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What Is It Like Working on the Shop Floor in a Supermarket?

Eleanor writes on many topics, including parenting, single parenting, party and activity ideas, and career and home life.

Is working at a supermarket hard?

Is working at a supermarket hard?

My Experience

Two months ago, I decided I needed to find a part-time job so that I could earn a regular income. Trying to forge a career as a freelance writer is a precarious and unpredictable existence, especially as a single parent. I had projects and plans, but they were all future earners. And I had had a part-time job in hospitality before but had lost it due to restructuring and new management. So I browsed the listings of Indeed and applied for every single position that I thought I might have a shot at.

To be honest, I didn't give a lot of thought to the job itself; I was just concerned with whether the hours would fit in with my day as a single parent and whether I (mostly) met the skills criteria.

Fast forward through lots of applications, and I only ended up with one interview—General Assistant at Sainsburys supermarket.

It Seemed Easy

At the interview, everyone I met seemed extremely pleasant. Most of my previous places of employment had all been small businesses that were always more vulnerable to the twists and turns of the market. This position feels much more stable. Sainsbury's is a huge organisation with decent employee holiday (6 weeks, as opposed to the legal four weeks); sick pay; staff discount; pension scheme (must be offered by law) and enough employees to (hopefully) cover you if you need to change your hours or take an impromptu day off.

The position was only 12 hours, but it was more or less what I was looking for. It consisted of 3 shifts of 4 hours, from 6 pm to 10 pm.

Evening work doesn't sound great, but I thought it would fit well around looking after my youngest child. Although he could attend the after-school club, I didn't want to be out at work three days per week during his school breaks. Working in the evening, I decided, would still give us the opportunity to enjoy days out.

Anyway, what's 12 hours? For that short amount of time, it doesn't really matter what you are doing, does it?

Good Pay for an Unskilled Job

As of April 2018, Sainsbury's pays its employees £8 per hour for those over 25. Come September 2018, the rate of pay will rise to £9.20 per hour across the board. £9.20 is a pretty good deal for working in a supermarket, in my honest opinion. I know people in positions that require degrees, and some are still only earning around £22,000 per year. And some of those jobs are stressful - although possibly a lot more rewarding.

Based on a full-time position of 40 hours per week, you will earn an annual gross salary of £19,136 at Sainsbury's when the new £9.20 p/h rate comes into force. When you consider that many more skilled positions sometimes only bring in wages of little over £20,000, it's all looking good. (Well, it's looking good if you are a general staff member, as Sainsbury's is currently restructuring their management on all levels with many redundancies to come; someone told me this was to save money so that they could pay the living wage to everyone else, but that's speculation.)

Many Employees Have Worked There For Years

Many of the employees that I have met during the last two months have worked for Sainsbury's for years - 4 years, 13 years, 16 years, and even 30 years! That tells me two things - that a) Sainsbury's does not treat you like collateral damage whenever the mood takes them, and b) many employees are happy enough in their work that they are not rushing home to scour Indeed every night until they find something else. People do moan about their job sometimes, but that always happens, no matter where you work.

Restocking shelves is an easy enough task, but it is mind-numbingly boring.

Restocking shelves is an easy enough task, but it is mind-numbingly boring.

What Do You Have to Do?

Working on the shop floor in a supermarket mostly consists of restocking the shelves in your designated area. My area is fresh foods - five huge aisles of meat, fish, ready meals, vegetarian alternatives, yoghurts, pizzas, milk, juice, cheese, butter, desserts and basically anything else that belongs in a fridge. The provided uniform consists of a fleece and gloves - even in the height of summer, these are both necessary items due to the cold conditions of both the warehouse and the aisles themselves.

Restocking shelves is an easy enough task, but it is mind-numbingly boring. You fetch the first stacked cage from the warehouse, unpack the boxes, rotate the existing stock, put the new items on, and do it over and over again until you have gone through the whole cage. Quite often, the shelves are already full of the item, so you have to put it back on the cage to take back. You also have to dispose of all the discarded boxes and plastic trays in the 'baler' - a huge machine that crushes materials so that they are condensed enough to go off on a lorry to be recycled somewhere.

After that, you have to record the time that you 'worked' that particular cage on a sheet and fetch the next cage. And the next cage. And the next one. You literally do it over and over again until all the stock from the warehouse has been taken out to the shop floor for replenishment.

It can be a tiring and lengthy task. Aside from that, you might have to participate in additional tasks, such as:

  • Reductions: This entails using a handset and small printer to create reduction labels for items that are almost at their use-by date.
  • Disposals: A somewhat unpleasant job (if you work in fresh, especially), which consists of collecting all the items in the 'disposal' crate, scanning them, and stating the reason for disposal (usually damaged or past use-by date). You then have to bag up the disposals in a certain coloured bag. Whilst this doesn't sound especially unpleasant, it is because there is undoubtedly a damaged carton of soup, a box of broken eggs (very common) or a cracked pot of yoghurt which no one has bothered to put in a plastic bag, therefore ensuring it goes all over your hands or all over the floor when you pick it up.
  • FOA: Still not sure what this actually stands for, but the main purpose is to go round your shelves with the aforementioned handset, scanning the barcodes on the shelves of any empty space. The handset will order more of that item as it assumes it is not in stock.
  • Dressing: During my first few shifts, I actually thought that dressing was fun. I take that back - it is really tedious. It might be more appealing if there were fewer shelves. Dressing in a large supermarket, however, goes on and on forever. To put it in perspective, to 'dress' my five aisles on my own, it would take me at least 90 minutes to do it properly. So far, I haven't met anyone who actually likes it. For anyone who doesn't know, 'dressing' simply consists of making the shelves look nice by pulling items forward where there is a space, getting rid of empty boxes and plastic trays, and returning incorrectly placed items to their correct place.
  • Code checking: A process that involves checking all items, identifying those which are about to go out of date.

Since starting this job, I have come to several conclusions:

Customers who shop in the yogurt, butter and desserts aisle are really messy, with no thought for staff. Probably they have little regard for staff because they don't actually realise what staff have to do, and even though you might have personally only left one tiny thing out of place, four hundred other people have committed the same crime.

Customers don't select products based on the correct order. They take tubs of double cream from the tray on the right, the tray on the left, and all the trays at the back. What is even worse is that they love to take the tubs from the tray underneath so that the tray on top (still full of cream) starts to collapse due to lack of support. By the end of the evening, this has created just one big mess.

There is far too much waste in supermarkets in general. Quite simply, tonnes and tonnes of plastic and card have to be disposed of. By the time six people have bought a certain flavoured yogurt, there is an empty plastic tray. And that's just one item. So you can imagine how much waste there is, all over the country, on a daily basis.

Some customers are downright lazy. They love to walk halfway around the store and then discard an item they have decided they no longer want. What they perhaps do not think about (or do not care about) is that if that item was supposed to be in the chiller and is found elsewhere, it now has to be thrown away.

Whilst a degree of customer interaction is obviously required for this, it doesn't really match any of my previous positions.

Whilst a degree of customer interaction is obviously required for this, it doesn't really match any of my previous positions.

The Job Can Be Quite Physical

For me, working on the shop floor can sometimes feel quite tiring. I am sure it also takes me longer than many other employees to complete the tasks, especially restocking the shelves in the 'Fresh' section (where I usually work).

This is because:

1. I am petite and weigh less than eight stone, and I have never had a job prior to this one which could be described in any way as physical. I'm not strong, which means that I find it harder to lift the crates and boxes.

2. I cannot reach any of the higher shelves. As a customer, this isn't much of an issue. But as a member of staff restocking shelves, I have to be able to reach right at the back of the shelves to rotate the stock (so that the oldest ones are at the front). This means that I have to wander around the store searching for a footstool before I can even start. Even when I have the stool, I have to cover twice as much ground as everyone who is taller, as I have to transport the produce to the designated area, and then go back for the stool, then repeat the process again and again.

3. I cannot lift some of the crates, which tend to be piled high on the cages (above my actual head height), thus meaning that any attempt to move them (and thus actually complete the task) is impossible. At first, I took to wandering around the store looking for a suitable colleague to help. That was both annoying and time-consuming, so instead, I started to take the items out of the crates one by one. However, this is also a slower way to approach the task than that adopted by the taller, stronger people, who hoist the crates around as though they barely weigh anything.

4. Over the duration of one shift, there can be a lot of walking. Going back and forth between the warehouse and the shop (not a long way, but it is a repeated journey); going upstairs (quite a trek) to fetch the handsets, printers, spare batteries, etc.; even getting up and down from the stool - these are all ways to ensure that if you were counting your steps on an app, you will have done an awful lot by the time you go home. Which means that, once you arrive home, you are too exhausted to look after your own house. At least, that's how I feel.

Lack of Customer Interaction

As a General Assistant, you have to help customers with any queries they may approach you with. Most of the time, this entails guiding them around the shop so that they can locate the product they are looking for. Whilst a degree of customer interaction is obviously required for this, it doesn't really match any of my previous positions.

Many staff will be happy with this low level of interaction since I'm convinced many of them don't especially like dealing with the customers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, it's just that I am used to it and so, with this job, I miss it.

I did have a very long chat with a lovely lady yesterday who explained to me in great depth the details of her vegan diet. We had a really nice chat (which began because she couldn't read the food label), but unfortunately, all I was thinking about was how she was preventing me from continuing to 'dress' the shelves and whether there was now going to be enough time to complete the task before clocking off time.

Students Like It (And So Do Some Other People)

Some people seem very happy with their job. Students in particular (I live in a University town) have a good deal going on. I sometimes work with a student who has done four years at Sainsbury's. But that, obviously, is not his life's goal. Otherwise, he wouldn't be studying for a degree. Students are also young and tend to have more energy.

Some people like more menial, practical work. However, although I've never held a position like this before, I know I'm not one of those people. I prefer mental tasks, especially creative ones, and there is no outlet for any of that on the supermarket floor. I'm also someone who struggles with practical tasks in general - once, I got caught up in my own washing line because I couldn't manage to put it up and down. Now I just leave it up all the time to avoid the issue.

For Me, It's Not Rewarding (And I Find It Lonely)

I'm sure that many people are perfectly happy working on the shop floor in a supermarket. For me, the main reward it offers is the money. Although working for Sainsbury's is by no means my worst-paid job, it is definitely the most boring. That is not necessarily a reflection on Sainsbury's (I'm sure all supermarkets are similar) but more of a lack of connection between the job and myself.

Even though the supermarket I work in is a big store with a lot of employees, I actually find it quite a lonely experience during evening shifts. Most of the time, I am working on my own, not close enough to any colleagues to chat. Together with the lack of customer contact - "Can you tell me where the eggs are," can be the highlight of the evening - then I really find I'm left with just my own company for long periods. Perhaps, if I worked daytime hours, it might be a little different - there are more staff then, due to the store being busier- but I do currently spend most of my 12 hours per week pottering around on my own.

Two weeks ago, I met a colleague who turned out to be the parent of one of the boys in my son's class at school. We had a pleasant chat at the baler machine whilst recycling the cardboard. But I haven't seen her since.

As I am not a particularly practical person, I really don't enjoy any of the tasks. I'd probably get more enjoyment from working in the cafe or elsewhere since I prefer more interaction with people. In fact, I've thought about investigating the possibility of transferring to the cafe, but someone told me you can't just serve, you have to cook as well. And the thought of that alarms me.

So Will I Stay?

If I do continue to work for Sainsbury's, I hope that it will not be as a General Assistant on the shop floor. As it is, I'm keeping my eye out for something different. Sainsbury's is great in that they pay quite well and seem to offer relatively stable employment, and they do everything 'to the book', which, I can assure you, doesn't always happen in smaller businesses.

I believe them to be a fair company and in no way a poor employer. However, I can't see myself growing to enjoy the job enough to view it as a long-term feature in my life. Quite simply, large supermarkets require lots of people to perform very boring and repetitive tasks. When you take away the interaction that you might get in a restaurant, a bar, or another kind of shop, the job lacks soul. And that, I have realised, is what I miss.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.