Convenience stores became busier than ever during the pandemic. But the toll of Covid and emerging industry pressures are taking their toll on workers
Time off is a scarce commodity in convenience. So shows the latest ACS Local Shop Report, which in September revealed almost half of shop owners hadn’t taken a single day off in the past year. That’s double the level recorded by the ACS the year before.
It’s hardly surprising pressure has increased of late. The pandemic pushed new customers into c-stores – which, though welcome, made the environment much busier. It also had far less welcome effects: staff absences, disrupted supply and a host of new safety requirements. Even as Covid restrictions are eased, stores are now dealing with new issues such as the HGV driver shortage.
Workload has reached such a level that some store owners are having to seriously think about the impact on their wellbeing. As One Stop retailer Dee Sedani puts it: “What’s more important, health or wealth?”
So how have things reached such a desperate point? Can the problem be solved by simply hiring more staff? Or is the situation more complex than that?
How long working hours are taking their toll
of shop owners have worked 70 hours a week over the past year
of convenience stores are open 11pm and later
of stores are even open for 24 hours
combined hours worked by colleagues in the convenience sector in the past year
work more than 40 hours a week, up from 6% the year before
of convenience store workers are the only income earner in their household
have childcare commitments and 32% care for family members
Source: ACS Local Shop Report 2021
Stores should, in theory, be well placed to take on more staff. According to the Lumina Intelligence UK Convenience Market Report 2021, the sector grew by 6.3% in 2020, pushing its value up to £43.1bn.
But affording the staff isn’t the problem – it’s getting hold of workers, says Peterborough-based Nisa retailer Amit Puntambekar.
“Recruitment is the biggest hold-up,” he says. “And other retailers are in the same position. Before, we’d put out a position and get 100 applicants. I struggled to screen them, let alone speak or do interviews with them, and that was in September last year. Now one year on, I put out an advert for three positions and I only get 22 applicants. So what’s happened?”
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of vacancies across the entire UK workforce has been rising for several months. In the wholesale and retail sectors, in particular, the volume of jobs advertised was 45% above the comparable period of two years ago.
‘Lockdowns have made me more reflective of my workload’
Amit Puntambekar, Nisa Local, Fenstanton, Peterborough
For Amit Puntambekar, the past year has shined a light on how “toxic” his work relationship is. “I used to feel if I wasn’t hitting 90 hours a week, I’d let the business down,” he says. “Lockdowns have made me more reflective – I realised that I need to stop what I’m doing.”
Puntambekar realised if he hadn’t networked with other retailers, he’d think the levels of work he has undertaken were “completely normal”. “They ask me: what energy levels are you operating on? And I tell them it’s about 20% to 30%.” As Puntambekar puts it: “It’s the mindset we’ve developed as retailers.”
Thankfully, he can now afford to hire new staff. “We are looking to expand our team, find the right people, train them up, and put in the correct processes. That is my priority.”
Puntambekar then hopes to focus more on operations and macro business growth.
However, the unemployment level across all industries stood at 4.5% in the three months to August, 0.5 percentage points higher than pre-pandemic.
British Retail Consortium economist Liliana Danila points to two possible reasons behind the mismatch of high vacancy levels and rising unemployment statistics.
Some of those classed as unemployed may have been furloughed, she suggests. “Employers that had to contribute 20% towards furlough pay in August may have held on to their workers because they expected demand to rebound further. This would mean most furloughed workers would have returned to their previous jobs,” Danila explains.
“On the other hand, a more likely reason might be the make-up of the economy has radically changed since March 2020, given there are labour shortages in most sectors, and furloughed employees did not have the skills for the jobs needed or found themselves in a different geographical area.”
To add further fuel to the fire, persistent labour shortages often lead to rising pressures on wages, she says. Particularly if businesses start to “fight over” staff, as Puntambekar puts it.
On top of that, the minimum wage has increased over the years. Most recently, for those aged 23 and over, it increased by 2.2% from £8.72 to £8.91 in April.
“We need fair minimum pay rates, but we also need to be careful about further increasing costs at a time when retailers are under unprecedented stress and the labour market is going through significant structural changes,” says ACS CEO James Lowman.
So for many, expanding the team simply isn’t feasible at present. In the meantime, there are other ways of easing the burden. For example, Atul Sodha, a Londis retailer in Harefield, Uxbridge, has trained up existing colleagues to assume wider roles.
“I have two new students in junior positions that are being trained to take on more responsibility in daily routines,” he says. “These include cashing up, closing the store and paying suppliers. It frees up time for me and my manager to look at other areas that need improvement and extra attention, such as seasonal buying and reacting to current trends.”
There is also scope to look at opening hours. The ACS Local Shop Report 2021 revealed that while most convenience stores are open 7am to 10pm, 4% are open from 5am or earlier, and 21% close 11pm or later. Three per cent are even open 24 hours.
‘Skeleton staff levels make it hard to take breaks or sick days’
Atul Sodha, Londis, Harefield, Uxbridge
“Myself and my manager went over 20 weeks without a day off,” says Atul Sodha of Londis Harefield in Uxbridge. “We were working an average of 60 to 80 hours a week.”
This was partly due to “skeletal” staff levels, as junior workers went to university and others experienced “burnout”.
“We’ve all got allocated days off, so it becomes difficult if there’s illness,” he adds. “But I’ve employed some juniors to help with evening shifts.”
Sodha says he and his senior team are now training new recruits for basic duties, from its delivery service to customer merchandising.
“I eventually had a break once I felt we had enough cover to maintain standards. This year has been different and very difficult.”
But he feels confident now: “Shopper retention levels have been superb and as long as people are adaptable, we’re able to fulfil their needs.”
“As we know, there are no trading restrictions on the opening hours of shops under 280 sq m,” says Rebecca Bull, owner and founder of My HR Hub. “The temptation will always be there to open 24/7, every day of the year.”
So reducing hours can be an important way of avoiding burnout – even if it means losing sales as a result. One Stop’s Sedani went down this route during the pandemic. “If you haven’t been able to take time off because you lack the infrastructure, then understandably that means you can’t shut for a whole week,” he says. “But what you can do is close an hour early for a week, or even two hours.
“I closed half a day early [every day] for six months during the pandemic to protect me and my team. It’s our minds that are the strength behind what we do.”
Still, all this is more of a sticking plaster than a long-term solution. The ACS’s Lowman believes labour-saving technology could offer a more sustainable answer.
It seems to have worked for five-site Londis retailer Steve Bassett, who operates across the south west. He turned to headsets and electronic shelf labels (ESLs) to free up time during the pandemic, which together cost £28,000. That investment has so far paid off.
Headset provider Quail Digital, which worked with Bassett on this aspect of project, believes they are particularly beneficial in the convenience setting. “Convenience stores rely on a small team of employees working together,” says CEO Tom Downes. “From stock room to front-end checkouts, forecourts to vending machines, the team multi-task everywhere, all day.”
“Many operators have found giving the team wireless headsets saves them time, reduces delay, improves customer service and empowers the team to work as one,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Bassett sees the ESLs installed in his Southampton store earlier this year as a “labour-saving, accurate” solution to what usually is a time-consuming task.
Ten hours of work are saved every three weeks on promotion changeovers, which used to manually involve taking down old labels and putting up new ones. Two hours a week are saved on normal price changes.
“The solution can remove workload and worry by reducing labour costs, giving total price flexibility and making shelf labels more informative,” says Mark Duckworth, country manager for UK, Ireland & Australia at Solum, which fitted the tech at the store. “By having ESLs the process now takes seconds rather than hours, leaving retailers more time to focus on other areas or even time for themselves.”
The technology seems to be gaining ground in the convenience sector, as well as the wider grocery market (p24). Fellow ESL provider Henderson Technology says it carried out dozens of installations throughout the pandemic. Its 25th fitting was in May, for a Spar store in Balmoral – one of the three sites under the Creightons business.
“The ESLs have freed staff up as price changes and promotion switches are instant,” says Andrew Porter, GM at Creightons. “We have also noticed an improvement in the replenishment and merchandising on the shop floor as staff have more time to concentrate on these tasks.”
James Stead, store area manager for Spar Calver in Hope Valley, Derbyshire, says 12 cashier hours a week have been saved since he installed ESLs in 2018. “This has freed my time up to allow me concentrate on important things like data processing and reporting,” he says.
Even payment can be automated. Four Spar stores use Ubamarket’s Scan, Pay, Go app, which allows customers to bypass the till entirely. That’s set to increase to more than 100 stores by the end of January next year.
Using the app for everything means it becomes a “frictionless” process for retailers, says Ubamarket CEO and founder Will Broome. “It takes away the hassle, labour and maintenance of running a convenience store, such as the need for extra cashiers and removing queues,” he explains.
“With fewer staff manning tills, retailers can keep the same amount of staff but redeploy them on to the shop floor to do other duties that they would’ve needed to do anyway. It’s less wasted time and more efficient.”
‘The pandemic has created a whole new way of working’
Sue Nithyanandan, Costcutter, Epsom, Surrey
Costcutter retailer Sue Nithyanandan has upskilled her staff to help manage workload. “With the way the pandemic took hold, I had to adapt and plan ahead for the future,” she says.
“I started retraining and giving more responsibilities to current staff and have felt more comfortable being less hands-on. I have also enrolled two staff members on to an apprenticeship programme.”
At the same time, she was keen to ensure staff remained healthy, both mentally and physically. Nithyanandan took it upon herself to cover absences to ensure their wellbeing was protected.
She’s now feeling more optimistic about the future and pressures such as driver shortages. “As an independent convenience store operator, we have had the flexibility to source goods from multiple suppliers and I believe this will keep us strong in the future,” she says.
Asking for help
Not everyone is able to invest in extra tech at this time, though. So, in the meantime, it’s important for owners to seek support where necessary.
That’s the message hammered home by GroceryAid. Its welfare director Mandi Leonard says there has been a three-fold increase in demand for its financial grants since the pandemic started. Meanwhile, the charity has seen a 47% increase in incidences of providing emotional and practical support over the past year, and a 12% increase in calls to its helpline.
For that reason, Nisa works closely with GroceryAid. One of its retail development managers, Matthew Howie, sits on the charity’s Scottish board. He relays the various support and contacts available to the Nisa field team, who pass that information on to retailers.
The symbol group has also started telling new recruits about GroceryAid as part of its induction process. “It’s a really underutilised tool that we want our partners to be using,” Howie says. “We work in a diverse industry where you will have many different people with different outlooks on life.
“Some people will bottle it up, some will be open and ask for advice. So it’s about building that relationship with our partners so they feel they can reach out and speak about it.”
Ultimately, dealing with the stress and long hours in the convenience sector is likely to require a multi-pronged approach, using all the tools available from listening services to technology. As ACS’s Lowman says: “There’s no easy fix.