How to Address Labor Shortages in Fresh Departments

Scott Schuette
Former VP of Produce and Floral, Fresh Thyme Market
Scott Schuette
Former VP of Produce and Floral, Fresh Thyme Market

For grocery stores, the pool of qualified staff and new hires has been dwindling for years. Since the start of COVID-19, the problem has only accelerated with bigger labor shortages that continue to impede sales and services levels. Stores are struggling as long-time team members choose early retirement while less experienced ones just aren’t sticking around. Meanwhile, skyrocketing callouts are adding additional pressures on already-overwhelmed workers. Altogether, the culmination of these effects and trends have left grocers scrambling to keep up, making attracting and training qualified employees a key concern.

Since the barometer of grocery store quality belongs to the fresh departments, no organization can afford to be without team member support in the most perishable areas of their business. Produce, meat, seafood, and prepared food department rely on the consistent attendance of experts to keep customers satisfied. When team member callouts occur, a chain reaction of declining product conditions, empty shelves, and poor customer service always follow. All three result in immediate sales decline and a future decline in customer loyalty.

So what realistic solutions can your company apply now to mitigate these labor challenges? Here are some tips and tools that will help turn your fresh departments into a destination for both loyal grocery shoppers and job seekers.

Use technology that builds employee confidence

Technology is at the top of my list for achieving success in the current labor crisis. Don’t be fooled: tools that can enhance your business come in many forms. A robot that cleans the store floor at night without the assistance of humans is an example of an innovation that reduces labor for the entire store. But if you’re wondering what type of technology could truly help your fresh departments, I recommend using an inventory management system that offers intuitive ordering recommendations to help employees–even your newest ones–place more accurate orders.

After three decades testing many different technology options, my favorite example is the Fresh Operating System from Afresh. This system can substantially improve the order writing process, shorten inventory recording time, and right-size product inventory levels, all of which save countless hours of labor both before and after the order arrives. Results from a strong AI-driven solution like the one from Afresh will increase efficiency while reducing human errors and boosting team member confidence. Combining store team expertise with fresh-focused technology is every store’s formula for higher member productivity and most importantly, a stronger member retention rate.

Don’t skip out on training and development

Here’s the perfect recipe for being guaranteed to fail in fresh: throw a new hire an apron and a name tag, then send them to the front line without official hours of training. The store, in turn, also fails due to lost hours used in the hiring process, the administrative process, and the recruitment process. New, and even veteran, team members need constant training, development, and skill refreshing. The days of grocery executives setting aside capital expense funds exclusively for equipment and construction projects are long gone. To capture maximum team member retention, there must be a sizable capital investment made in properly training and developing each of your team members, regardless of tenure.

From the opposite perspective, a well-trained team member who is empowered with retail knowledge will pay back the organization in incremental sales dividends. Prioritizing a robust development program leads to team member confidence, which then stabilizes retention. Your program for fresh teams should include training on tech and processes, product knowledge development, and a focus on customer service skills. Developing team members also has a positive impact on “climbing the company ladder” for many, who quickly realize the value of these programs. With so many tenured fresh managers close to retirement or on the path to burnout, grocery chains really need to make investments that show team members they can build a future at the company.

Create a positive culture with contests and competitions

During my time working in the grocery retail industry, I found that a friendly, competitive atmosphere goes a long way in motivating team members. Humans have always used contests to drive passion, build excitement, and reward the best of the best for their successes. A perfect example of a historical contest that’s become a worldwide tradition would be the Olympics. Does your organization utilize contests to build positive culture, reward team members, and drive sales, all at the same time? If not, it’s time to launch some manufacturer or vendor-sponsored contests that will quickly become a win-win for the retailer and the wholesaler. 

Contests are a fun way for employees to flex their fresh expertise and impress customers with creative merchandising and beautiful produce displays. Whether it’s a contest to increase category sales or reduce food waste, using reports and metrics from data-driven solutions like Afresh to check in on results can help grocery retailers create fun (and fair) competitions that cultivate a great work atmosphere. When it comes down to it, budgeting is always a factor. But the cost of facilitating a friendly competition is marginal compared to the results: employees get a morale boost, your bottom line goes up, and customers enjoy a first-class experience.

In closing, don’t give up! The options are plentiful

Most of the strategies for attracting and keeping fresh team members on the payroll are somewhat conventional, but what if you stepped out of this conventional box? Consider this: beyond pay incentives, are there any other techniques or action steps that can assist your organization in improving labor shortages? From new approaches like daily team member paychecks to in-store childcare options, many retail grocery organizations are also testing non-conventional practices in the attempt to be first on the list of many jobless applicants. Overall, there are many options retailers can pull off the shelf when it comes to being proactive and getting ahead of labor shortages. Doing so will lead to happier team members, stronger customer loyalty, and maximum financial performance.


Scott Schuette is a retail veteran of more than 36 years and was most recently the vice president of produce and floral for Fresh Thyme Market. He has been named Produce Retailer of the Year, Specialty Food Retailer of the Year, and Retail Deli of the Year over the course of his decades of service to the fresh perishable industry.