How Grocers Can Attract and Retain ‘New Collars’

Today’s elite front-line workers seek more flexibility and greater advancement opportunities
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Technology can play a vital role in improving the employee experience at grocers and c-stores.

The pandemic created a whole new class of workers: new collars. These elite front-line workers are former blue-collar workers who have reinvented themselves by learning new skills. 

According to a recent global survey by Oliver Wyman, a business and public policy management consulting firm, nearly three-quarters of pre-COVID blue-collar workers have evolved into new collars, the majority of whom are men between the ages of 25 and 44 who live and work in urban areas.

[Read More: "How Food Retailers Can Keep Stores, Offices Staffed"

When faced with a changing landscape and the threat to their livelihoods posed by new technologies and automation, these workers responded with optimism rather than despair. These resilient risk-takers charted their own futures by investing in themselves and taking advantage of online educational opportunities. 

As a result, nearly 40% of the front-line workers are searching for new jobs that would better address their needs for more flexibility and more opportunities for advancement. However, as the Oliver Wyman survey also revealed, a surprising 97% of new collars now looking to switch companies would stay at their current job under the right conditions.

In this tight labor market, grocers and c-stores need to up their game so they can both attract and retain this new breed of workers. To compete for them, these retail companies must first take the time to understand the key factors that motivate the group.

As McKinsey noted in a recent report on the grocery industry, many employers tend to underestimate the premium that these employees put on being valued by their managers. The report also observed that reskilling and upskilling are critical in this new environment, and that Walmart had spent $4 billion over a four-year period to certify its new hires in a retail program that emphasized emotional skills training. To appeal to new collars, grocers and c-stores need to take the following steps.

1. Become an Employer of Choice

Compensation packages alone aren’t enough to attract today’s elite front-line workers and win their loyalty. Grocers and c-store employers must support their workers’ careers, design a positive employee experience and build a supportive work environment.

Employers at the top echelon of the industry are taking extra steps to support their employees and their communities. For example, The Giant Co., a regional supermarket chain operator, offers its workers paid time off to volunteer and has launched an initiative to address food insecurity among children. In addition, it has its own Giant University platform that helps employees upskill and advance their careers.

Similarly, Walgreens has created the HERO Program to support the hiring and retention of veterans. This program provides on-the-job training, mentorship and various educational opportunities, including courses through Walgreens University and instructor-led workshops, to help veterans advance their careers within the company.

Fortunately, most Americans already appreciate the fact that today’s jobs at grocers and c-stores are much more fulfilling and rewarding than in the past. According to a consumer survey released by NACS in late 2022, nearly 75% of Americans have a favorable opinion of positions at c-stores, and 83% said that employees who fill those roles can work their way up to become managers or owners of their own stores. 

“With the challenges associated with the labor shortage, these findings are good news for the industry and could help provide valuable insights in how to message the value of jobs at stores,” noted NACS VP of Strategic Initiatives Jeff Lenard. 

2. Transform the Employee Experience Through Technology

Technology can play a vital role in improving the employee experience at grocers and c-stores. By automating manual tasks such as shelf inventory management, stores can free up front-line workers to handle more important tasks like helping customers find the products they need and answering questions about how brands compare and which offer a better value. 

When in-store sensors are deployed to monitor theft, employees are spared the unpleasant task of doing the monitoring themselves. For obvious reasons, this new breed of employees is much more satisfied at work when they can spend more time meeting the needs of customers, versus running down problem shoppers and policing the aisles.  

[Read more: "Execs at Kroger, Giant Eagle and Wakefern Headline GroceryTech Panel on Recruitment and Retention"]

Technology can also improve communication and teamwork among employees and build team cohesion by connecting employees with one another. Centralized communications can update, engage and reward staffers. Managers can manage employee schedules online, making it easier for them to swap shifts and get the flexibility they desire. Live online support can also help team members be more efficient and productive.

3. Upskilling as a Key Priority

In January 2020, the World Economic Forum launched the Reskilling Revolution, an initiative that aims to empower 1 billion workers around the world through improved skills by 2030. The research estimates that about half the global workforce will need reskilling by 2025.

McKinsey further reported that upskilling workers often results in savings of 20% to 30% in the long term over other options such as replacing workers who end up leaving a company. In addition to significantly affecting retention rates, upskilling strengthens employee engagement and productivity, both critical to a retail operation’s bottom line. 

From omnichannel management such as helping customers with click-and-collect in-store to advanced self-checkout machines such as Amazon’s pioneering Just Walk Out technology, today’s grocery front-line workers have to be constantly on top of store automation technologies and all of their related operational features and updates.  

While there are many approaches for an organization to train and upskill its workforce, most experts agree that breaking the processes down into bite-sized, digestible segments significantly helps workers retain the information, because it’s integrated and consumed into their normal flow of work. 

Retail outlets can also transform high performers into instructors who share with colleagues the lessons and best practices that they have learned. When presented in an incentivized format through bonuses or gamification, training and upskilling materials can be more easily absorbed by employees. 

Staffing Affects the Bottom Line

New collars are revolutionizing how work is done. By understanding what these front-line employees are looking for, grocers and c-stores can create a more productive and more stable workforce. 

Retail outlets that fail to adapt to this seismic transformation in the labor market will have to settle for a less motivated and engaged workforce, which will ultimately lead to higher employment costs and reduced profits for the enterprise. The research shows that today’s talent has many options in the retail job market. Employers must demonstrate that their company is the ideal place for these workers, where they will be valued and can continue to learn and grow, and where they will be given the chance for new opportunities. 

About the Author

Yaron Benchlouch

Yaron Benchlouch is the enterprise director of YOOBIC, an all-in-one front-line employee experience platform. The company has offices in New York, London and Paris.
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