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In the struggle to retain grocery employees, is technology the solution?

The consequences of labor shortage extend far beyond immediate customer service implications

Shamus Hines.jpegShamus Hines is the CEO of Upshop and has spent his career pioneering product development, structuring global financial acquisitions, and building smarter enterprise technology. He has spoken widely in the retail industry on innovative and disrupting topics such as associate empowerment, the evolving complexity of omnichannel, and the critical nature of unifying store operations with SaaS. Hines leads Upshop with a collaborative, customer-oriented mindset, elevating teams and encouraging workplace positivity. His deep commitment to tackling the food waste challenge has fostered collaboration across the retail industry.

In the wake of the pandemic, the grocery industry has been grappling with a significant challenge — attracting and retaining quality employees. Recent reports indicate that a staggering 80% of retailers have faced difficulties in attracting and retaining workers over the past year, and a recent Supermarket News fresh trends survey found grocers cite labor as an ongoing challenge. As the labor shortage persists, retailers need to find ways to work smarter.

As the CEO of Upshop — a tech firm specializing in retail operations — I firmly believe technology holds the power to revolutionize employee retention in the grocery sector.

Let’s take a closer look at the current state of employee retention and the factors resulting in this critical juncture. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the approximately 10 million open jobs in the U.S., only 6 million workers are unemployed — a clear mismatch in supply and demand. Moreover, the labor force has reduced by around 2 million workers compared to pre-pandemic levels. This scarcity has hit the retail industry particularly hard; Forrester reports a staggering 63% of retailers operating with a frontline employee deficit in early 2023.

The consequences of labor shortage extend far beyond immediate customer service implications. In past decades, employees built up deep knowledge and experience over decades of service, making complex grocery tasks intuitive. Now, an impending wave of retirement for these seasoned employees means the valuable institutional knowledge goes with them — a loss that will hinder not only day-to-day operations, but the cultivation of a similarly skilled future workforce.

Grocers need to recreate that effortless intuition while keeping up with a tide of technological advancement. As grocery tech has become more complex, an average store is operating with 44-plus disconnected point solutions that can easily overwhelm and dissatisfy employees. The new generation of workers expect modern tools, increased engagement, and greater empowerment to excel in their roles. Retailers must consider the complete job experience to attract this generation seeking mobility in their career; including tooling, flexibility, and training.

Associates have to be empowered to do more.

Consistent and effective training is more critical than ever. High turnover rates result in increased training costs, directly impacting a retailer’s EBITDA. As employees are entrusted with more complex tasks and expected to work across various departments, the need for comprehensive training and advanced tools becomes apparent. Associates desire engagement and support through training programs that are not only modern but also easily accessible in a digital age. Upskilling with user-friendly, efficient tools will empower employees to receive the feedback and growth opportunities they seek while making a meaningful impact.

Imagine the possibilities of a single app or device that enables employees to seamlessly switch between tasks, receive real-time guidance, and effectively manage their responsibilities.

Tech-empowered employees get more time back for the jobs that really matter, like enhancing the consumer experience. Any associate — no matter age, experience level, or drive — can use tech solutions harnessing simple user interface (UI) for maximum productivity and smart skill building. A unified retailer with unified operations enables simplified, smarter, more connected associates that become the competitive advantage, not the challenge. Embracing this connected approach leads to dramatically improved operational efficiency, increased EBITDA, reduced turnover rates, and — ultimately — happier shoppers.

EBITDA expectations and employee empowerment are inseparable.

Looking ahead, it is crucial for grocers to acknowledge the reality of their stores and adopt a phased approach to technology implementation. Starting small and gradually expanding allows for better adaptation and acceptance among employees. People-first technology investment isn’t just an option for retailers anymore: It’s become what sets them apart from the competition. By simplifying labor for associates, making day-to-day workflows smarter, and connecting systems across the total store, retailers can meet the expectations of the EBITDA-driven landscape while simultaneously securing a loyal and skilled workforce.

The grocery industry continues to face an uphill battle in retaining employees while shouldering the burdens of labor shortages and growing technological complexity. Embracing connected tools and moving towards people-centric practices will prepare retailers for a business and culture transformation. It's time for grocers to work smarter to empower modern associates: The future of grocery hinges on providing employees the right tools in meeting ever-increasing job demands and delivering exceptional customer experiences.  

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