Grocers raise pay and boost safeguards for frontline employees

How the changes fit with priorities currently important to public perception.
retail grocery carts

All three major grocery companies have given their front-line employees raises as a response to their work during the COVID-19 crisis, on top of other new safeguards to help ensure their safety.

Loblaw CEO Galen Weston announced on Saturday that the banner has made the decision to temporarily increase compensation for its store and distribution centre workers by approximately 15% retroactive to March 8. That was followed by announcements of a $2 an hour pay increase for staff at Metro, on top of an income replacement plan for employees that couldn’t work due to being in isolation. Sobey’s announced a $50 per week increase for its staff, regardless of the number of hours worked, with those working over 20 hours receiving an additional $2 an hour.

Sobey’s was first out of the gate in announcing another change that grocery banners are adopting for staff: install plexiglass shields to protect cashiers, which has since been adopted by Loblaw, Metro and Rabba Fine Foods.

Other changes that grocery retail – which will likely be deemed allowed to stay open amid announcements from Ontario and Quebec that non-essential businesses would be closed – has implemented in recent days to ensure the health of staff and customers include limiting the amount of people in store at a time, providing markers to ensure people keep a safe distance apart at checkout and opening every other lane to maximize distance.

Loose and bulk items have been eliminated in certain supermarkets with departments like deli and seafood serving only pre-packed products. Shoppers Drug Mart has also removed beauty testers and suspended cosmetic services like makeovers and skincare consultations.

Social Reach Consulting’s Boyd Neil, who also teaches corporate social responsibility and social media strategies at Humber College, is feeling positive about how grocery banners have responded to shopper concerns, specifically when it comes to staff welfare, which has been top of mind for the public as a whole.

“Those who are recognize the importance of managing their reputations are taking some of the right steps,” he says, “and others may not realize that when all of this is over, that the steps they should’ve taken and didn’t, will be noticed.”

The announcements about the steps Loblaw is taking came through direct messages from Weston to members of the PC Optimum loyalty program. The letters adopt a personal and concerned tone to provide frequent updates that not only inform customers of changes that could disrupt their shopping, but reinforce the brand’s safety commitment to customers and employees.

Retroactive pay increases, Neil says, are a good statement of a brand’s commitment to employees. Neil says none of the banners were particularly ahead of the curve when it comes to the announcement, but at least they’re keeping up with the situation, given how quickly COVID-19 is changing.

“I have done a lot of crisis communications in my career,” he says. “In most cases, the events are relatively clear, or they have a time duration that is obvious and manageable. This is not one of those situations. The timeframe is confusing and there are different sources.” He cites as example, discrepancies between what different public health authorities say is the safe distance between people.

“Under the circumstances, the big retailers are moving as fast as they can in decision-making,” Neil says.

Bettina West, an associate professor of marketing at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, says the banners have taken “a socially responsible approach to doing their part,” avoiding things like price hikes and mistreatment of employees that the general public has been quick to jump on. And have communicated and implemented change to operations in pace with fast-moving health advisories, such as setting early mornings as ‘seniors only’ shopping times and making delivery more accessible.

“By waiving the service fees for grocery pickup or delivery and not charging a premium on actual food items, they will hopefully encourage more people to take advantage of this option without having to pay extra for it.”