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How Food Retailers Can Keep Stores, Offices Staffed

New approaches to hiring, training and employee retention
Barbara Sax
Southeastern Grocers
Empowering employees and creating a positive workforce culture are crucial in making employees feel valued.

As retailers continue to struggle with staffing issues, many are taking a second look at how they approach hiring, training and employee retention. This has become a priority at a time when scores of retail workers are leaving the industry to work elsewhere. 

Data from FMI — The Food Association suggests that the greatest people challenge the industry faces is talent availability and retention. Arlington, Va.-based FMI’s recent The Food Retail Industry Speaks survey reveals that 46% of supermarket execs believe COVID-19 made it harder to recruit and retain people.

“Supermarket retailers faced historic levels of employee turnover in the last few years, driven in large part by direct safety/wellness concerns due to COVID-19,” affirms Rob Harrold, managing director at New York-based Deloitte Consulting LLP and retail stores practice leader. Harrold adds that the pandemic’s broader work-from-home shifts in the workplace created new options for many front-line workers, which further affected retail turnover. 

[Read more: "Top 10 Retail Innovations for 2023"]

“The real challenge is just trying to attract people, to just get them through the door,” acknowledges Rachel Shemirani, SVP at Barons Market, a San Diego-based independent. “The pandemic made people shift their way of looking at what they do for a living, how much they work and what they really want to do.”

“Turnover in all areas of the business is very significant,” notes Kathy Liou, senior human resources manager at Tops Markets LLC, based in Williamsville, N.Y. “Putting the staffing puzzle together requires a lot more pieces now. We’re trying to think outside the box and be willing to flex.” 

Lack of flexibility is a dealbreaker in a marketplace in which employees have more job options than ever before. Most food industry executives interviewed for FMI’s recent report agree that offering flexibility and hybrid work options is key to retention. 

Workers Want Flexibility

For instance, Barons recently began offering employees a reduced 40-hour work week.
“We have a lot of moms working for us,” says Shemirani. “They’re incredible employees, and we’re absolutely going to work with their schedule. … We do that for people that want to spend more time with their family or on their hobbies. Balance helps avoid burnout. We’ve had quite a few managers and assistant managers take the offer, and they come to work more energized. They’re happier.”

Retailers are mining additional resources to stretch their labor forces. Tops has been hiring more workers under the age of 18. “We might need someone at the register for the dinner rush from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., so we plug in a 16- or 17-year-old,” explains Liou. “We give them the ability to work when they can, and since it’s a first job for many of them, we teach them skills they can take with them down the road.”

Meanwhile, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash has expanded its internship program by partnering with local universities to provide career opportunities for both college students and recent graduates. “We are committed to increasing this program five-fold in the coming years and maintaining our retention of summer interns into part- or full-time year-round employment after their program ends,” says Deann Wright, the company’s senior director, diversity and inclusion. “After the most recent session, we were able to welcome 68% of our interns into either part-time or full-time positions, which speaks to the rewarding experience they had through the program.” The company plans to have 60 interns in 2023 and 90 in 2024.

Cristian Grossmann, CEO of San Francisco-based Beekeeper, a software platform for front-line workers, has seen retailers leverage the power of employee referrals to find new employees. “We recently released a module to enable employees to easily refer friends,” he notes. “We’ve seen great success with incentivizing employees to bring new, like-minded employees to work.”

Fostering relationships with community organizations has helped The Giant Co., a banner of Ahold Delhaize USA, identify potential talent. “We are also working to streamline our application and hiring process to make joining The Giant Co. as simple as possible,” said Jennifer Heinzen Krueger, VP of team experience at the Carlisle, Pa.-based supermarket chain.

Grocery Worker
Companies are enriching their benefits and offering employees greater opportunities for upskilling and career training.

Enriched Benefits Are a Draw

Raising wages is a first-line tactic for attracting employees. Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co., for one, has made multimillion-dollar investments in wages across the organization to boost employee satisfaction and retention. “Recognition also plays an important role,” notes Rosemary Jones, the company’s EVP-chief people officer/legal. “At our distribution operations, we increased wages to be more competitive. We also added attendance bonuses, weekly and monthly employee recognition initiatives, and revamped our referral program.”

Still, in this new marketplace, increasing wages isn’t enough. “Employees still want a fair wage and bonuses, but that’s not the reason why people stay anymore,” observes Doug Baker, VP, industry relations for FMI. “It’s flexibility, training and skills development, investment in education.” 

Retailers are continuing to enrich their benefits packages to attract employees. For instance, Barons recently increased its employee discount from 10% to 15% and made vacation and dental insurance available to all employees.

The Kroger Co. recently piloted a program with Cohoes, N.Y.-based Goldman Sachs Ayco to offer associates financial counseling services. Salaried and hourly associates have the opportunity to access financial coaches and supportive programming as part of the free and confidential service. Online tools and resources and trained one-on-one financial coaches are available to help associates look at their total financial picture and advise on financial decisions. Program participants can create a savings plan and explore opportunities to maximize available company benefits.

“Kroger is the first retailer in the nation to offer this kind of benefit to hourly workers,” asserts Theresa Monti, VP of total rewards at the Cincinnati-based grocer. “We know financial wellness is essential to all of us. This is an important way we are improving our associate experience — empowering anyone to thrive and grow at Kroger.”

To support its team members who want to be a part of something bigger and make an impact, The Giant Co. offers its employees paid time to volunteer in areas that they’re passionate about, according to Krueger. “We believe that when we work together to make a difference in the community, it also helps to create a stronger sense of engagement in The Giant Co.,” she says.    

Skill Building Boosts Retention

Deloitte’s Harrold notes that retailers have shifted away from a “refilling the bucket” mentality to a focus on investing in training and retention, and experts agree that career development is a key driver of employee engagement and loyalty.

“Incorporating upskilling programs, career coaching and industry certifications will be critical for grocers looking to build a workforce committed to a future at their company and to embedding a future talent pipeline,” notes Ross Forman, managing director of Chicago-based professional services network BDO USA’s Corporate Real Estate Advisory Services practice. “When employees believe an organization is invested in them, they commit to the organization.”

In addition to a matching 401(k) plan, associate discounts, quarterly bonuses and health benefits that encompass medical, dental and vision, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Southeastern Grocers offers associates various advancement opportunities. 

“Our corporate leadership development platform, SEG University, provides personal and professional development resources to help associates advance their careers through leadership courses, lunch-and-learns, and other engaging workshops,” says Raymond Rhee, the company’s chief people officer. “Our Retail Leaders program provides leadership training for SEG’s current and future store leaders through a series of interactive workshops and on-the-job training.” 

For its part, The Giant Co.’s Giant University platform provides team members with opportunities to grow their skillsets. The training helped 4,092 team members receive internal promotions last year, according to Krueger.

Culture is Critical

Creating a positive culture is another way that retailers can make employees feel valued, motivating them to be strong team players and contributing to higher store morale. 

“A focus on culture is a game changer,” affirms Shemirani. “We always say if we take care of our employees, they’ll take care of our customers. We encourage our employees to think creatively, and we get a lot of good creativity out of them.”

Allowing store employees to take initiative — and even risks — fosters a sense of ownership and pride in what they do. In this vein, Tops encourages store personnel to take ownership of projects. “We partner with vendors on sales contests, or run promotions to see how many items a store can move based on how creative the displays are,” says Liou. This type of involvement is not only fun, it’s also a key team builder for store personnel.

Feedback and access to management are also part of a desirable workplace. “Retention is highly important for us,” notes Brookshire’s Jones. “We conduct surveys and stay interviews at various intervals of the employee lifecycle. This helps with retention, because employees feel valued when we value their feedback.” 

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