Supermarket workers like me are struggling – here’s why

Georgia reflects on her experiences as a supermarket duty manager during the pandemic

The past year has been crazy to say the least. It has been a year of instability, waiting, loss and frustration. We have all been affected by the consequences of the pandemic in some way and it is a year that none of us will be able to forget in a hurry. I was hired as a temporary member of staff in a popular supermarket chain during the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020. My store is in the city centre and as a result I have been in a unique situation in which I have sat front row, watching the public react to the rollercoaster of lockdowns and social restrictions that we have all had to adapt to.

My store is in the city centre and as a result I have been in a unique situation in which I have sat front row, watching the public react to the rollercoaster of lockdowns and social restrictions that we have all had to adapt to.

Rewind to February 2020 and I was working making drinks in a bubble tea cafe. I always tried to work as many hours as possible to support myself while I studied for my master’s degree. Then March happened, and I was first to lose my job. Panicked, I ignored my essay deadlines and spent days scrolling through Indeed, applying for every job I could find.

I was starting to get desperate. It was becoming increasingly likely that I might have to move back home as I had no income and no way of paying my rent. Then, luck struck. My phone rang and I was told by a tired sounding man to put my coat on and to get myself down to his supermarket for an induction. Thrilled, I bounded out of my front door excitedly texting everyone I knew: “I HAVE A JOB!”. When I arrived, my new manager told me in an exhausted tone that he had received over 1000 applications for only five roles he had available. This is unsurprising. According to the House of Commons Library (2020) the unemployment rate has increased to 14.3% from 12.1% from the period of March 2020 to February 2021. I listened in awe as I was told that I only got the call because he refreshed his webpage and my name happened to be at the top of the list.

My joy on that first day quickly turned to dread. Over the next few shifts, I began to realise the true reality of customer service at the peak of a pandemic. Now, before I continue by complaining about my job, I would like to emphasise that I know that I am extremely fortunate to even have had a job during this time. Between the period of March 2020 to February 2021, 249,000 more young people have become economically inactive, an increase of 10% (House of Commons Library 2021). Armed with this sense of gratitude, I grafted hard in my shop and was eventually promoted to duty manager. As a manager in a busy city centre supermarket, I was expected to tackle troublesome customers, whilst ensuring the shelves are full, my staff were happy and COVID-safe measures were being followed by all.

What struck me when I began the job last March was the level of panic buying I witnessed. We all saw the pictures on social media of stuffed trolleys and empty shelves, but to see it first-hand was something else. The shop was full of anxiety and stacks and stacks of loo roll vanished. Customers were frantic and my team were going above and beyond to get stock on the shelves to cater to the panicked needs of the public. We were anxious too. We also didn’t know what was going on, but we had to somehow know what to say to an angry customer who was demanding that we let him buy his fifth packet of pasta that day.

What struck me when I began the job last March was the level of panic buying I witnessed. We all saw the pictures on social media of stuffed trolleys and empty shelves, but to see it first-hand was something else.

I studied anthropology at university and I have joked to my friends over the past year that I was learning more about the nature of humans by working behind a checkout than I ever did in my four years of studying people. Visiting the supermarket is essential for all of us who aren’t lucky enough to land a delivery slot and we have all dragged ourselves to the shop when we are not feeling our best. There is something sobering about serving a customer that is obviously feeling defeated by the current state of the world. It is easy to see the sadness in people’s eyes as they pass me their basket and it is upsetting to hear so many people sigh when I ask them how they are doing.

One bright side of this show of collective humanity is that I have developed friendships with customers spanning from my own age to those the same age as my grandparents. I have been confided in and I have even loaned money to customers that I know are struggling. These people’s lives have touched my heart and I have retained some faith in the nature of people by observing the small acts of kindness that are occasionally shared between complete strangers.

I studied anthropology at university and I have joked to my friends over the past year that I was learning more about the nature of humans by working behind a checkout than I ever did in my four years of studying people.

Although many customers are friendly, just as many are not. As stated, we cannot always be the best versions of ourselves when entering public spaces such as supermarkets and that’s okay! However, to be screamed at and sworn at for running out of eggs is not what I signed up for. There is something about working in a customer service role that invites people to treat you as if you are a robot that is programmed primarily to pack shopping bags. One tip to any aspiring checkout operator: never, EVER pack a customer’s bananas at the bottom of their bag, even if you are just trying to be helpful. You may risk being called an idiot (take it from experience).

I have been spat at, I have been harassed by men for my number and I have been called a plethora of degrading names – all by customers. I have been laughed at when I shared that I lost somebody to COVID and I am laughed at every single day by customers who refuse to put on a face mask when I ask them to.

No matter how grateful I am for the stability and the routine that my job provides for me, I come home saddened after seeing the way that my fellow colleagues have been spoken to. The customers that take the time to make eye contact and to say thank you when you assist them are sadly not the ones that stay cemented in your mind for the next few days.

So, next time you go to the shop to buy your essentials, please be patient with us. If you can manage a smile it will make our day and if you ask us how we are doing we will probably tell you that we would rather be somewhere else – but we will watch you walk away with fondness in our hearts. Oh, and please just wear a damn face mask.

What have your experiences of the supermarket been like over the last year? Let us know in the comments.

Illustration by Georgia Embling

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