Retailers

Redistribution of Labor

Stores ramp up staffing while pivoting in departments transformed by the pandemic
Cleaning up muffin
Photograph by Clint Blowers

When the pandemic struck, one of the first things to go away were hot and cold bars, along with bulk items and self-service bakery and deli. While consumer desire for products from these departments remain largely unchanged, how the store meets these needs—and how customers purchase them—has changed.

The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA) has seen a rise in sales of pre-sliced and packaged deli meats and cheeses, a trend that was increasing pre-pandemic, but has seen a 50% increase since the pandemic struck.

“This potentially could be a trend that’s lasting, especially for consumers who now feel more comfortable purchasing these products in this manner,” says Whitney Atkins, VP of marketing for IDDBA. “Fresh departments will most likely need to operate in a type of hybrid that offers both full-service and hands-off options. Labor in these departments will most likely be reallocated as needed within the department and the store as a whole.”

Pivoting Service Offerings

Stores are also pivoting in other departments, including meat, where certain IGA stores have moved to having butchers package meat instead of cutting it on demand at a service counter because customers feel the packaged option is safer. “We’re learning how to change the service in the store and deliver them in new and perhaps fresher ways,” says John Ross, CEO of IGA in Chicago. “We’re learning a new labor model for the same service. We’re going to see that as our stores and our industry figures out how to provide the same cool services in a safer way.”

Retail foodservice also was completely transformed by the pandemic as stay-at-home orders effectively shuttered any inside dining. Retailers had to adjust to new shopping patterns as consumers rediscovered cooking and prepared the majority of meals at home. Consumer food dollars have returned to the grocery store, which has had an impact on how stores are staffed.

“Grocery stores are the primary source for food at home,” says Doug Baker, VP of industry relations for FMI–The Food Industry Association. “As long as the trend continues, retailers will need to use labor to be able to manage that. They can use those foodservice people in other areas to continue to elevate their customer service level.”

Quick Hire Procedures

As stores redistributed labor and had to ramp up staffing levels to meet increased demand, they had to quickly change how they hired new staffers. From Jan. 1 to May 11, supermarket hiring was up 63% and from May 11 to July 12, it was still up 28%. The rapid expansion of labor was highly disruptive to the hiring process. Many retailers moved from a traditional two-week interviewing process to 24- to 48-hour interview and onboarding sessions, DailyPay’s Mullen notes.

However, an interesting phenomenon occurred in supermarkets in that their staffing levels remained consistent, but their turnover rate was high, says Jeanniey Mullen, chief marketing officer of DailyPay. “During the peak of the pandemic, a lot of people were displaced from other jobs, so maybe they turned to a grocery store temporarily and are leaving now as their organization is ready to bring them back.”

Mullen sees two different hiring themes emerging in the grocery sector as a result of coronavirus-driven unemployment. The first is flexibility. “You know, retailers are saying come work for us, we’ll help you through these hard times. We’re the local neighborhood grocer and we’re here for you, we’ll help you and your family get through COVID,” she says.

The second is the promise of upward mobility. “You can come in as a stocker, but look at all these opportunities in food retailing,” adds Mullen, who sees this as a refreshing change for the industry, as well as the workforce—especially college graduates with degrees in industries such as hospitality, who are unlikely to find jobs in their field of study during a pandemic.

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