Warehouse tech logistics

In the more buoyant areas of the industry, such as warehousing and logistics, it is men who hold the majority of positions

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the development and uptake of tech within food retailing, both on and off the shop floor. This has seen a significant shift in demand for resourcing across the industry, sparking a landmark reconfiguration of work in food retail.

Although demand for online shopping has dipped as people return to the high street, it is unlikely footfall will ever return to pre-pandemic levels at bricks & mortar stores. Meanwhile, the uptake of self-service technologies in stores has also increased, which may further narrow the demand for shop floor work. In response to these changes, retailers are increasingly looking to alter how they organise workforces in the future. But this rapid overhaul risks exacerbating existing employment equalities within the sector.

In line with pre-existing trends, retailers will likely continue to reduce the number of employees working on checkouts and increase those working elsewhere in warehousing, logistics and fulfilment – but also on the shop floor in picking roles. However, it is important to recognise that historically, these different job categories have been highly segregated in terms of characteristics such as gender, race and age.

Take checkout workers as an example. Women have typically been more highly represented in these roles, particularly those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, who are currently five times more likely than white men to be working on checkouts, according to the Office for National Statistics. But when it comes to employment in the more buoyant and fast-growing areas of the industry, such as warehousing and logistics, it is men who hold the majority of positions.

As a consequence of this changing demand, and the way in which the supermarket employment relationship was managed before the crisis, those working on checkouts might experience a decline in the quantity and quality of work that is available. Should retailers find efficiencies are being gained elsewhere, either through the use of new technologies or the reconfiguration of the workforce, it’s likely rota hours will dip, and shop floor shifts may become more intensified for the remaining staff.

On the other hand, employees in high-growth areas of the sector may be less likely to experience the negative consequences of technological change, and may have greater access to better-remunerated work. Due to the pandemic and Brexit-related shortages, HGV drivers have been offered signing-on bonuses, high rates of pay and regular working hours – yet it remains the case that only 1% of these workers are women. Even before the shift online, in male-dominated food warehousing, it was found employees were being paid upward of £2 extra an hour than their retail colleagues – despite arguments the work is of equal value.

Yet this could soon change. In an important step for the industry, a recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU determined retail roles on the shop floor and warehouses are of equal value and must be paid accordingly.

This ruling signified a move in the right direction for gender equality within food retailing, but more still needs to be done. The move online could still exacerbate existing equalities in the sector depending on who is likely to be able to continue working within it in the future, and on the type of work available. Retailers and the government both have a part to play in preventing an inequality crisis.

For those who remain on the shop floor, investments should be made in ‘value-added’ services that allow employees to further develop their customer-facing skills, such as deli counter service and recommendations or experiential offerings, like product sampling and in-store consumer tutorials.

And when redeployment is required, retailers need to ensure these roles are accessible. Effective measures for this include improving employee-led flexible working arrangements and providing robust parental leave, and by making reasonable adjustments for older and disabled workers, particularly in roles with demanding pick-rates.

The government also needs to ensure out-of-town distribution centres are accessible via public transport – an oft-cited barrier for certain roles – and that adult retraining programmes are available for those left with no choice but to leave the sector.

Without these changes, the future of work in food retailing will provide opportunities for some but leave a lot of talent behind. Retailers and the government face a window of opportunity to prevent this problem escalating on a monumental scale.