Staff turnover on the shopfloor at the major grocery chains is averaging 26% a year and store recruiters have criticised the education system for doing little to give students the skills that store managers seek in their employees.

The Grocer’s first labour survey, undertaken by Storecheck Marketing, reveals that turnover in some stores is as high as 50% a year. As the average cost of filling a post is £727, this is a major drain on retailers’ money, as well as on managers’ time spent recruiting and rostering staff to cover vacancies.

Storecheck Marketing interviewed managers with responsibility for recruitment at 130 of the top 600 food stores by turnover.

The average number of vacancies at the beginning of September - when the interviews took place - was just over 5%, although the highest percentage found at an individual store was 20%.

Asda had the lowest staff turnover at 21% while Tesco had the highest at 29%. Tesco also had the highest proportion of vacancies, at nearly 7%.

Because store staff are in the front line of retailers’ customer service strategies, employee retention is a major problem, particularly in today’s price-driven environment where the store experience is often the only differentiator for customers. Many retailers are forced to employ staff who lack the skills they require. Time-keeping, attendance, customer service skills, presentation, literacy, English and maths were all cited as lacking. Most retailers, however, provided training to overcome these problems.

The GCSE examinations were condemned as failing to equip students for working in retail and for failing as an indicator of performance. A paltry 2% of recruiters thought they were a ‘good’ guide to the performance of school leavers, while 42% felt they were ‘not very’ and nearly 15% ‘not at all’ a good guide. Asda, with its strong emphasis on customer service, had the most recruiters who felt GCSEs were not a good guide to performance, at 75%.

“It is interesting how little prepared most people feel the average GCSE student is,” says Storecheck Marketing MD Colin Harper. “It is clear people require training, as most respondents said employees had adequate skills once they had been trained.

“More could be done in education to encourage people to develop the right skills, for example through NVQs. Retail is a challenging environment and schools could spend more time encouraging people into what is, in fact, a big growth industry.”

No doubt more could be done in the classroom, but much of the blame for the crisis lies with the industry. It needs to improve its image - to ensure stores are not seen as a last resort, with poor wages and long hours, but as an attractive employment choice.

One way of sexing up retail’s image would be to employ more innovative recruitment methods. Instore advertising was easily the most favoured medium and the most productive, but it only just manages to keep pace with the number of staff leaving each year.

Unsurprisingly Asda, which used innovative methods to recruit shopfloor staff for its Crawley store (The Grocer, August 30 p56), and in the past has been voted best employer, has the highest ratio of applicants per vacancy, at 59. Sainsbury is a poor second at 40, followed by Safeway at 37 and Tesco at 33.

Dedication, enthusiasm and motivation were among the attributes seen as lacking in shopfloor staff. But unless the industry makes more of an effort it is hard to see how it can attract staff with these qualities. They are hard to learn but they do make all the difference in today’s competitive retail world.