Photo: Foodstuffs
Photo: Foodstuffs

FoodJuly 24, 2019

Tech is taking over retail, which is why investing in humans is crucial

Photo: Foodstuffs
Photo: Foodstuffs

At the same time as supermarkets adapt to increasing demand for online shopping, some supermarkets are investing in the development of their people. Alice Webb-Liddall finds out why humans still count. 

Online supermarket shopping and Click & Collect services aim to make the sometimes lengthy and totally necessary task of grocery shopping easier for everyone. Those with screaming children probably praise the grocery gods for inventing the online system, but whether it’s the butcher advising you on the best cut for your casserole or the checkout assistant complimenting your jacket, there’s no equivalent to friendly service from a real human being.

In an age when online stores can be accessed from people’s pockets, brands are investing in their employees to make sure the human face of their company is being looked after. Why? Because they know people provide a service tech never can. Supermarkets like PAK’nSAVE and New World are upskilling their staff in areas that future technology can’t reach, while also embracing technology to create the best possible consumer experience for everyone.

Foodstuffs, the parent company of PAK’nSAVE, New World and Four Square, has redeveloped its systems to help employees grow and learn in the technological age, at the same time as it delivers customers increased convenience. While the company is constantly developing its online shopping tools, there’s also a growing number of training and apprenticeship services to help its employees move into higher-skilled positions.

The increasing role of technology has created significant uncertainty for the industry’s workforce. After the government commissioned a study on the future of work earlier this year, minister of finance Grant Robertson said tech’s disruption of the workplace was “one of the most significant areas the government needs to work on.” A PwC report from 2018 estimated that by the 2030s, around 24% of jobs in New Zealand could be threatened by technology. 

Foodstuffs brands offer butchery and bakery apprenticeships to staff who want to upskill. Photo: Foodstuffs

Foodstuffs acknowledge it has not been as fast to embrace the online shift as it could have been. Wendy Hammonds, its GM of people and capability, says that when she started at Foodstuffs in 2016, she was aware of their slow uptake of digital resources and was “impatient” for online shopping to be up and running. 

Hammonds and her team have been closely involved in the rollout of Click & Collect across New World and PAK’nSAVE stores, a service that is now available across the North Island. The platform has been an important addition to the brand, bringing Foodstuffs into an online space that some of its competitors had previously dominated.

But as the business moves towards online operations, Hammonds says the focus is on ensuring employees are equipped with the skills necessary to adapt their roles. She says it’s important that Foodstuffs continues to upskill its people in work that is specialised and at less risk of being swallowed by technology. 

These initiatives include opportunities to earn NCEA credits for employees still finishing high school, and higher-level training and qualifications through apprenticeships and leadership programmes. “You can either broaden your skillset and work your way around the store, or you can choose to deepen your skillset,” says Hammonds. 

“We also work with school gateway programmes and help students move from school to work. From there, we introduce them to things like butchery and bakery apprenticeships.”

That investment in staff development is about building a culture where Foodstuffs employees see long term careers with the company. 

“Developing our people is something we have a very rich history in, not least because we’re a co-operative and we have that opportunity to become an owner-operator if you do truly rise to the top.”

Thankfully the apocalyptic cries of “the robots are coming” fail to recognise the essential humanity of many jobs. Dr Geoff Plimmer from Victoria University of Wellington says upskilling and staying aware of your surroundings is crucial for employees to ensure they can adapt to the impacts technology will have on their jobs. However, he says, many reports overstate the immediate threat. 

“[The forecasts] predicting real doom often look at one component of the job being automated and make out that the whole job will go. Parts of it will be automated, and parts of it will probably grow. I think some of the forecast changes have been exaggerated and some of them have been predicted to happen faster than they will.”

Foodstuffs makes sure they’re staying on top of social trends, too. Photo: Foodstuffs.

But it’s important that while we’re not exaggerating the implications of technological advancement, we’re also not underestimating the changes that it could bring. In 2018 the government set up the Tripartite Future of Work Forum to support businesses and employees to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing work environment. This partnership between the government, Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions has four themes, all centred around the development of businesses and infrastructure to enable New Zealand to cope with fast-developing technological changes.

One of these themes is centred around training, making sure employees and businesses are equipped to engage in economic change. This is a challenge for the relatively high turnover supermarket industry. But Foodstuffs head of people and capability, Brendon Husband, believes by investing in staff and their careers, they’re going to increase staff retention rates. 

“As long as you’re focusing on the right things you don’t need to be too worried about the fact that someone is using the job as a stepping stone. I have no issue if someone says ‘I’m just here for a year’ because you develop them, you train them and then one year turns into two.”

Foodstuffs believes there will always be a need for human faces in retail and understands the need to invest in their people as much as in technological developments. Husband says that ensuring employees are well treated triggers positive change throughout the company.

“If the customer experience is tracking one way then the employee experience is moving the same way. If you lift the employee experience you see that the customer experience also lifts.” 

Plimmer agrees that the retail sector will always need people. He says the selling point for many businesses is their customer service and the relationships that customers have with the people in the uniforms. 

“In shops, some people are buying more than just the object – they go there for the social experience, it’s a recreational activity and in a sense an identity-building one too.”

He says while some people will prefer the convenience of online shopping, that’s not the case for everyone. “For some people, retail is recreational, and those people will choose to interact with people over machines, even if that capability is introduced.”

There is a perspective problem that plagues the retail industry, a stigma which Hammonds and Husband say paints supermarket work in a negative light. 

“The number of teachers who say ‘you need to apply yourself or you might end up working in a supermarket’… then you look at the owner-operators that we have, and why should they be ashamed? There’s an interesting stigma around supermarkets that doesn’t really apply in a co-operative model,” says Hammonds.

The future of work in the retail sector relies on these perceptions changing, and workers finding pride in the industry. For many Foodstuffs employees, this happens on the job, and the company is making sure they’re there to offer support and training to anyone who wants to learn while they’re working. Plimmer says inspiring employees to embrace change is the only way to tackle the upheaval predicted for the industry in the next few years.

“Organisations are having to change now in terms of working out how to make an environment with good interpersonal skills and identity and loyalty to the organisation.” 

Technology is constantly changing the way people do their jobs, and has been for decades. From parking ticket machines replacing wardens to email replacing postal services, it’s not a new concept. The future of work from this point on can’t be predicted, but upskilling employees prepares them to face multiple possibilities, and make the transition into the future as smooth as possible.

This content was created in paid partnership with Foodstuffs. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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