Coronavirus shines a light on careers in food retail

As the Coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc both on local but also on the global jobs market, leaving many unemployed, furloughed or working reduced hours as employers implemented sweeping cost-cutting measures and forced closures, I think most of us either working in or supplying to the grocery trade, felt blessed to have taken a career path that involved food and food retail writes CEO Barry Whelan…

The age-old adage ‘everybody eats’ really made sense as we saw businesses that had survived the last recession forced to close such as hair dressers and of course pubs and restaurants, while supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations remained open for business.

The resilience of the grocery trade to recession and economic shocks, even those created by a pandemic, is heartening for those of us who work in the industry and attractive to job seekers who want to join an industry that survived these most challenging times.

I myself think to resilience isn’t just driven by the fact that because people have to eat every day, we will always have customers because of this, but I believe the resilience comes from deeper factors that include how well run the grocery trade is and how competitive the market is.

Supply chain stressors

Firstly, a great example of how the grocery retail trade in Ireland is extremely well run, is when we look to the start of the pandemic and the panic buying that took place across the country. Each player in the industry, whether they are a multiple, discounter or symbol had to contend with this phenomenon, which came completely out of leftfield. Across the world, consumers really panicked, stripping stores of food and commodities, leaving empty toilet roll sections, pasta shelves and home baking isles. Later in the crisis, as the meat factories recorded outbreaks, freezers were filled with beef, lamb and pork. No buyer or planner or supermarket manager, no matter how much of a genius they are, could forecast what would be the next item to undergo a frenzied uplift, who knew the entire population of Ireland would don their aprons and go all Mary Berry on us!

Despite all this random frenzied buying, the supply chains held, the distribution centres ran, the trucks rolled and the store staff, management and of course suppliers worked tirelessly to restock shelves and alleviate the panic that had engulfed the Irish and indeed worldwide consumer.

Retail workers were propelled to front line employee status and thanked on billboards around the country and as the majority of the population sat at home growing out there hair and beards and probably drinking too much, we got to stay in normality, getting up each day and going to work, mostly with customers who appreciated that we had done so.

Online shopping

Competition in the trade had created diversification and some of our larger retailers had embraced online shopping. These retailers had to cope with unprecedented demand on this part of their business, using stores as distribution centres, with staff having to stock and then unstock the shelves themselves to fulfil ecommerce orders. Businesses prioritised at risk customers and got on top of demand as fast as possible, managing a complex and unprofitable part of their business to maximum effect, delivering needed groceries to those most affected by the pandemic. Retailers need to be commended for their efforts here both in food and non-food ecommerce, another great example of how well our retailers are run.

Never has there been a better time to shine a light on careers in food retail. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that food retail and those who supply into in, are resilient to economic shock, populated with extremely well-run businesses that are robust and can cope with change. This is truly a great industry to enjoy a career in.

How important retail really is

How COVID-19 has shown how important retail really is

To say it has been a trying few months for retail is probably the understatement of the century. No-one paying even passing attention could argue that the past few months haven’t been some of the most stressful and confusing retailers have ever faced. Most have thankfully re-opened and are now successfully operating in a socially distanced world but there is still a long road to go. Much support will be needed from central government, local councils and consumers over the coming months.

BUT…..there have been rays of light for retailers

One of the most striking things from the staggered re-openings of retailers has been consumers’ reaction. The anticipation and excitement for shops to re-open and then the pure joy when they did were remarkable. The fanfare of Penney’s re-opening was huge and notably driven by the brand’s loyal customers rather than any marketing from the retailer itself, with queues for most of its stores beginning in the early hours and stretching through neighbouring streets.

While Penneys made national headlines, a walk down Dublin’s Henry Street (close to Excel HQ) saw similar queues for retailers of all kinds in the days and weeks since re-opening.

Need and want

While online shopping proved a lifeline for those who were cocooning and a welcome distraction for those simply bored at home, there are customer needs and goals that online shopping can never meet as successfully as bricks and mortar stores. While online shopping soared during lockdown, so did buyer’s remorse and returns. There are many purchases customers far prefer making in-person from cosmetics to a new pair of jeans to investing in an expensive piece of tech. E-commerce sites constantly revise and refine how they present products but there’s little that can replicate seeing, feeling and experience a product in real life before you buy.

The shopping experience

There are also purchases where the experience of buying is almost as important as the actual item itself, such as a luxury handbag or a brand’s latest ‘must-have’ release. Customers value the expertise and input of experienced sales consultants and brand experts when making an important purchase. On a much more fundamental level what has become clear is, people like shopping. Lockdown proved more than anything that we are social creatures and missed the chance to get out and engage with other humans. With more and more people choosing to holiday at home this year, that practise can only continue.

E-commerce and online shopping aren’t going anywhere, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer they won’t not going to be the trigger of the ‘retail apocalypse’ that many predicted. Traditional retailing shouldn’t be trying to compete with online, but instead tapping into what makes it special. This isn’t the time for the retail industry to try to simply ride out the storm, instead redouble efforts into ensuring well-trained, knowledgeable salespeople combined friendly, genuine customer service and a personalised, engaging customer experience should be the focus.