Labor-related issues have always been top of mind for grocery retailers, says Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for private brands and technology for the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute.
That’s never been more true than it is right now. In an FMI board review of the top emerging industry issues, launched in 2018, “workforce” made the top five.
“Labor concerns have gotten significantly more important,” Baker says. “It’s not just that there aren’t enough workers in the pool, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also about the workplace of the future. What to do with current staff, how to recruit new staff to address the crush of new technology and innovation, and the demands that new consumers have to engage with retailers however and whenever they want.”
The Trump Administration, Baker says, has claimed there’s not really a labor shortage — employers just need to pay workers more. Retailers are raising wages, Baker says, but they need to (and are) doing a lot more than that.
“Every single one of our members is doing things to shore up labor — working with community colleges and trade schools, trying to provide bonuses, changing work environment, raising wages,” Baker says.
Retailers also are focused on preparing their existing work force and looking to other industries for employees who will be able to adapt to the new high-tech retail grocery environment.
The Robot Revolution
Consider robots. Yes, they will take over many tasks currently performed in stores by humans, but they will create new needs for human-only jobs, and free up retailers to get more creative in how they use their human capital.
“Robots don’t necessarily mean people getting laid off,” Baker says. “They will take a lot of mundane tasks away from humans, doing allowing them to focus on other areas which are, if not equally important, maybe even more important.”
Most consumers, Baker says, want “the experience of a 1950s grocery with 2020 technology.” That means investment in education for a new type of workforce.
A number of retailers are currently testing robotics in their stores, exploring the technology’s use in tasks like shelf placement, checking that prices are accurate, notifying store personnel if there’s been a spill or something’s obstructing an aisle.
“It allows them to work on those things and do so with more accurate information,” Baker says. “Robots can ID a hole on the shelf without employees having to walk up and down the aisles.
Giant Eagle, for instance, recently announced it would roll out several more robots in its stores based on a successful pilot that was recently completed.
Robots are going to become even more user-friendly, Baker says. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to be avoided. As minimum wages go up, and margins continue be pressured, you’re going to have to find ways to create more efficiencies.”
Every time you put robot in a store, though, there needs be someone to take care of it, which creates new jobs, Baker says. “To the extent that current staff need to be retrained to be technicians opens up new opportunities that we might not have understood in past. If you ask the typical consumer what they think of as a typical grocery store job, they’ll say cashier, bakery clerk, the guy stocking milk, things like that. They wouldn’t consider all the other opportunities to work in our industry related to tech.”
With robots handling the more mundane tasks, employees will be able to focus on giving consumers a better instore experience, Baker says. And the number of employees focused on specialized jobs that draw consumers in with experiences will increase, as retailers continue to look for ways to make their busy customers’ lives easier.
“Consumers can buy food from pretty much anywhere, so it’s about creating the best experience,” Baker says. “A lot of times you need those subject matter experts who are specifically attuned to pair cheese with wine, or to create a special meal I can stop by and take home, that gives me some kind of involvement in the meal and a sense of pride that I’m putting food on the table for my family.”
“This is a great industry to work in, and we need to start thinking about all the activities and positions that are part of it. Young professionals coming into the workforce: Don’t forget about grocery as a place have career. It’s a lot of fun and it’s changing every day.”
Scaling up the (labor) savings
Detecto, a division of Webb City, Missouri-based Cardinal Scale Manufacturing Inc., makes a variety of scales that provide valuable labor savings for supermarket retailers, says Ashley Bartlett, the company’s foodservice national sales representative.
“Every store owner, whether a mom and pop grocer or a major chain store, has dealt with labor issues for decades in the U.S.,” Bartlett says. “In some states, labor is becoming too expensive with the minimum wage rising. I believe there are always quality workers to train at every level. However, improvements in technology may reduce the need for higher wages and may even eliminate jobs - especially cashier positions.”
Some major grocery chains are currently testing a “skip-the-checkout” system whereby the customer scans their groceries and auto-pays with an app as they leave the store. QR codes can be scanned in the produce scale itself for fruits and vegetables to ring up the produce weight as the customer is shopping for these type of systems.
“But ultimately, customers need solid customer service and Detecto believes that will never go out to style, and we work hard to support both the store owner and customer with our products.”
Detecto is looking into more Bluetooth connectivity for its scales such as its APS Series POS scales as well as its PZ series scales to record transactions directly to the PC software in the manager’s office or store data system. The company is also close to launching an exciting new version of its SCS30 solar hanging scale making it easier to accurately weigh and pay for produce items.
Detecto’s PZ series wireless platform scales, RP series rotating-platform ingredient scales, SCS30 solar hanging scales and DL series price computing scales with integral label printers provide labor savings as well as cost savings, Bartlett says. Designed for foodservice, they’re nevertheless used in grocery stores around the world every day, she says. The SCS30 scales have been used in the produce departments of Walmart stores for the past three years.
“Customers want to get in and out of the grocery store faster, so speed and accuracy are critical in shopping environments these days,” she says. “To answer this need for them and the grocery store itself, Detecto has brought out several new foodservice products in recent years that work faster and more accurately than previous generations and other products on the market.”
Detecto’s DL Series Price Computing Deli Scale, for example, allows for accurate pre-packaging of deli items and ready-to-serve foods. By allowing faster, detailed labeling of pre-packaged foods, there’s less time waiting at the deli counter. “With our wide range of labels and software, safe handling, calorie and ingredient information is readily available for the customer which reduces time spent waiting for this information from a busy employee.”
A solution for instore bakeries
For grocery instore bakeries, Detecto’s RP series rotating-platform digital scale allows for the fast and accurate portioning of icing for cakes, while increasing the ability to offer a consistent product to the customer every time — and thereby saving employee labor.
The PZ series portion scale, meanwhile, is a hands-free, back-of-house scale used for the accurate and fast portioning of food items from bulk cheeses to spices and prepared foods. With the PZ’s hands-free tare indicator, the employee simply waves her hand to tare the item weight, then moves on to the next item without having to take the time to press a button and risk cross contamination.
“The wave-away tare feature also saves labor time in cleaning a dirty scale from the day’s prepping duties since there is no need to press the button,” Bartlett says.
Detecto’s SCS30 solar hanging scale is an NTEP-approved, legal-for-trade digital hanging scale, Bartlett says. When weighing produce, the customer knows that the weight of their items is exactly what they will pay for at the checkout counter, eliminating discrepancies in the checkout process and thus saving employees’ time.
“This is very different than typical estimating scales used in the past in many produce sections, where the scale was only providing the customer with a close approximate weight,” she says. The SCS30 is also used in the back of the house in large grocery chains to accurately and quickly weigh produce for online ordering and pickup for locations that offer it. “An estimating produce scale will not allow for this as they are not legal for trade in most cases,” she says. “This also saves in labor as the employee doesn’t have to stop and reset manually a portion scale to gain an accurate weight.”
Detecto also offers a unique color zone portion scale in our model PS7. The LCD display entirely changes color when the pre-assigned target weight is reached. This reduces the amount of time in portioning ingredients to the exact weight whereby employees recognize color instead of the digital weight on the scale.