Communication Engagement
23:32

Episode 10: Resilience in Grocery (Part 2)

We launched The 80 Percent in April with a visit to the grocery store to find out how essential workers were coping during the beginning of the pandemic. Now, four months later, we’re returning to the grocery story to find out how businesses and employees have adapted to their next normal.

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Episode overview:

JD is joined by long-time grocery professionals Harold Lloyd and Evan Parkes. We explore the importance of communication and cross-training to enable operational agility. We highlight the talent retention challenge the industry is now facing. And we discuss how the face mask controversy is impacting the frontline. 

Remember to grab your free tickets for AxoniCom LIVE – the only conference focused on the needs of the frontline. This one-of-a-kind digital experience takes place on September 28th and 29th. These two days are guaranteed to help you prepare your frontline for whatever comes next.

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can build training for your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com.

About the Guest(s)

Harold Lloyd

Industry Executive

Evan Parkes

Principal Learning Strategy Consultant and Grocery Expert, Axonify

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Episode Transcript

Introduction:

You need to make sure your frontline employees are prepared for whatever comes next. So mark your calendar for September 28th and 29th for AxoniCom LIVE. The only conference focused on the needs of the frontline. This one of a kind digital experience will feature renowned keynote speakers, informative education sessions, interactive activities, and industry meetups to help you transform your business through your frontline. Grab free tickets for your whole team at axonify.com/conference.

Introduction:

Episode 10 Resilience in Grocery Part Two recorded on Monday, August 3rd, 2020.

JD Dillon:

We published the very first episode of The 80 Percent on April 20th, 2020. That’s only four months ago, but it feels like it’s been much, much longer.

The world has been changing around us so quickly and it often feels impossible to keep up. We began our series of frontline stories with an industry that has been, in many ways, a barometer for how society has responded to the pandemic. We went to the grocery store.

News Speaker:

They’re the unsung heroes of the Coronavirus crisis. Grocery store workers, restaurant, employees, and delivery people on the frontlines every day, risking their health so people can get the food and products they need to survive.

JD Dillon:

Now, four months later, we’ve returned to the front lines of grocery to see how they’ve adapted their business.

News Speaker:

Some of these stores like some of the grocery stores we’re seeing aren’t shutting down when they have a positive. No, they cleaned around the area where the employee was working. They check the other employees and business goes on.

JD Dillon:

To see what new challenges have arisen.

News Speaker:

You may not be able to find your favorite beer the next time you shop, because the pandemic has led to a nationwide shortage of aluminum cans.

JD Dillon:

To see how well our heroes are maintaining their resilience after being on the frontline of a pandemic for more than four months.

Frontline Employee:

I was never trained to be a police officer. I was never trained to do anything. I put things on shelves. I, I make customers suggestions for dinner. At the end of the day, I wasn’t trained for any of this

JD Dillon:

We’re joined by two lifelong grocery pros. In house expert, Evan Parkes.

Evan Parkes:

Everybody in the world is learning every day. Something new to go along with, you know, avoiding getting sick or keeping people healthy.

JD Dillon:

And longtime industry executive and supermarket specialist, Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd:

I don’t care for the moniker of expert. I consider myself learning more than I do sharing.

JD Dillon:

Let’s make another visit to the grocery store and learn what we can do as professionals and shoppers to help the frontline stay safe and productive.

JD Dillon:

Like every other industry grocers prepared for this kind of disruption.

Harold Lloyd:

Who in God’s name planned for this. Who could have planned for this? Nobody. We’re great at reacting because we’re on a 1.1% net profit margin. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t make them often.

JD Dillon:

However, the very nature of their business seems to have helped them weather the storm more effectively than others.

Evan Parkes:

People in that industry are used to a lot of change. They’re used to outside factors, changing the way that they do their work, whether it be, you know, changes in food safety and food handling. They were always been under government inspections. So they’re used to those changes. And when you talk to people that have been doing this for a long time, they just see this as, this is how it is now.

JD Dillon:

And with people staying home and restaurants closed or at limited capacity, the grocery business has been booming.

Harold Lloyd:

We have actually had increased sales, dramatically increased sales, over the last five and six months. We didn’t wish this on anybody. And we have our share of issues with all the safety and employment concerns, but at least our business isn’t cut in half. And we don’t have 50% capacity restrictions like the poor restaurant operators have.

JD Dillon:

While other industries are still trying to find their next normal, grocery seems to have settled into theirs. At least for now.

Evan Parkes:

It feels a bit calmer now than it did. Then business has slowed down some. The additional work has fallen to be the normal for people. So there’s an adjustment made for the additional cleaning that’s having to be done every day. And that type of a situation for now sort of become the new normal for that group of folks out there.

JD Dillon:

That includes the return of training programs that may have been sidelined due to months of heavy business volume.

Evan Parkes:

It’s come back to start again where they’re doing some level of training. It’s not that hectic onboarding. So I think whatever programs they had in place prior to the start of the pandemic, they’ve been able to at least go back to those activities, assuming that they weren’t done in large groups where they can’t do now with social distancing. They’re doing a better job in that way. We’re not getting those folks that are just completely clueless of what to do on the job. And they’re just trying.

JD Dillon:

So while it’s certainly been a challenge, the consensus appears to be that grocers have done an excellent job weathering the storm.

Harold Lloyd:

I know you’ve been to the store and the shelf was empty and the toilet tissue was out. And I know they didn’t have the Clorox bottle and so on and so forth. It just looks like a busy Friday night, almost every day in your grocery store. We may not have the varieties. You know, we have 44,000 items in our store. 44,000 items in an average grocery store, try to keep track on that. And when one supplier gets shut down because of coronavirus and their plant, maybe out of that brand of peanut butter, but we got three other brands or four other brands. We’ve done a great job, keeping the product on the shelf.

JD Dillon:

But this storm hasn’t subsided. It’s merely changed direction. In April, the focus was on essentials, like stocking paper products and installing plexiglass barriers. Customers celebrated the willingness of grocery associates to report to work despite the risk associated with a virus we didn’t understand. Now that grocers have put systems and resources in place to fight illness, they’re faced with a whole new set of challenges.

Evan Parkes:

The customer base is not as understanding of the shortage of product as they were. When I first started, they were somewhat used to out of stock products and the paper goods and lunch meats and things like that. Now they’re less understanding of it. They don’t realize why, they think that things should be back in the stores. They don’t understand that, you know, the supply chain issues are still existence out there. There’s still a lot more people pulling from grocery stores and there was before. So a lot of customers are getting harder to explain why we don’t have products available for them.

JD Dillon:

And then there’s the issue of masks.

Harold Lloyd:

Five months ago, somebody walks into your store with a mask and you want to call the police. Now they walk in without a mask and you want to call the police. So I would say that would be the biggest change. The control of the flow of people in. Who would have thought we would be at the door, allowing a certain number of people in the store. Versus, oh my gosh, look at the crowd.

Evan Parkes:

Customers complaining about other customers not wearing masks and coming to the employee and wanting them to do something about it. I mean, they’re limited on what they can do anyway, you know, without it becoming a conflict.

JD Dillon:

Grocery associates now have to deal with misinformation and aggression that they simply aren’t prepared for.

Speaker 2:

But we all become punching bags. I have to diffuse when the customer is telling my cashier, it’s your fault that I have to wear this mask. And more like, how is it my cashier’s fault that you are asked to wear a mask? I don’t recall her creating COVID. I don’t recall him creating COVID.

JD Dillon:

And that’s leading grocers to look for new solutions to keep their associates and customers safe.

Harold Lloyd:

I had four retailers last week called me to ask, do I know anyone who specialized in conflict resolution. I said for what? And he said the fights that are in the parking lot. And in first aisle the second aisle the third aisle for customers who get into the store and without a mask on, and then are asked to wear one. This is such pressure to put on a 19 year old grocery clerk. This shouldn’t have to happen. And our poor people, what our industry pays, shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of behavior. But these are really weird times. And some weird things happen in weird times. That pressure on the frontline is real tough.

JD Dillon:

This is especially important for people who just entered grocery, either as a first job or because they lost their position in another field.

Evan Parkes:

The other part of that is they need to figure out how to help the new people, the younger people, people who have not built up that resilience to just keep going through whatever comes at you. To work with them a little bit more than they do and let them know, you know, the reasons why things are being done, what the advantages of doing these things are. So like the why and what they’re getting out of it. They have to work with those newer and younger employees to make them understand why.

JD Dillon:

In many cases, solutions are focused on positive reinforcement and deescalation rather than enforcement.

Evan Parkes:

They’re not trying to enforce it. They don’t want their employees to be the mask police. A lot of times the other customers are complaining to them. Most of the grocers have told their employees. Don’t tell people to wear a mask, try to offer them a mask, remind them that masks are required if it is required. But that’s about the extent of what they’ve been told to do.

JD Dillon:

This is just one example of new challenges the industry has faced. The good news is that grocers haven’t had to solve problems like this in a vacuum. We’ve seen the industry come together to share ideas and innovate more quickly than ever before as a community.

Harold Lloyd:

Day three, I sent an email to all of them. Hey, send me your best idea on how you’re handling this situation. And it was so new then, I expected three or four or five best ideas and I’d send them to my people. I was getting five a day and every three days I would send out to all 200 companies that I am affiliated with the top 10 best ideas in the last two days. 150 best practices created over about a three, four week period. And they were so incredibly creative. Going after the restaurant, employees who are being laid off, helping the restaurants in our local communities by selling their entrees in our frozen food department to help out the community. We were incredible.

JD Dillon:

We’ve seen ideas that were still very new in grocery in January, accelerate in adoption over the past four months. This includes the digitization of the employee experience. From the rapid expansion of click and collect to the use of mobile devices and digital messaging to keep the frontline informed.

Evan Parkes:

A lot of times we hear from them, well, I never heard that happened. Things changed like you work today and you come back in two days and there’s a totally different rule. And nobody likes that when they don’t know that something changed and they’re communicated one thing, but then nobody tells them the next. Communication is a big part. People want to know what the expectation is of them and how they need to do things.

JD Dillon:

Another idea that isn’t exactly new, but it’s very under utilized is cross-training.

Evan Parkes:

I discovered five years ago that not one company in the United States and Canada, not one, has cross-training as a program in writing in their store, offered as a benefit to their associates. Not one. I think it’s one of the most powerful, motivational tools you have available. It is one of the most powerful team building tools we have available. And it was one of the greatest ways for an employee to self develop and make more money, that we have available.

JD Dillon:

Given the dynamic nature of the grocery business, this tactic may become essential moving forward. But to really get value from upskilling your team, cross-training has to be a more consistent part of the employee experience.

Harold Lloyd:

Please develop a cross-training program whereby an employee who’s maybe bored a little bit in produce departments, in their performance review or in some kind of meeting says, you know what? I’ve always wanted to learn the meat department little bit. Is there a way I can go learn the meat department? And you become certified in the meat department. Certified? What does that mean? That means you’re eligible to pitch in when needed to help out when it’s really busy during a pandemic or on a busy Friday night. So that when I pass a test quote, unquote, test, that I have a star added to my name tag, or I have green because I’m already in produce. Now I get to add a red star because now I’m cross-trained in the meat department. And oh, when the employee gets a star added to their name tag, they get 25 cents an hour, 50 cents an hour, more hourly pay, even if they’re not working in that department.

Harold Lloyd:

Why? Because they’re a utility player now. They can handle two, three, four, five departments. So here’s a store manager and here is another pandemic. And we are so short of help on the, in the meat department because we had two people call out, duh, duh, duh. And I look around my store in a matter of minutes and see where the red stars are. And I ask JD, if he’ll mind pitching in tomorrow to work in the meat department because I see a red star on his name tag. JD is thrilled to pitch in he’s excited to get out of the produce department because he’s a little bored. It happens. And he gets to pitch in and be a hero for the store by working in the meat department tomorrow.

Evan Parkes:

So as things get tighter, that becomes much more important. I mean, I think the same thing goes for, if you’re doing the shopping for your click and collect or for your home delivery program. Internally, you have to have everybody in the store pretty much trained to be able to go fulfill orders because you don’t know when they’re coming and you don’t know if the specific person that you trained on it is available when you need them. Everybody needs to know, or a lot of people need to know how to do it.

JD Dillon:

The expansion of click and collect ordering shows just how important ongoing training is within grocery, and really any frontline job, during times of significant change.

Evan Parkes:

There’s is a higher expectation there where, you know, if they can’t find a particular item, there are a lot of cases they’re like texting or even calling a customer directly. This is a completely new thing for a lot of people in grocery. That’s one of the biggest challenges is changing the way they look at it. Well, the customer came in and they just bought what they wanted. And now they’re telling you what they want and you have to do something fulfill it for them and satisfy them at the same time to keep them coming back.

JD Dillon:

Maintaining a focus on the frontline experience is important right now for another reason. Four months ago, the industry was forced to rapidly increase staffing just to deal with the surge in demand. As business levels naturally decline and other industries begin to recover, their staffing levels will also need to go down. But before this happens, they have an opportunity to grow their talent base by retaining the right people.

Harold Lloyd:

An infusion of wonderful help that they got from other industries that maybe previous to this pandemic thought we were beneath them. And maybe when they see the essential nature of our industry, they’ll say, you know what? I love the stability of the grocery store. I love the comradery in the grocery store. I like the variety of things that go on in a grocery store. There’s never a dull moment, it’s ever changing. I get to learn a whole lot of different things, different industries.

Evan Parkes:

The opportunity to be able to get good employees that just came to just try to find a job and relief, that is something that I think good managers should be focused on is keeping them. Making sure they understand that you can make a career in the industry. You can become a manager. Anybody wants to work hard in grocery and put the effort up, there’s opportunities there.

JD Dillon:

We’ve seen just how critical the frontline is to the success of the grocery business and their ability to sustain our communities over the course of this year. To maintain a frontline forward posture and enable continued resilience as the pandemic drags on, grocers may need to let go of a long held business mindset.

Harold Lloyd:

It’s not the customer who’s number one. Which everyone said all their life, “customer’s most important. Customer’s number one.” That’s such crap. The customer is not number one. The employee is number one. The customer is a close second. We’re over 168 hours some of us a week. You can only be there 50, 60 hours. You better hope those employees are feeling like they’re number one and not treated like they’re number two, so to speak. That’s maybe the heart of our problem as an industry, mistreating our employees. Oh, not yelling and screaming at them, but just basically taking them for granted. Our employees aren’t our greatest asset, as everyone has said once in their life. You don’t own them. And don’t you dare act like you do own them. If you do, you take it for granted. “They’re not going anywhere. They’re an asset.” They don’t feel like you’re treating them like a great asset, they can go tomorrow and they typically don’t give you a notice. They just take off. And what do you do? You complain about “millennials don’t want to work anymore. The work ethic is dying.” And I say, look in the mirror, look at your orientation program. Look at your communication skills. Oh my gosh, you don’t do performance reviews, your discipline process in your store is favoritism. The nicest ones get away with murder, the average ones get ignored. Recognition? No, birthday maybe, that’s it. Anniversary? Probably not. They want to be trained properly, oriented properly. They want to be communicated with. They want to communicate up and down the organization. They want to be recognized when they do good. They want to be fairly disciplined when they make a mistake. And then once a year they want to be sat down with and have a light at the end of the tunnel, kind of described to them. What does it look like? Those are the five things employees want from a job more than anything else.

JD Dillon:

This is a crucial moment for the grocery frontline. The workplace has changed. The job is harder than ever. Associates need help if businesses want to keep moving forward.

Evan Parkes:

The level of empathy that managers have to have is different today. If somebody says they’re sick, you have to take their word for it, you can’t argue that.

JD Dillon:

Managers must understand and appreciate frontline motivations and meet them where they are.

Evan Parkes:

They look at their job the same way to make a certain amount of dollars. And they’re in that business, at those level of jobs to meet bills, meet requirements. They’re not thinking about their own personal safety as highly as they are about survival. That level of worker who’s making, you know, somewhere between nine, $10 an hour, they need to make $250 a week or $300 a week, you know, whatever it may be. And that’s that’s top of mind for them. They’re looking for their managers to support them and protect them from the customers who don’t want to wear the mask and putting them in positions where they’re having to be too close to customers. So I think they’re just looking for very basic safety measures. But the primary focus they have is supporting themselves, their families, whatever their needs are.

JD Dillon:

When you take care of the frontline, they will take care of your customers and your business.

Harold Lloyd:

Then I went to go see store number three. Next to it was a store that I wasn’t going to go to. I couldn’t help but see the long line. The only store in five that had a line waiting outside the store, which was a beautifully hand chalk sign, really creatively done. It was a beautiful color. And it said “welcome for your protection and those around you, would you please make sure you have your mask ready to go”. And next to this beautiful sign was a lovely young lady. And she had masks for people who didn’t have one. She had a flyer for the special of the day or something and a really nice expression in her eyes, couldn’t see her mouth because of the mask. And she would welcome people in and every time a customer would exit, she let someone in. And I went up to the young lady and I said, how long is this line? Cause I wanted to go in. And she said, it was about 12, 13 minutes. She knew exactly the length of time. And I thought, wow. I mean, she didn’t just say, well, it’d be a little while or not too long. She knew how many people, how long it would take. And as I walked away, I saw on the ground right next to all the people who were waiting in line, a hopscotch grid. And I thought, oh my God. From the welcoming, warm, friendly, colorful sign to the lovely person, welcoming people in, to the hopscotch grid they had drawn on the sidewalk next to the people. You’re waiting in line 12 minutes to go buy groceries and you’re smiling and you’re feeling good. That’s experiential.

JD Dillon:

It’s not just up to grocers to take care of the frontline. It’s up to all of us. We have to remember that the frontline was there for us in our time of need.

Evan Parkes:

When this first started in the first few months, people were showing a lot of appreciation towards that frontline worker. And I think that’s moved away from the spotlight now. And people are back to “well they’re just there to take care of me”. They risk their life every time they go out there, they don’t have the opportunity to stay home so just be nice to them, give them a smile, be understanding, wear your mask.

JD Dillon:

And we will need the frontline to be there for us. Moving forward.

Frontline Employee:

If you want us to be there at six days a week, over 48 hours a week, take care of us. Take care of yourselves as well.

Frontline Employee:

We are here working our butts off. We’re missing our family time. So you can have food on your table. And all we ask is just protect us too. For 20 minutes while you’re in there, that’s it.

JD Dillon:

Four months ago, we launched The 80 Percent to highlight the frontline story and share proven practices you can apply to support your own frontline teams. And we will continue to tell this story because the frontline needs and deserves our help, because they will always be essential.

Harold Lloyd:

And that brings up one of the brightest spots in this whole pandemic, was for the world to classify my people, the 80 percent as essential workers. That made my heart swell. I was so proud. Every commercial, every show, everything you see, they make fun of us. Our grocery workers. Now they call us essential, putting us in a class with the doctors and the nurses and firemen and police. I mean, that is special. When your orientation program with your employees, you are using that term over and over again. We’re not grocery clerks. We’re essential workers.

JD Dillon:

Thank you to Harold Lloyd and Evan Parkes for sharing their practical insights into the frontline grocery experience. More insights and educational opportunities from supermarket specialist Harold Lloyd are available in the show notes. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to hear more frontline forward stories, subscribe to The 80 Percent on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for another story about how companies are helping frontline employees make a difference in their organizations and communities. Until then, be kind to the frontline. And wear your mask.

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