Roundtable: Empowering the grocery frontline

Retail Gazette and Axonify hosted a virtual roundtable assessing grocery retail practices in the pandemic, what the sector has learned from a hugely challenging period, and how to empower frontline workers in the months ahead.

One-third of frontline workers interviewed in the UK, US and Australia last year said they did not feel they were receiving adequate training and timely information to enable them to do their jobs properly.

The study by Axonify, which provides modern solutions to staff training, also found grocery and supermarket frontline workers reported feeling less safe, supported, trained, knowledgeable and confident than the average frontline employee.

With the survey conducted at the height of the coronavirus crisis it is perhaps no surprise the grocery industry – which came under intense pressure to serve consumers in the pandemic as other retailers closed shops – feels challenged. But Axonify’s report argues the companies that don’t address the current status quo risk losing their staff to competitors who are following best practice.

It was against the backdrop that Retail Gazette and Axonify hosted a virtual roundtable event on 24 June. Attending the gathering were several grocery market players, who discussed new strategies for empowering their frontline workers to perform at their best and get future ready, among other key subjects impacting the sector.

The event involved senior decision makers from across the grocery world, including representatives from Metro and Sainsbury’s, as well as director and transformation leader alumni from the likes of Co-op, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Tesco.

Power to the people

The idea of bottom-up thinking, where staff on the frontline are actively engaged in forging strategy or generating ideas that are put into practice in their stores, evidently gained momentum last year as supermarkets moved quickly in the pandemic.

One roundtabler said they hoped a long-lasting impact from this difficult period for the industry would be a culture shift to listen more to those on the frontline, who proved their “keyworker” status by keeping shops stocked and consumers fed in the crisis.

Ideas touted during the event included giving shopfloor staff the opportunity to tailor how they retail to local needs. “How can we give them more flexibility with customer service,” asked one participant, suggesting customer service could improve if frontline workers are given more autonomy to make ad hoc decisions using designated budget.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the peak of the pandemic in 2020, where retail staff went above and beyond to help vulnerable customers. Dropping goods off at customers’ houses on their way home, or providing unplanned personal shopping services for consumers in need, for example.

Seven frontline retail workers were honoured with MBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, in June, underlining the crucial role grocery staff have played in the pandemic. Iceland store managers Casey Abbott and Daniel Burke, and Rosemary Hull and James Beardwell from Sainsbury’s, were among those included on the list.

But as the Axonify research suggests, frontline workers still don’t feel empowered to do their jobs properly.

For Liam O’Meara, vice president for Europe at Axonify, who participated in the roundtable, a lot of CEOs and retail leaders found it difficult to show their appreciation and pride in how frontline staff performed in unprecedented circumstances in 2020.

“Channels for senior bosses to communicate with frontline workers are becoming increasingly important,” he said.

Eliminating poor service

The largest grocers in Europe have all reported a large uptick in eCommerce orders over the last 15 months, with the majority of supermarket chains expecting online to take a larger percentage of sales compared to pre pandemic.

Research from EuroCommerce and McKinsey & Co, published in January, stated the “exceptional take-up rate for online shopping in 2020” will have long-term consequences.

The study suggested consumers are eager to make even more of their food purchases online in 2021, with the 25% of those who already bought online at least occasionally now wishing to increase their online purchasing even further. The more often consumers bought online in 2020, the more likely they seem to be to increase their share of online buying, according to the report.

This brings new pressures to grocers, which were all discussed at the roundtable. Many stores are now used as mini warehouses to fulfil online orders, while staff are being multiskilled – on the checkout one day before picking eCommerce orders the next.

One retailer at the roundtable argued grocery businesses need 50% more manpower to deliver the same revenue in a world where home delivery grows in importance.

It led to a discussion about getting the most relevant training to the right person at the most suitable time – something most retailers are way off achieving.

Andrew Mann, managing partner of the NorthBailey consultancy, and who has held several data leadership roles at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Asda and – most recently – M&S, said the reality for most retailers is offering “excellent service” sets customer expectations that prices are expensive as well and costs more.

“What retailers, including grocers, want to deliver is good service not bad service, and not excellent service,” Mann explained to the roundtable.

“Consistent good service is seen as the norm by customers and is in line with expectations on good prices. For example, colleagues don’t need to be overtly helpful or friendly, that’s a bonus – they just can’t be unhelpful or unfriendly. To that end, training should be focused on removing poor service and delivering good service consistently.”

Indeed, another roundtabler said their business focused for years on telling customers how friendly their staff were but internal research then showed product availability, helping with problems, and speedy checkout were deemed more vital by consumers.

Amazon casts its shadow

With Morrisons currently in the midst of takeover talks and the M&S-Ocado joint venture settling down after officially launching in 2021, all these strategies are playing out within a fast-changing and increasingly competitive grocery market.

Tech titan Amazon is also in disruption mode, opening several ‘Fresh’ stores in the UK and planning to unveil a bricks and mortar presence in wider Europe.

Most roundtable participants said they didn’t see Amazon’s recent moves as an immediate threat to traditional grocery. One predicted Amazon’s moves in grocery are part of its long-term aim sell its innovative technology to third parties.

But CJ Antal-Smith, until recently chief commercial officer at Co-op, told the delegates: “Amazon’s arrival in grocery isn’t about their stores, it’s about the ease in which they can enter new markets.

“Convenience retailers should be wary – if Amazon can get convenience right and team up with the likes of Deliveroo for fulfilment from their shops they will provide a significant threat to the existing market.”

Antal-Smith also suggested training in grocery is required to help improve diversity in senior roles within the sector and to deal with the ever-increasing threat of violence on the shopfloor. These are two areas where development and more information is critically required on the frontline, she noted.

Some more reasons, then, why traditional grocery retailers must continue to find ways to empower their staff to provide the best possible service to customers. Amazon has a track record in making things easy for consumers, so supermarket chains and convenience stores will need to ensure this is a fundamental part of their offering.

For O’Meara, improving efficiency is going to be key for the grocery sector as margins continue to tighten. But leveraging bottom-up thinking in their organisations and understanding what is “good enough to meet customer demands” will also be vital.

“The work Axonify did in the global grocery market in 2020 helped put the learning where the demand was – and we personalised it where it was needed, making training much more efficient and relevant to those who received it.

“Grocers have had their heads in the sand when it comes to modernising staff training, and they often view frontline workers as costs rather than the value creators they proved they can be in the pandemic. There is a need for grocers to be agile of mind and to recognise things can be done differently for the betterment of their businesses.”

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