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The food retail workforce: Where the industry stands

Food retailers are taking on new efforts to combat workforce issues.

6 min read

Food Retail

The food retail workforce: Where the industry stands


From a global pandemic and social unrest to a renewed virus surge, grocers and their employees have been through a whirlwind 18 months. Supermarkets have been forced to undertake massive shifts in order to keep their workers safe, and while employee safety and satisfaction remain top of mind for many, other workforce issues have been slowly bubbling to the surface.

The state of the industry

According to the Future of Work report from Deloitte and FMI, talent availability and retention, as well as reskilling employees, are currently the top challenges across the food retail industry. Some 90% of companies are investing in the future by retraining employees on emerging technologies, but less than 20% of food retailers feel their efforts are significant. Indeed, the changing labor landscape brought about by the pandemic and made worse by supply chain issues has brought new urgency to hiring and talent retention tactics throughout the industry.

A separate poll by FMI and Deloitte found that more than half of industry executives plan to give their office workers the choice to work remotely in the future as a way to retain talent. The survey showed 58% of leaders favored offering the remote work option, but also revealed 24% would require office employees to return, with some believing “it is only fair to ask office workers to come back in since their essential worker peers — who stocked shelves or operated on production lines — never really left,” the survey summary said.

Most front-line grocery workers are satisfied with their jobs and believe their employers have taken steps to keep them safe during the pandemic, according to an EnsembleIQ survey, though many said they wanted more training to properly perform their changing job duties. The survey also showed 59% of workers saw their roles shift and 40% said they had no training for their new responsibilities, but more than half of those who responded said they would keep working at their present jobs or stay in the food retail industry in the future.

The technology imperative

With the job market in tumult as more people start getting back to pre-pandemic routines, some food retailers are turning to technology to do everything from keep their employees safe to recruiting new hires and finding products on store shelves. According to FMI and Deloitte, three out of five executives are looking to automate work where possible, but an important question to ask is whether technology is being used to allow employees to perform optimally while finding meaning and purpose in their work.

Many retailers are actively working toward that end goal. Walmart, for example, will give Samsung smartphones to 740,000 of its front-line workers this year, featuring the Me@Walmart app, which allows them to communicate directly with each other, clock in and out and help customers who have questions.

Target is joining a roster of retailers turning to TikTok Resumes to recruit workers in a tight labor market. Kroger, meanwhile, is boosting its focus on retaining front-line associates by partnering with training provider Axonify to launch a program called Fresh Start with Axonify. The initiative uses a game-like app that allows Kroger’s nearly 500,000 associates to access and complete online training courses personalized for their roles, enabling them “to learn and grow in a fun and engaging way,” said Kroger’s Senchal Murphy.

Putting employees first

Many grocers are also offering sign-on bonuses and enhanced benefits packages to entice and retain their workers. Oliver’s Market in California, for example, is offering a $500 bonus and pay that ranges from $16 to $27 at its four stores in Sonoma County. Additionally, Target is paying a $200 bonus to all full- and part-time store and distribution center employees and some corporate staffers, and BJ’s Wholesale Club will give its full- and part-time workers and managers bonuses to acknowledge their efforts amid the pandemic and their contributions to helping the club continue growing.

Walmart recently announced that it will 100% cover the cost of college tuition and books for its associations, with a goal of investing $1 billion in employee development and training over the next five years. The retailer also will establish a Walmart Academy in Chicago’s West Chatham neighborhood that will offer skills and job training for members of the community in addition to Walmart employees.

Hannaford and Target are also putting education front and center, with the former partnering with Maine’s Husson University to give a 15% tuition discount to workers who want to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees or professional certificates. For its part, Target will spend $200 million in the next four years to offer employees free undergraduate and associate degree classes, as well as certificate programs and free textbooks. 

Moving forward

Any way you slice it, grocery employees have proven to be an increasingly important piece of the food industry puzzle. “Organizations that are not already considering how to rearchitect work, unleash the workforce, and adapt the workplace risk falling behind their competitors that are already further down the [future of work] path,” the FMI and Deloitte report states.

The Future of Work report further recommends taking stock of recruitment strategies for women and minorities, as well as “worker-centered roles,” and formalizing a future-of-work strategy while redesigning all facets of the food retail ecosystem to foster a sense of connection, collaboration and innovation.

Additionally, the EnsembleIQ survey stresses the importance of fixing gaps in training in order to avoid employee turnover and customer service failure. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that communication and training are critical; having the right tech to make training more personalized, enjoyable and relevant can give grocery retailers the power to support front-line workers and successfully navigate the next crisis,” the report states.

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