Supermarket night staff used to work in splendid isolation - but not any longer. In recent years the big four have shaken up their night shifts in a bid to enfranchise workers and boost availability. Chloe Ryan and Joanne Grew joined night workers at Tesco and Asda to see how the changes are going down

In the dead of night, while most of the country sleeps, a forgotten army is hard at work. Toiling away beneath dimmed strip lighting, the men and women of the night shift are stacking shelves, unloading deliveries and readying stores for the morning. Despite the antisocial hours and disrupted sleep, many enjoy their jobs. Neil Willmott, the night manager of Tesco Extra in Cheshunt, is typical.

"I'd never go back to days," he says adamantly. It is the level of responsibility that appeals, he says. "You start with zero and have to be hero by the morning. The shift is an integral part of the business."

And becoming more so. The drive to improve availability coupled with the growth of 24-hour stores and online shopping is consigning the days and nights when the night shift worked in splendid isolation firmly to history as The Grocer discovered when it joined the night shifts at Tesco in Cheshunt and Asda in Glasshoughton (over) and talked to some of the people at the coal face. 

As different as night and day?
Working with the people on the night shift is a real eye opener. There are 374,000 night shift workers in the UK, earning on average £10.04 an hour, nearly double the minimum wage of £5.77, according to the ONS. Historically, the perception has been that the night shift attracts loners or slackers just after an easy buck.

Meet the people who work the shift night in, night out, however, and it quickly becomes clear that money is not the chief motivating factor and that there's little room for the lazy or antisocial.

"It is often driven by lifestyles such as fitting in with children's schooling," confirms David Moore. "Some students do it because they need a part-time job. Others have worked a lot of years on nights we have some who have worked upwards of 20 years and it just suits their lifestyle.

"We have young, middle-aged, older people, people with children, people without children working nights here. It's a real mix of individuals."

Take Martin, who works at the 24-hour Tesco and is stacking shelves in the household and cleaning aisle, cardboard boxes and plastic piled up next to him. He has worked the night shift since 1992. "The job suits me," he says. "It is physical, but not hard. The target is unpacking 60 to 70 boxes an hour, but I can do that in 35 minutes. They don't put that much pressure on you but I've got to be done by 4.30am."

Like many night workers, Martin says he does the job because it suits his personal circumstances. "I have an 86-year-old mother and I am her carer," he says. "I do 9.30pm to 6am three days a week and 10pm to 6am the other two."

As he attests, the workload is physically punishing. By 10pm the store is largely empty of shoppers and he is one of up to 160 night workers who are ready to get going. He needs to be. He and his colleagues will typically handle 18,000 cases a night. By mid-evening, the warehouse is full of metal crates. Just a few hours later it will be all but empty, deliveries having been split into product areas and put in cases ready to be towed to the aisles.

Meanwhile, workers will have been contending with the shoppers. They are a mixture of other night workers, people heading home after a night out, and those who simply prefer to shop at night like the two sisters who once a week arrive at Tesco at 11pm to do their shopping and depart four hours later, or the agoraphobic who visits the Asda at 5am because it's quiet.

At some stores they will also have been working alongside online pickers restocking shelves behind them to ensure optimum availability for morning shoppers.

Once upon a time, workers like Martin would have had little or no contact with the day shift. Not any longer. Over the past few years, the big four have all started to integrate or at least overlap the night and day shifts in an attempt to make the night shift feel more involved and improve productivity and availability.

Sainsbury's got the ball rolling in 2005 when it introduced 200 new night shifts to improve availability and asked its store managers to work nights at least one week a year, pay monthly visits to the night teams and run coaching sessions.

The impact was immediate both culturally and productivity-wise, says Sainsbury's Linlithgow deputy store manager Scott McNeill. "The night team didn't get to talk to anyone or see day managers before so it integrates them and gives them the chance to exchange feedback," he says. "It enables us to motivate them and give them direction, too."

The day shift benefits too, adds Moore. In 2007, as well as introducing night availability managers, Asda made its day managers work the shift one week in every 10 in an effort to improve space planning and inventory accuracy, and support the night staff. "It gives day managers an understanding of what the night team do," says Moore. "Before, the day manager wouldn't be here at 6am when the night colleagues left and he wouldn't always be here at 10pm when they started."

So he wouldn't have seen how they get deliveries out, how many crates each worker gets through or who replenishes which aisles. Now he does, he can coach them on how to speed up the process.

Improvements to the way the night shift is trained are key to productivity, says Steve Miller, Tesco operations manager for store ordering, who oversees the night shift for the whole chain from its nearby Cheshunt HQ. Store managers are scheduled to work four weeks each year on nights. "Over this period we bring night managers together with them to give tailored training and the latest communication," he says.

The night shift's level of responsibility has increased commensurately. As well as getting stock on to shelves, it is responsible for changing PoS and preparing for product launches. When Tesco's Discounter range was introduced last autumn, it was the night staff who made sure it was all in place for launch day, for instance.

At Morrisons, night workers fill all the shelves and also set up Market Street. "They are an integral part of ensuring stores are fully stocked for each morning at 8am," says a spokeswoman. "They keep the stores looking their best and, for example, ensure when the doors open the smell of baked bread is already circulating."

They follow a brief prepared by the day managers stating what needs doing, such as sorting out stock in the warehouse and getting certain lines out. Then in the morning, the night managers prepare a brief for the day managers, explaining what has been achieved overnight in terms of replenishing, deliveries, staff and displays.

Asda follows a similar process. "The day manager and I have a handover period driven by events of the day," says Moore. "It could well be it's activity we have to complete. It could be someone's phoned in sick this afternoon, so that puts us behind a little bit. We discuss what actions we can take in the night to rectify that and what the day team expect to be done by morning."

A night worker from Sainsbury's says standards have become more rigorous since day managers pitched in and that the days when staff would be caught literally napping behind the toilet rolls, as happened a few years back, have long gone.

Better still, staff have a sense of self worth, says Moore. This is not just down to greater parity between the shifts in terms of responsibility, but also to the efforts made to treat the two shifts equally.

"It's part of our culture to ensure the night team get exactly the same as the day team," he says. "We reward the day and night colleagues in exactly the same way by putting on celebratory lunches and handing out prizes such as wine to say thank you or well done."

Of course, some differences will never be overcome. "There are more than 600 staff overall with 35 on average on the night shift," says the Sainsbury's worker. "It's always a kind of them-and-us situation. The night shift don't really get to join in with company nights out. We do funny things like eating Christmas dinner at 2am with hats on in the canteen."

But there is a growing appreciation of the importance of what Peter Beckett, store manager of Asda in Enniskillen, describes as "the engine room" and McNeill calls "the backbone of the operation". Moore goes one step further. Without the night shift, he says, "the store wouldn't work full stop". The sleepless nights are worth it then, it seems.