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Published: September 23, 2020
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The grocery store has a particular place in your community. It is run by people who often live alongside the area it serves. Until recently, for most, it was a regular event to join those who live near you to casually wander through its aisles, picking up bread and milk and whatever else your heart desired. Supermarkets are a place to congregate with those in your community, they employ people, and they reflect the wants and needs of the place we live.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and shop. For those customers who still venture into a store, the casual friendliness in the aisles has been replaced with anxiety, social distancing and urgency to get what you need fast before retreating to the safety of your home. We can expect that social distancing between employees and shoppers is likely to stay in place well into the future. For some customers, e-commerce will become the norm, even after the pandemic passes. Still, it is certain that in-person visits to stores and the interactions between store staff and shoppers will remain central to the shopping experience.

To strengthen their competitive position and prepare for future growth, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies must create a flexible and modern workforce. They also need to train for a top-notch in-store experience, including preparing the younger generation of workers to step into the roles of tomorrow. Hiring for diversity and inclusion is a part of this so that the store represents the community it serves.

Hire to Meet Demand 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed hiring, especially in the travel, hospitality and retail sectors, delivery businesses and grocery stores are thriving in the current environment. To keep up with demand, a sizable amount of grocery retailers are adding new associates and are challenged to fill roles to future-proof their organizations for the post-COVID world. Some examples are:

  • Grocery chain Lidl plans to add 50 new stores along the US East Coast and create 2,000 new jobs by the end of 2021. The company said that it plans to invest over $500 million in the new stores. 
  • 7‑Eleven Inc. and its independent 7‑Eleven franchise owners have hired more than 50,000 new convenience-store employees since March and are recruiting 20,000 more this year to work in its more than 9,000 US stores as part of a COVID-19 pandemic-related hiring push.  
  • Amazon has announced plans to hire more than 100,000 people for warehouse and fulfillment jobs in the US and Canada and thousands of additional office workers in several cities. 
  • The UK supermarket giant Tesco said it would permanently employ 16,000 new staff after “exceptional growth” of the retailer’s online sales during the pandemic. The new Tesco jobs include 10,000 team members to assemble customer orders and 3,000 delivery drivers. 
two girls having conversation

Be Resilient and Flexible 

FMCG retailers are hiring to achieve greater enterprise agility and position themselves to respond to the heightened, continued uncertainty that the pandemic has brought. This agility includes both supply chain responsiveness and the customer-facing experience.

As the pandemic upended whole industries, leaving people jobless, more significant numbers of individuals are willing to take on flexible work. Retailers are taking advantage of this by hiring adaptive team members in temporary and contract roles who are willing to do whatever tasks are necessary to get the job done. This allows retailers to invest with less risk, react faster, and feel more in control of the unprecedented circumstances caused by COVID-19.

According to RedWigWam, the UK’s leading flexible working community, as part of its report titled ‘Flexi and Flourishing: How flexible teams are changing FMCG businesses for good post-Covid’, “for workers, there will be a greater need than before to search for jobs more broadly and to fill an increased number of temporary roles offered by businesses that are no longer employing as many permanent staff.”

The report states that “the greater use of flexible teams comes as 75% of FMCG businesses say they have been forced to overhaul their long-term business strategies because of the pandemic. Almost one in three (30%) of companies said they plan to increase their flexible teams in terms of the number of temporary workers they hire. Of those, 42% planned to grow the size of their flexible workforce by between 51-75% while 34% planned increases of 26-50%.”

Retailers can benefit from the flexible staffing solutions available today, including hiring specialist freelancers, forming alliances with partnering enterprises such as online fulfillment providers, implementing employee sharing across locations and relying on temps, interns and trainees to fill capacity gaps. With an optional path to permanent employment, this ‘try before you buy’ approach can be a powerful recruiting tool for retailers.

Modernize for Engagement 

According to a recent McKinsey survey, employees who said their employer responded particularly well during the COVID-19 outbreak are four times more likely to be engaged and six times more likely to report a positive state of well-being than those unhappy with their company’s response. By being readily available and helping employees make sense of the crisis, leaders can build resilience and social capital with their teams, the study found.

Technology plays a role here. In Australia, where major grocery retailers, distributors, and logistics companies have faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, companies are increasingly opting for digital platforms to communicate with frontline workers. WorkJam is one such platform, helping industry leaders unleash the full potential of their non-desk workforces.

Andrew Myers, Vice President Asia Pacific and Digital Workplace Strategy at WorkJam, said, “A digital relationship between the employer and the employee can facilitate this essential two-way communication and is a “win-win. What we have seen is very rapid communication from leaders in businesses, providing information to employees, almost in real-time.”

Supermarket giant Woolworths is among the major retail businesses using WorkJam’s mobile-first platform, allowing employees to access resources like schedules, training, surveys, documents, policies, and procedures on their mobile devices. This increased accessibility to business knowledge on-the-go empowers teams to work more harmoniously while embracing new agile ways of working.

Since many processes have changed around COVID-19, being able to deliver communication and have staff complete training online, in the case of Woolworths to 80,000+ employees, has been crucial. Having the ability to communicate with every store manager or every employee via a digital platform keeps everyone informed on what they need to know and improves engagement across the organization.

With high unemployment rates in Australia due to the pandemic, casual workers are eager to pick up shifts wherever they can. Woolworths has addressed this by using WorkJam’s Open Shift Marketplace, which allows them to create their own on-demand labour pool to improve staffing accuracy and significantly lower labour costs.

Open Shift Marketplace technology enables employers to create a marketplace of available shifts within their organization. It allows for the crowdsourcing of internal labour across departments and locations, putting employees and managers in direct contact with each other to choose the number of locations they wish to work at and can pick up more hours if they desire. Across both permanent and temporary hiring, companies will benefit from taking a fresh look at the range of modernized tools and digital platforms that make it easier to connect people to work flexibly.

Create A Top-Notch In-Store Experience 

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, grocery retailers were already facing a potential explosion of online shopping. The FMI (The Food Industry Association) predicted it would comprise over 20% of grocery spend by 2025. COVID-19 accelerated that slow-moving shift toward the new norm for many grocery consumers. According to the FMI, the transition to weekly online shopping (as a portion of all grocery spend) skyrocketed to 27.9% within the first four weeks of a lockdown that impacted 94% of the US population. A remarkable shift, considering that only 10.5% of US consumers’ total weekly grocery spend was online a year earlier.

FMI reported that although the adoption of online grocery shopping will likely decrease somewhat when the pandemic is over, analyst data indicates that the next generation of customers may prefer this channel in the long term. The data found that the highest rate of adoption in the US marketplace appears among future generations of consumers, starting with millennials who have kids (65%), with Gen Z (54%), and Gen X (43%) following close behind.

The grocery workforce, who primarily staff and operate brick-and-mortar stores, was impacted deeply by this sudden shift to online shopping. Instead of stocking and tidying up shelves, checking out customers at the register and keeping aisles clean, employees now have expanded roles and are expected to fulfill online orders. Their new responsibilities include picking high-quality perishables like produce and meat, ensuring deli meats are sliced to order and recommending equivalent substitutions when an ordered item is out of stock.

Even with the rocket-ship rise of online shopping, many customers still prefer to shop for produce and other perishable products in person. FMI reports that only 8% of consumers favour online shopping in these categories over in-store purchases.

Waiting for your delivery to arrive can feel like a game of chance, wondering which in-demand products will be back in stock and have made it into your online order as well as the quality of produce you will receive. In an article for RIS (Retail Info Systems) News, Steve Hunt, Chief Expert Work & Technology at SAP writes, “this realization has coined a new term called ‘Avocado Roulette’, which refers to the experience of shopping for a sensitive perishable product online without touching or smelling it to ensure quality and freshness. You never know what kind of avocado will show up in your online order: ripe, overly mushy, or hard like a rock.”

Customers like to play it safe with freshness and quality, and in-store shopping will always provide advantages over online shopping, especially when it comes to buying perishable products. By creating a tempting sensory experience in-store and ensuring freshness and quality when fulfilling online orders, stores can differentiate themselves and build customer loyalty by leveraging the unique experience associated with shopping for perishables.

By positioning employees as experts who advise and educate customers throughout the shopping journey and investing in solutions that equip employees with the knowledge to do so, grocery retailers have an opportunity to grow revenue by redefining the future of their customer experience through elevating every employee’s role.

masked girl doing grocery

Grow Your Future Workforce 

Another far-reaching impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is an economic downturn that has made it difficult for students to find work. Many schools and universities have closed their doors, and apprenticeship and internship opportunities have become scarce.

As an essential nod to young people as the future employees who will power companies, a virtual work experience program was recently offered by some of the UK’s biggest food retailers and suppliers. The program ran in August and targeted young people whose career prospects are challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The retailers and suppliers, among them Aldi, Asda, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Morrisons, P&G, Premier Foods, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, partnered with IGD, a research and training charity which sits at the heart of the food and consumer goods industry.

More than 80 graduates took part in an interactive week of learning, knowledge and skills development. They included individual masterclasses in areas such as marketing and sales, engineering, IT and digital. The graduates heard from 23 industry professionals from 14 major brands and retailers, including many industry leaders. Many took on projects with guidance from industry insiders with personalized feedback, to develop their skills and add to their resume.

IGD employability programs manager Sarah McCarthy said, “As the UK’s largest private sector employer, the food and consumer goods industry recognizes that it has a responsibility to help young people and support our communities in these challenging times – and we also have a great story to tell them about the exciting range of skilled careers available in FMCG.”

Nestlé is another example of an FMCG supplier supporting youth employability throughout this challenging time. Nestlé has maintained its efforts to support youth employability in Europe with the Nestlé Needs YOUth Initiative, which equips young people with the skills to thrive in tomorrow’s workplaces. Apprentices continued to go to work where possible, and trainees started to work remotely. Nestlé also organized digital training for its apprentices to allow them to complete their required curriculum.

Salviano Silva, Nestlé apprentice at the Avanca factory in Portugal, said: “I’m glad I could pursue my apprenticeship and gain relevant skills for my future despite the lockdown. I felt reassured with the additional safety measures taken in the factory. I’m also proud to have been part of the team that kept on producing essential products such as baby food.”

Nestlé recently reaffirmed its strong commitment to youth employment in Europe by supporting the relaunch of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships. Speaking at a high-level event for the renewed European Alliance for Apprenticeships, Marco Settembri, CEO of Nestlé Zone Europe, Middle East and North Africa, said: “More than ever, we must invest in young people. We strongly believe in the power of apprenticeships. They help young people transition from school to the workplace and get the right skills to shape the world of tomorrow, especially green and digital skills. Since 2014, we and our partners of the Alliance for YOUth have created more than 1,100 new apprenticeship programs. We are committed to continue this journey together.”

The Alliance for YOUth is a business-driven European initiative launched by Nestlé in 2014. The Alliance for YOUth brings together more than 300 companies in Europe. The participating companies have created more than 300,000 jobs and training opportunities for young workers – who represent the future innovators and entrepreneurs who will find solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Make Diversity Matter 

The COVID-19 Pandemic has highlighted existing socio-economic inequalities, and the current climate has put a renewed focus on retailer and supplier diversity and inclusivity programs. Many studies have shown that a diverse workplace drives loyalty, increases engagement and enables a higher capacity for innovation. During the COVID-19 crisis, people are paying particular attention to how companies respond. Diversity should always be a priority, but a company’s policies and procedures are under a microscope in times of crisis.

In early September, Target announced that as part of its commitment to social justice and racial equity, they have pledged to increase the representation of Black team members by 20% over the next three years by focusing on advancement, retention and hiring. The September 10 announcement coincided with Target’s release of its Workforce Diversity Report, which offers a racial and gender breakdown of its team across all levels of the organization.

Based on 2019 information, the report revealed that Target’s workforce of nearly 350,000 team members is 50% of people of colour and more than half (58%) are women. Nearly half (42%) of Target’s leadership team are women, and almost a quarter (24%) are people of colour. Additionally, one-third of its board of directors are women, and nearly half are Latino or Black.

To increase its representation of Black team members, Target said it is making many systemic changes, including:

  • Leveraging its stores, supply chain and headquarters experiences to provide broader leadership pathways for Black team members to develop and advance. 
  • Developing programs to hire and retain Black team members in career areas with low levels of representation, including technology, data sciences, merchandising and marketing. 
  • Increasing Target’s network of mentors and sponsors to help Black team members accelerate and advance their careers. 
  • Ensuring Target’s benefits and partnerships drive wellness and safety for Black team members. 
  • Conducting anti-racist training for leaders and team members that educate, build inclusion acumen, and foster a sense of belonging. 

The above actions by Target are an excellent example of the types of internal policy changes that brands can make to ensure sure their Organizations are representative of the communities in which they operate, thus improving the level of service, care and relatability to the shoppers they serve.

Customers will expect and demand racial and gender equity in the future. The future marketplace may require that demographics of businesses providing goods and services be posted at the point of sale with manufacturers and grocery stores publicly displaying the number of executives, managers, supervisors and line workers who are male, female, Caucasian, Black, Latino and Asian.

It is not only grocery retailers who are assessing their diversity but also suppliers. A Harvard Business review article states that more people want to work for companies with a supplier diversity program in place. This is an area where hiring will likely increase as more supplier companies place well-deserved attention on it.

Some FMCG companies are pledging to make tangible change in this area:  

  • Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat are confronting their product origins as they pivot to new branding. 
  • PepsiCo are committing to having more Black Americans join their ranks. 
  • Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Hershey, Colgate-Palmolive and McCormick are among the FMCG companies that made the Top 50 Companies for Diversity list from DiversityInc this year. 

A report from McKinsey showed that companies in the top quarter for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. “When they diversify the talent pool, it’s more profitable for them,” Iya Foods CEO Toyin Kolawole told Food Dive. “They innovate better. They innovate faster because, think about it, when you’re introducing a product into America, and you put it on an aisle in Walmart, the people who are going to be shopping in Walmart are going to be very diverse. You’re going to have White people shopping; you’re going to have Black people shopping, you’re going to have people of Hispanic heritage shopping because America is a melting pot. So, if you were going to be serving a diverse consumer base, why would your talent not be diverse?”

Two womens and one man with laptop

Advantage Perspective 

In a post-COVID world, customers will continue to enjoy the convenience and efficiency brought about by e-commerce. Still, many will find there are things they miss about the past and will return to the familiarity of grocery retailers’ brick-and-mortar environments. In doing so, they will want an abundance of flexibility across platforms, pick-up choices, payment options and an excellent in-store experience.

More than ever, retailers and suppliers will want alignment in their goals to strengthen their competitive position and coordinate their actions to create a robust framework for moving forward together. As one team changes its make-up, it will be incumbent on partners to do the same to work together effectively.

The new era of grocery retailing could be about something bigger and better than what came before. By addressing gaps, upskilling, improving diversity and matching their employment bases to create cross-functional teams for the future, retailers and suppliers will find new ways to help consumers live life to the fullest, positively impact communities, the environment and our ability to take care of each other.