Are there staff issues in health food retailing?

We talk to retailers about how the pandemic and Brexit have affected the sector's staffing levels

Even as lockdown restrictions began to lift back in May, warnings abounded that there would be staff shortages especially in retail.

Rapid growth in consumer spending combined with a sharp decline in the numbers of EU workers left many retailers short-handed. Finding staff to fill the gaps has not been easy with many would-be employees expecting higher wages and improved conditions.

On top of that, retailing has changed. There is now a stronger emphasis on the 'customer experience' coupled with online sales and social media marketing that add tasks, time and complexity to retailers' processes.

“This means added pressure on a less experienced frontline workforce that is already stretched thin and being asked to do more with fewer resources,” says Jon Duke, Research Vice President at IDC Retail Insights.

“But even beyond these challenges, the financial pressures facing retailers are mounting. Increasing labour and product costs create added margin pressure. Retailers in essential segments that largely saw growth in demand [during lockdown] also felt the added constraints of operational health and safety procedures.”

In other words, for the essential retailers such as health stores that had remained open, there were increased operational costs alongside the likelihood of increased revenue.

Then came the ‘pingdemic', hopefully no longer an issue but which saw a worrying lack of retail staff during the summer with thousands of shop workers forced into self-isolation. Add to that the pain of supply chain issues and product shortages.

Not only is the crisis threatening individual businesses and vulnerable communities who rely on the essential stock of local stores, but it is hampering the post-pandemic recovery of retail and hospitality at a crucial moment for the UK's economy.

Not all bad news

The UK's health food stores are nothing if not resilient. And they have a distinct advantage in that many staff have chosen this career course out of a passion for natural health and many are thoroughly well trained, not only via courses run by suppliers and the Health Food Institute, but also by passionate owners and managers.

By and large, they are loyal.

But that doesn't mean health stores are unaffected by staff shortages as our article by Mel Beard of Best Health Food Shop in this section demonstrates. But when we asked a selection of retailers about their experiences during the summer, most have maintained a reasonable level of staffing although recruiting the right people has become more difficult.

For example, Julie Goodwin, owner of Natural Health at Hertford and Welwyn Garden City, says: “We have had problems recruiting suitable staff for the shop. Before the pandemic and Brexit, we always had lots of people giving us their CVs on the off chance we had vacancies. But since the pandemic, we have found it increasingly difficult to find the right staff who will work the hours we require.

“During lockdown, we looked at our business model and realised that we had quite a few staff that worked the hours and shops they wanted rather than what the business required. This was a big learning curve for us and now we are more focused on looking for the right people for the job. This of course, has led to less people being suitable for our positions.”

Changing working patterns

Wayne Godden of Moorey's Health Stores in Lancashire, which also owns one of the longest-standing online vitamin stores, Vits4You.com, reacted to lockdown by operating reduced staffing levels on a day-to-day basis, working in team bubbles. This tactic prevented any of the stores having to close if a staff member was ‘pinged'.

“We also took advantage of the furlough scheme as we feel income against expenditure may be tight this winter, so having a 'war chest' should help,” says Wayne.

Moorey's been unaffected by any staff financial expectations: “I think all my staff have realised we are doing everything possible to keep the stores open and their jobs safe.”

A further change that has evolved during the pandemic is that the stores have been closing earlier than usual to allow time to pack mail orders.

Further south, Wild Oats in Bristol weathered the self-isolation issues despite the temporary absence of some assistants. “We have managed to stay open throughout, albeit on occasionally reduced hours,” says Director Tim Scarfe. “The biggest struggle has been with staff who live in house shares.

“With regard to the supply chain, as we deal with a vast majority of local suppliers, we again have been fortunate, however they too are experiencing the same issues around self-isolating, therefore there are periods where we are short on stock. The same applies for the larger companies who deliver to us.”

Cutting through the hype

John Frisby, owner at Food For Living in Dartford and Sidcup, has experienced no staff issues.

“My staff have been wonderful over the whole period,” he says. “I didn't need to adjust staffing levels but they did enjoy some shorter working days during the lockdowns as we closed 1½ hours earlier with trade tailing off dramatically at the end of the day. They received full pay despite the shorter days.

“Brexit has not affected us staff-wise. Our collective general feeling about Covid is that it has been blown out of all proportion for reasons we can't understand. I have been very fortunate in that none of my staff have been affected by Covid and have not been caught up in the general media hysteria.”

Food For Living staff all received a ‘substantial' Christmas bonus to thank them for keeping everything running smoothly in a year which was made more profitable by government grants and rates relief.

The value of both staff and customer loyalty

Grampian Health Store in Aberdeen has thus far escaped any staffing issues, either from the shortage of overseas workers or self-isolation.

Throughout the pandemic, staff have committed to attending work in-store and have been ‘very flexible' when required, says owner Callum Eddie.

However, he remains cautious. “Perhaps in the future if a shortage of staff continues to hit the retail sector, then that might have a knock-on effect regarding wages,” he says. “For ourselves, wages are by far our highest overhead and we are constantly monitoring staff hours worked to try to stay within budget.”

As far as the supply chain is concerned, things are improving.

“However, certain suppliers are more efficient than others regarding deliveries - in the main 24hrs from ordering to receiving is still being achieved in most cases. Out of stocks is improving and presently not causing major issues.

“Customers are more price conscious in general and our reward card offer of £5 off when £100 spend is accumulated is popular with customers who have signed up both instore and online.”

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