The poll confirms that there are growing fears that the recruitment situation is deteriorating. And the biggest problem is getting skilled people onto the shop floor.
So just why is the industry's image quite so bad and what are human resources managers doing about it?
Somerfield HR director Katie Peters says poor careers advice is partly to blame: "Retail's attractiveness as a credible career option is driven by education ­ if schools do not project a positive image of a retail career, this is passed on to the pupils."
Peters warns that unless steps are taken to improve awareness among school pupils of the sector's attractions, the recruitment crisis faced by the sector could be exacerbated.
The report, A Leadership People Strategy for Food Retailers, reveals that as things are now, school leavers show very little interest in retailing, with over half saying they cannot imagine working in retail. And according to report author, the Roland Berger consultancy, few food retailers have co-operative ventures with schools. Most wait for candidates to approach them.
Paul Daynes, senior HR advisor at Budgens, says word of mouth is one of the most effective ways of recruiting new people to their stores. Staff actively seek out potential recruits by encouraging good workers in other stores to apply for jobs. The importance of word of mouth is backed up by Roland Berger which found school leavers rely heavily on personal information from parents, friends and teachers when choosing their first job. Nearly a third of participants in the CCRRGE study first had contact with employers through family members or friends. According to Hans Mayer from German retailer Metro: "We have to directly address students, teachers and parents."
Making contact with school leavers at an early stage is important because more than two-thirds do not have specific career plans and most have only a vague understanding of the typical roles available in food retail. Tesco and Superquinn both run hire-a-friend programmes while Carrefour visits local schools and presents the opportunities directly to the students.
Another key group is women, especially part-timers. Striking the right balance between work and family is important to these employees. According to the Co-operative Group's acting HR director, Adrian Egglestone, it is a particular struggle to recruit and retain part-timers. Egglestone says: "Part-time working gives flexibility but it also makes it hard to keep good people."
Somerfield and Kwik Save offer flexible working patterns, says Peters, and they are also working to improve the pay and range of benefits in order to tackle staff retention.
One of the recommendations in the CCRRGE report is to invest in older employees. Philip Horn, Asda's head of resourcing, says it can be particularly tough to recruit in areas of high employment, but that by targeting the over-50s for example, it can always fill vacancies. Its Cambridge store, which opened last year, recruited 22% of staff over the age of 50. He adds that retention is also a challenge, but a new induction process has made a big difference.
"Rather than only doing one day's training, then putting people on the shop floor, and then giving sporadic training, which can be a bit daunting, we train them for three days straight away. It has already made a significant improvement and we aim to reduce the labour turnover in the first three to six month period by 50%," Horn says.
The Co-operative Group has also brought turnover rates down by raising its game on recruitment, says Egglestone: "We are more analytical about it and have designed a competency framework."
The group's acquisition of Alldays brought some stores with staff turnover rates of 70% so that it now has an average of 40%, which it is working to reduce.
While flexibility and working with people are key attractions for those looking to work in food retail, low pay is perceived one of the thorniest issues. However, a separate survey by Roland Berger, which carried out the CCRRGE research, reveals that school-leavers rate good training and learning opportunities above pay. Less than half (40%) mentioned remuneration as a decision criterion.
Budgens' Daynes agrees job satisfaction is as important as pay satisfaction for many workers. He says staff are given responsibility quickly and trained to be multi-skilled, and that has improved retention. And a professional, more inclusive approach has helped staff to accept necessary changes in their working patterns.
"We've found they respond better if we don't tell them they need to change their hours, but ask them how they can help us solve a problem ­ then they volunteer," says Daynes
The CCRRGE research highlighted the vital role that store managers play in the wider human resources picture and recommended that they be made responsible for retention and motivation of staff, with performance measures and variable pay.
Egglestone agrees that external motivation factors can be crucial. "Two stores, identical in every way, can have very different staff turnovers. People have to enjoy their work and we need to look at how managers create the right team atmosphere."
While the shop floor has recruitment problems, head office is proving less of an issue, with HR departments reporting graduates showing an interest in careers at that level. Egglestone, for one, is adamant that the sector is an attractive career choice.
"It is not true that we are unable to recruit good quality people. We have no problem at graduate level. The Co-op's ethical stance means we get good people, even first class honours graduates nowadays, who want to work in IT, accounts and personnel."
Here, pay is likely to grow in importance, as a recent survey, exclusive to The Grocer, revealed (May 17, 2003, p50). Fears are growing that salaries will flatten as the industry comes under pressure to reduce the wage bill in an attempt to cut overheads.
Head office employees' pay compares well with that of other similar industries, but there are indications that basic salaries will be frozen and performance-related packages introduced.
If these are tied to unrealistic targets, attracting good staff would become more difficult. But with consolidation in the sector, there are sure to be plenty of experienced people on the market at this level. And with retailers like Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda talking up the number of new jobs they are creating at every results meeting, it is shop floor recruitment that is the more pressing issue.
But Daynes thinks the industry is at risk of talking itself down. "We can get hung up on the past. Retail isn't a bad place to work."