Are the multiples doing a better job at hanging on to shopfloor staff? Siân Harrington reports on the findings of our latest annual labour survey

Food retailers may finally be getting the message across about the benefits of working on the shopfloor. According to this year’s annual labour survey, conducted for The Grocer by Storecheck Marketing, staff turnover on the shopfloor at major grocery chains has dropped. But the cost of filling a vacancy has more than doubled.

Storecheck Marketing interviewed the personnel responsible for recruiting at 130 of the top 600 food stores by sales. Vacancies across these stores are running at 4.3%, down from 5.3% last year. And the number of staff leaving per year stands at 22.4%, compared to last year’s 26.1%.

Those responsible for recruiting rate their store’s desirability as an employer in its local community considerably higher than last year. “It’s a high profile store with good training and good basic pay,” says one Asda recruiter, while another Asda manager says: “Very desirable - one of the top 100 best employers to work for.”

At Tesco, the strength of the company is seen as helping to increase desirability. “Very desirable thanks to being a blue-chip company,” says one manager. Another adds: “We are established, the number one market retailer and the salary is favourable.”

Storecheck Marketing managing director Colin Harper says: “It is extremely good news for the industry. There is much more satisfaction and people seem to be happier.”

Despite its problems, Sainsbury recruiters still feel it is generally desirable to work for the chain. One says: “Working here is very desirable as it is varied and staff are not always doing the same thing.”

The company had the lowest number of staff vacancies at the time of our survey, at 3%. However, it is the only chain to see a rise in staff turnover. Nearly a third (32.6%) of shopfloor staff left over the past year compared to 27.9% the previous year.

“Sainsbury is like Safeway was last year,” says Harper. “Shopfloor staff are unmotivated and looking for a way out with their feet.”

In comparison, recruiters at those Safeway stores that have been converted to Morrisons are benefiting from the new ownership. When asked if it is easier to recruit now, most Safeway managers say it is the same but those with the Morrisons fascia say it is now easier. “A lot easier,” says one, “with a higher rate of pay and flexibility of hours. Also the presentation and hygiene of Morrisons stores is higher.”

Another says: “We have had more replies since the takeover.”

Safeway has the lowest staff turnover of the big chains, at 17.7%, closely followed by Asda at 18.8%. However, many stores across the industry are seeing turnover of more than 30%, mainly due to the high level of students they employ. This was a key issue at the time of conducting the survey, which coincided with the beginning of the academic year. Those stores that employ more mature staff find such staff stay longer.

Specific issues also affect turnover. At one Asda store, a call centre had just opened nearby and it was offering higher salaries. A Safeway store is experiencing a £2,500 turnover cost at the moment thanks to students returning to studies and child care problems - “a big issue”, says the recruiter.

Three stores, a Safeway, Somerfield and Tesco, had 50% turnover while all chains had some stores with a turnover up to 40%. A Midlands-based Tesco, with staff turnover running at 49%, suffered from competing with a wide range of employers in the area.

Despite isolated examples like these, the drop in turnover across the board is seen as good news for the industry.

“This is probably attributable to two key factors,” says Peter McLaren-Kennedy, head of communications at retail sector skills council Skillsmart. “The first is that on balance, press coverage of retail has been positive given the success of Tesco and non-food retailers such as Philip Green and Debenhams. Success breeds desirability and has done much to help improve the image of the industry as an employer.

“The second is that retailers are becoming smarter at recruitment. This is resulting in a better fit and greater diversity in the staff complement which, when coupled with staff retention activities, is having a positive impact on staff turnover.”

This increased smartness at recruitment is coming at a cost, however. The average cost of filling one vacancy has risen from £727 last year to £1,657 this time. One recruiter says: “There is much more competition for good local people and we have to spend more time looking for them.”

Asda continues to invest the most in recruiting, but this year the cost has jumped from £991 to £2,633. “The high recruitment cost may well be to do with investment in technology for recruitment purposes, such as web sites,” says McLaren-Kennedy.

However, while some recruiters mentioned the internet, word of mouth, the local job centre, incentive schemes for relatives and in-store advertisements are the most used methods of recruitment. In-store advertising was by far the most productive, according to the store recruiters. “In-store is always the most productive method,” says one Safeway manager, while another says a new central system at Warrington, whereby applicants apply though this office, is not proving productive so far. “We would prefer to meet the applicants and talk to them in-store rather than through a system.”

Some Asda personnel also say recruitment fairs are useful. “You get to meet the people and talk to them beforehand, effectively screen testing them,” says one.

Debbie Carnell, Asda head of colleague development, says the company holds regular groups to discover why people are not coming to Asda and why they are not staying if they do. But the key thrust over the past 18 months has been a new programme to help retention. Entitled Best Welcome, this includes a 25-hour induction to help new colleagues understand the culture, mission, values and service ethic as well as enabling them to get to know other colleagues before starting. Different managers deliver sessions so colleagues can meet the managers before they work on the department. “Part of the issue before was that colleagues didn’t feel confident when they were put on departments. Now they have already built up some rapport before they start,” says Carnell.

The company has developed a colleague talent tree that outlines all training and development a colleague will get. There are 12 weeks of competency training and then a further 12 weeks on product knowledge and selling skills. Each colleague is assigned a Best Welcome Buddy. The initiative has certainly helped retention.

“We have seen a huge improvement in retention since starting. Within six months of Best Welcome landing retention up to three months has improved 70% and each month we are improving general labour turnover by about 1%. It has worked better than we thought it would,” says Carnell.

While schemes such as this are proving successful, McLaren-Kennedy says grocery retailers cannot be complacent. “We don’t yet know the impact of economic policy, such as higher interest rates, on the job market. It may well be that people are more inclined to stay in their current position rather than take the risk of moving,” he says.

But he adds: “We would like to see greater effort to retain young people in the industry, particularly those who start out their career with a part-time job in retail.”

Skills lacking in new recruits
>>...but attitude counts for more

One area that has seen little improvement over the last year is in the skills lacking in new recruits.

Lack of motivation and enthusiasm are mentioned by many of the respondents, as are spoken English, numeracy , the ability to present themselves well and general people skills.

GCSE qualifications are unanimously seen as unhelpful as a guide for recruitment. Says one Asda recruiter: "Not at all. We look for personality and people skills and can tell if it is the right person from the application form."

Another manager says: "We hire for attititude not skills."

The feelgood factor in convenience
>>...but there is frustration at the lack of opportunity

A new study from HIM finds that fewer than one in five convenience store staff believes working in another channel would be better than working in small stores.

HIM interviewed 720 staff members in 250 c-stores to understand levels of job satisfaction. Those working in independent c-stores are the most satisfied in their job.

Sometimes this is because the store is family-run or because there is an entrepreneurial feel about the store.

The main reasons why people work in the industry include the fact the shop is for the local community, flexible hours and the money. Some 30% of managed store staff mention that it is a fun place to work but only 20% of forecourt staff say this, probably because single-person shifts are more common.

In terms of communication from line-managers, three quarters of store staff say it is excellent, very good or good. But a quarter of staff say they never get feedback.

However, despite the positive attitudes, only a third of c-store workers feels there are sufficient career opportunities working where they are.

Between 40-50% of staff across all convenience channels feel they could contribute more at work and there is significant proportion of staff who cannot envisage working in the industry in a year's time. Some feel there are better opportunities elsewhere.