GOOD WORKERS CALLED KEY TO BETTER SERVICE

CHICAGO -- Customers want more from supermarket workers, and supermarkets need to do more to empower employees as well as take a more innovative approach to recruitment to solve the industry's pressing labor shortage.This was the message presented at the Food Marketing Institute's Speaks session at last week's annual convention here.Michael Sansolo, FMI senior vice president, said FMI's Trends report

CHICAGO -- Customers want more from supermarket workers, and supermarkets need to do more to empower employees as well as take a more innovative approach to recruitment to solve the industry's pressing labor shortage.

This was the message presented at the Food Marketing Institute's Speaks session at last week's annual convention here.

Michael Sansolo, FMI senior vice president, said FMI's Trends report found that if consumers could change one thing about the store where they do most of their shopping, they would improve customer service.

What customers are looking for, he added, are store employees who "will help shoppers find anything, enjoy helping customers, are total professionals and treat shoppers well.

"The bottom line on delivering good service is good employees. It starts there -- and remains an enormous challenge for our industry."

He noted that although unemployment has begun to increase slightly, it still hovers at about 4%, or what economists call "functional full employment."

"It's incredibly tough to find the folks you need," he said. "The labor market remains very tight, even with the economy in a slump.

"FMI members are offering new incentives to attract associates, including flex time, discounts on purchases, casual dress codes and educational benefits."

He added that about half of FMI's members have Web sites, and nearly all those Web sites post job openings.

Ron Pearson, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, (and newly installed FMI chairman) said the key to retaining good workers is giving them "autonomy."

"You've got to let people have a say," he said, explaining that store-level employees at Hy-Vee regularly make decisions about "pricing, merchandising and advertising."

Pearson stressed the need to encourage employees to stay in or return to school. "Education is part of our basic culture," he said. "It is so important. Without education, you can't have personal growth."

Education was also the focus of comments made at the session by Daniel R. Wegman, president, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., (and immediate past FMI chairman), who told the audience about his company's success in recruiting from a nontraditional labor pool, such as inner-city youth, for jobs in suburban stores.

He spoke about how Wegmans last year opened a store in Princeton, N.J., the Ivy League home of the famous university, and had difficulty finding local residents who wanted supermarket jobs. Instead, he said, Wegmans went to nearby Trenton, N.J., a city with "a large minority population."

Using the work-scholarship program for inner-city youth the company had developed in its hometown, Wegman said the company was able to recruit, train and retain the caliber of worker it needed. (For a detailed account of Wegmans work-scholarship program, see the April 23, 2001 SN.)

Supermarkets, said Wegman, should be "the industry of opportunity for minorities in America."