We owe a debt of thanks to our supermarket superstars


Retail Industry Updates

One amazing aspect of the pandemic is that, even in the worst of times, it has been possible to walk into a supermarket and ask – with a straight face – if they have any organic pumpkin seeds.

We have been deprived of many things, but material goods were not among them. I ordered a laptop stand on December 23 so it will arrive mid January. It was on my doorstep on Christmas Eve. From perfectly ripe avocados to perfectly useless Fitbits, it’s all at your fingertips or just a click away.

But it doesn’t happen by magic. I feel indebted to millions of people in essential but non-professional jobs, who never signed up to be heroes but who make confinement possible: the delivery drivers; warehouse and factory workers; binmen. But I mostly relate to store clerks, having spent time behind a particularly unprofitable Sainsbury’s deli counter.

You see a supermarket very differently if you work there. The store takes on the dynamics of the primary tropical forest. The buyers are simple tourists. But you, whether you’re a salami slicer or a shelf stacker, are more like a native hunter, tuned in to your surroundings. You smell when a pallet of carrots has recently gone through the checkout; the placement of dishonest Müller yogurt in the meat department; the salad at a reduced price in the undergrowth of aisle 8.

I learned life skills: how to fold a cardboard box effortlessly; how to bend the knees slightly to facilitate hours of standing; and how never, ever, to leave customers’ ham orders on the kosher counter.

A customer called me the best Parma ham slicer in North London. It took me a while to realize that meant he was weird, not that I was good. Most of the time, my fingers were covered with blue bandages. My awkwardness culminated when I engaged my thumb a little too close to the deli machines. Imagine removing the top of a boiled egg. The piece of my thumb was never found – I only hope it tasted tasty.

I also remember when a coworker changed the date of an expired brie, only for a gastro-annoyance to show up and complain to his companions: plate. “He bought the batch. I guess the Brie didn’t. wasn’t the only thing that flowed that night.

The supermarket was also my first taste of corporate pride. We were told when we were inducted that our brand new Sainsbury’s would cause the Waitrose 300 yards to close. Twenty years later, the Waitrose is still here.

After a few months, I handed in my invitation to go abroad. To my surprise, my boss literally returned it – telling me to rethink, because I was section management material. I changed my mind later in the week.

Sainsbury’s had staff that lasted a few months and others that lasted a few decades. A man pushed carts in the parking lot in his 90s, having been bored by retirement.

The ability to quit is a big part of what makes jobs tolerable. But low-paid workers have limited options at the best of times. Who can change jobs in the event of a pandemic?

I know some people are happy to be in their workplace, not alone at home. But I imagine a lot of others must wish they didn’t have to be in the store, alongside nervous and sometimes maskless customers. Even after giving my thumb a makeover, I never felt my workplace was unsafe. I worked quite happily in a supermarket at the time. I would like feel very different now.

How many of us working from home would be happy show up for shifts in the workshop? How do we make sure that applauding on Thursday night is the beginning of our appreciation, not the end? A couple tells me that they give chocolate bars to delivery drivers. We should all find ways to thank you – for organic pumpkin seeds and everything in between.

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