Food retailers go on a hiring spree as coronavirus numbers grow

Photo: RetailWire
Mar 19, 2020
George Anderson

If you’ve tried to order groceries online over the past several days, you may very well have filled up your cart only to be greeted with a message from, Instacart, Target, Walmart and others that there are “no delivery windows available” and “please try again later.” You’ve probably wondered why these retailers do not have their systems set up to give you the option of ordering several days out instead of wasting your time filling up a cart you may never receive.

Food retailers go on a hiring spree as coronavirus numbers grow
Source: – 3/16/20

Similarly, if you’ve ventured out to a supermarket in recent days, you have likely found aisles with large empty holes on shelves as concerned consumers took as many gallons of disinfecting bleach, bottles of hand sanitizers, wipes, etc. as the store’s posted limits allowed.

Retailers, specifically those that sell food and cleaning items (personal and household), are under extreme pressure to fulfill orders and stock shelves as they and their fellow Americans become aware that the current shelter at home and social distancing measures being practiced across the country may become the de facto way of life for not two weeks, but months and perhaps longer.

For retail managers and employees this a particularly stressful time as they go about trying to meet the demands of a frightened public while at the same time dealing with concerns for their own personal health.

In recent days, stories have revealed the pressures that associates are feeling. A CNN article described accounts of “tired and frustrated” workers at Walmart stores. Motherboard reported  on Whole Foods workers who were “crying and having panic attacks.”

Amazon announced on Monday that it plans to hire 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers to help meet the surge in online shopping. The company also announced that it was upping the pay of all hourly workers by $2 an hour at least through April.

Others, such as Kroger, are adding workers to address the spike in sales they are seeing. Rodney McMullen, the CEO of the largest operator of supermarkets in the U.S., told CNBC that the retailer has hired more than 2,000 people over the past week and that it still has 10,000 more to fill.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What should retail management be doing to help store associates and warehouse workers deal with the stress they are under in the current coronavirus emergency? Do any retail companies stand out for standing up for their workers during this stressful time?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Simple precautions and rules should be observed: gloves and face masks for cashiers and other associates... if you protect the workers then you protect the patrons."
"Modern supply chain planning solutions will kick in and manage the spike in demand. The trick is turning off the tap in time not to overstock the retail stores."
"I would really like to see these workers being compensated properly for hazardous conditions."

Join the Discussion!

19 Comments on "Food retailers go on a hiring spree as coronavirus numbers grow"

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Mark Ryski

Everyone is under pressure, especially these front-line workers. There are several things management should consider doing to minimize the stress:

  1. Over-communicate with your staff. When staff know that management is on top of the situation (as best as they can be), workers will feel calmer;
  2. Remind the team that they provide a critical service – creating a sense of a greater purpose can help inspire the team;
  3. Understand that workers will be distracted and provide more flexibility in policies related to taking personal calls throughout the work day – staying in contact with family will take away some of the worry.
Art Suriano

This is a difficult time, a scenario we have never experienced before. All retailers can do is to do their best. Make sure they have enough employees, try not to overwork them because that will only cause more stress and make employees unhappy, which means less productivity and, most importantly, find ways — not just monetarily — to reward them. Acknowledgment goes a long way. The problem we are faced with is that no one knows how long this situation will last. If we all knew it was two more weeks and that was it, we could all make the necessary adjustments. It’s the not knowing which is making it much harder to plan and, for many people, extremely hard to accept.

Liz Crawford

Simple precautions and rules should be observed: gloves and face masks for cashiers and other associates. I was at a grocery store yesterday and none of the cashiers had gloves or masks. However, one-use gloves were on offer to patrons.
Mandate the workers wear them – for their own sakes. But further, if you protect the workers then you protect the patrons.

Mark Ryski

Excellent advice Liz. Retailers will also need contingency plans for when they run out of gloves and sanitizer. These items are getting hard to source, and if you mandate gloves and then run out — staff may become even more concerned. This actually happened to me at Starbucks the last two days: day one, they had gloves; day two, they didn’t and it made me feel uncomfortable. I bet the Starbucks staff felt even more so.

Craig Sundstrom

Thanks Mark/Liz. Yes, the gloves/masks idea sounds great in theory but as Mark notes, there are problems with it in reality. It is reported that hospitals are beginning to run out of those very same supplies, and while I’m sympathetic to checkers who face limited exposure, I’m much more concerned about medical staff who face far greater. (I’m not positive we’re talking about exactly the same types of supplies, but certainly one should consider the possibility.) It would be great if these were available for everyone, but we have to deal with the fact that they aren’t … at least for now.

Michael Terpkosh

Retail management first needs to keep their employees safe. Provide gloves, set up additional hand washing stations, provide cleaning supplies and get employees focused on the fact that we are all in this together and must support each other. Many retailers are trying to hire additional associates ASAP to help provide some relief for their stressed, tired workers. But these additional workers will be cleaning stores and stocking shelves. The front-line, customer facing workers need the most care and TLC right now. Pay increases can help. But it is time for retailers to get creative. Monitor and open new social media communication to support workers and customers. Provide security at more stores so workers feel safe. Provide additional non-monetary incentives and appreciation for their efforts. How about some retailer corporate management folks in the stores to work side-by-side with these workers?

Bethany Allee
H-E-B stands out for how they’re supporting their customers in dealing with COVID-19 and how they’re helping their associates. To help the H-E-B team handle stress, they’re actively communicating with both store employees and the community to set expectations. Having the community understand limitations reduces friction when folks show up to find part of their order couldn’t be fulfilled. I’m also hearing stories of managers frequently doing rounds to check on their onsite team and to create higher-level visibility with the patrons who are in the store. For the health concern aspect of how they’re reducing stress, H-E-B is taking precautions to keep their team healthy: limited human interaction (in-store social distancing, limited people in the store at any one time), reduced store hours for additional stocking and cleaning, increasing the push to curbside no-touch shopping, and removing items that require greater touch or skill from automated or Curbside orders. Outside restaurants and customers are now sending food to H-E-B staff, to thank them for what they’re doing and to give them the fuel they… Read more »
Richard Hernandez

Hi Bethany, H-E-B is indeed taking steps to take care of their customers and store partners. They also began to install plexiglass checker shields in stores yesterday to help protect the checkers (and customers) from the closeness.

Suresh Chaganti

Taking care of employee wellbeing by mandating gloves, masks, and making ample amounts of hand sanitizer available is a start. Bonus pay, emergency PTO, paid sick days, and taking care of insurance copays would alleviate some pressure. People working for businesses that are open – groceries, medical professionals, manufacturers of high demand items – are under tremendous stress. Management teams need to do everything they possibly can, as they are in unusually high-demand times and making money.

Michael La Kier

Strange times indeed. Foodservice companies are barely staying afloat while food retailers struggle to keep up with demand. Yesterday while getting a prescription at Kroger it was difficult to navigate the aisles given all the click-and-collect trolleys in-store. Adding more employees can help reduce the burden on existing employees, but there must be adequate time for training on procedures (safety as well as operational).

Ralph Jacobson

Plenty has been said on how retailers need to take care of their employees if their stores are remaining open. We need to come up with more innovative ideas for those stores that are threatened on the level of their very existence. In the past days I mentioned that we are buying gift certificates for ourselves and others to be used in the future, from stores we frequent, to keep their cash flow going. Here’s an example — tweet to that effect: “Please buy GIFT CARDS at local stores that you’d usually shop for yourself and others to help small businesses stay afloat and pay workers! If they don’t sell cards online, call the store and ask them to have one ready for you to pick up. “#smallbiz #virus #CoronavirusOutbreak Thanks!”

We need more ideas to creatively meet that challenge!

Casey Golden
16 days 3 hours ago

I would really like to see these workers being compensated properly for hazardous conditions. They are typically minimum wage and with increase of sales, mounds of work, and overall shop stress; they deserve to be recognized by the company as the key ingredient. I can say with certainty that if I walked into a cashier-less store I would not feel at ease during such an event.

Dick Seesel

It’s overly simplistic, I know, but there are many food service employees out of work right now, alongside food retailers who are scrambling to keep up with demand. A full court press on hiring people with experience handling food could be a win/win if it can be done quickly and with a modicum of training.

As to equipping checkout associates with gloves and masks — I’m afraid that the first order of business is to get this kind of equipment into the hands of doctors and nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle right now.

Andrew Blatherwick
This picture is being replicated in many European countries as well as the U.S. Food retailers are being overwhelmed by the huge spike in demand from worried shopper who fear the food supply chain will break down and they will not be able to get what they need to stay alive. Unfortunately, it is those same worried shoppers who are causing the problem in the first place. By panic buying, they are stretching the retail supply chain to its limits. We are assured that there is no shortage of food or other items such as toilet rolls that have been the worst hit, but when you get such vast spike in demand it is impossible to keep shelves full. Customers see empty shelves and start to panic buy, the frenzy feeds itself. One of the real problems with this is that people do not eat more or use more. In fact, when people feel ill they actually consume less, so eventually the demand will die not back to normal levels but way down as people… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb

We as customers can say thank you to those who come to work at our local grocery stores and warehouses. Personally, I admire their courage to place themselves in harm’s way of an invisible virus compounded by contact with hundreds of customers each day. I feel for those who have no choice but to keep working. Management must provide safety gear for clerks and checkers. Customers also have a responsibility to protect both themselves and the associates who are literally risking their own health to serve each of us by working in our grocery stores.

Georganne Bender

I made an unexpected trip to the vet today with my pup. I was surprised to see employees wearing gloves. While holding Asuka, the vet asked me to set her down and move back at least six feet. She explained that veterinarians provide necessary services and need to stay healthy. I understand completely, yet at the grocery store yesterday afternoon I did not see one worker wearing masks or gloves, although many customers were. These workers provide a necessary service as well and there should be mandatory precautions in place to keep cashiers and other associates safe.

Woodman’s, an employee owned grocery chain in my town, put out the word this week that it is hiring “volunteers” at $20 an hour. Consumer demand is high, store associates are tired, and their stress levels are through the roof. Creative hiring is what it will take for the next few months, or for however long this situation lasts.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Keeping employees as safe as possible is job one! Setting expectations for customers i.e. posting purchase limits, information on when deliveries are expected, crowd control, limited hours, etc can help protect employees from uncomfortable situations.

Heidi Sax

I hate to kill the mood, but communicating and showing appreciation isn’t going to cut it when you’re worried about yourself or your loved ones being exposed to a fatal virus because you have to work in a crowded, stressful setting … particularly while others have the “luxury” of staying at home. Gloves and masks are bandaids at best and an extra $16 a day won’t erase the trauma. How about offering them free membership to Talkspace or similar distance therapy? Giving plenty of breaks as others suggested is also critical.

Mel Kleiman

Just 3 quick suggestions:

  1. Hold pre-shift huddles.
  2. Make sure and have one-on-one conversations with all your employees at least every other day.
  3. Get rid of the titles such as manager, supervisor, and foremen. Everyone becomes a team leader. Change the title and you will change the behavior.
"Simple precautions and rules should be observed: gloves and face masks for cashiers and other associates... if you protect the workers then you protect the patrons."
"Modern supply chain planning solutions will kick in and manage the spike in demand. The trick is turning off the tap in time not to overstock the retail stores."
"I would really like to see these workers being compensated properly for hazardous conditions."

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