shiny object for kids. If you sell bunk beds, and a lot of stores do, try to make them as safe as possible. In our stores, we removed ladders from most of them, and stacked pillows or bean bags on the top bunk; the idea being to discourage kids from climbing. Naturally, these trivial obstacles are no match for the most aggressive and disobedient of children, but our hope was that it might give a hint to aware parents.
Since we are on the topic of bunk beds, we might as well talk about pop-up trundles. I would suggest that these devices should not be allowed on the showroom floor. They are dangerous, period. All demos and sales of pop-ups should include advising the customer of their danger with full disclaimers of responsibility for their misuse.
That does not begin to exhaust all the liability hazards in the bedding department, but it does cover some of the most commonly abused ones.
More Liability Hazards
Slippery floors. Floors are always a problem. I like carpeted floors, but they get dirty and unsightly so quickly. Nothing like a nasty stain on the floor to take the customer’s mind off buying that snazzy new dinette set. The problem is; that if you don’t carpet your floors, you are left with what may be an attractive surface, but any moisture on the floor or on the feet can cause customers and employees to slip and fall. Some statistics suggest that falls are the most common liability complaint and the source of more lawsuits and insurance claims than any other store misadventure. Step-ups and step-downs to vignettes offer another nice little tripping point.
Sharp edges. I never cease to be surprised at how many razor sharp edges can be found on various objects in a retail furniture store. I once sliced my finger open on a plastic price tag holder in the furniture section of a famous department store. Not only that, nobody there had any band-aids or anything to stop the bleeding. In the entire, vast store, nobody could find a first aid kit.
A lot of furniture, especially metal furniture, has unseen sharp edges that careless workers did not file down during construction. Why file them down? That takes time, and you can’t see them anyway, right? That chair will be across the wide Pacific by the time anybody notices, right?
My suggestion? Look out for and file down sharp edges when you find them. Keep a First Aid Kit close by and make sure every employee knows where it is.
Furniture Product Liability
For an excellent discussion of this subject, go to Furniture World’s on-line edition (www.furninfo.com/Digital%20Editions), Volume 146 NO.2 March/April dated 3/25/2016.
There are a million and one of these. We would need a book to handle all of them. For this discussion, we will only talk about a couple of those hazards that could affect a paying customer.
My first rule is: don’t allow the customer, or his kids, in the warehouse. Too many bad things can happen.
Of course, in my part of the country, people are usually nice and try to be helpful, and if you’ve only got one person available to load out a motion sectional, then where I come from, the customer usually volunteers to grab the other end to help load it out. Sometimes, it can’t be helped.
Keep the loading dock as clear of dangerous debris as possible. Many loading docks look like landfills without the bulldozer and the warning signs.
Finally, if your store shoulders the responsibility of loading and SECURING the merchandise to the customer’s vehicle, MAKE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that your employees know how to PROPERLY tie down any merchandise so that it doesn’t come flying off on the crowded freeway at 75 miles per hour.
These Actually Happened
I found these little items on the following website; www.insureon.com. I hope they don’t mind if I paraphrase a couple of them.
1. A man pricked his finger on a rose thorn at a retail store, and sued the store.
2. A Texas resident got dizzy from looking at a carpet pattern. This dizziness made him fall down or trip on a step. This person sued the store.
3. A customer’s car was hit in the store’s parking lot by another driver while the customer was still in the car, causing an injury. The injured customer sued the store.
You can find a lot more of these if you take the time to search them out on the world wide web.
I would also suggest reading an article from Injury Claim Coach, (www.injuryclaimcoach.com), on Retail Store Negligence, which goes into some legal detail on this subject. It is worthwhile reading for the retail store owner and manager, large and small.
The real purpose of this article is not to give you any legal details (for which I am not qualified to do, to begin with,) but to remind busy store owners, managers and RSAs; “don’t forget to watch out for any hazards or potential accidents that can affect your business health.” Always be alert and watchful.
These things happen every day. Many lawsuits are frivolous and should come to nothing. My suggestion is to maintain a very good liability insurance policy and keep, on retainer, a good lawyer who specializes in this type of practice.
David Benbow, a twenty-three year veteran of the mattress and bedding industry, is owner of Mattress Retail Training Company. Dave’s company offers mattress retailers a full array of retail guidance; from small store management to training retail sales associates (RSAs.) Dave’s many years of hands-on experience as retail sales associate, store manager, sales manager/trainer and store owner of multiple stores in six different American metropolitan areas uniquely qualifies him as an expert in selling bedding at the retail level.
David is the author of the recently published book, “How to Win the Battle for Mattress Sales, the Bed Seller’s Manual”. This book is the first book to systematically present a complete, organized, but easily read and understood text book for mattress and bedding retail sales associates, beginner and experienced professional alike. It is a complete training course in one 292 page book. The book can be purchased on-line at http://www.bedsellersmanual.com.
He also offers hands-on training classes for retailers on a variety of subjects and issues as well as on-line classes that can be downloaded from the websites mentioned above.
David can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or in person at 361-648-3775.