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‘A weird booming noise everyone is afraid of’: the impact of fast grocery delivery on supermarket workers

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Online grocery shopping has boomed since the start of the pandemic in 2020, with Woolworths and Coles steadily expanding their home delivery offerings. Fast delivery is the latest frontier.

Woolworths and Coles Express have been offering on-demand deliveries through UberEats and Doordash since last year. Woolworths recently launched the Metro60 app that promises home delivery within an hour to select suburbs.

These arrangements have received little fanfare, but nevertheless indicate a significant shift for supermarket employees.

As part of ongoing research, I am studying how the gig economy is changing working conditions in traditional work. To find out how interacting with delivery platforms affects supermarket employees, I interviewed 16 experienced ‘personal shoppers’ at Woolworths and Coles who fill delivery orders from supermarket shelves.

The work of on-demand shopping

In supermarkets that offer on-demand home delivery, the work of the personal shopper is faster. For example, for Woolworths employees, an UberEats order can come in at any time, triggering an alarm until the order is accepted and picking begins. As a personal shopper explains:

We get a weird thumping noise that everyone is afraid of. You have to pick up that order within half an hour or within the hour … it can arrive at any moment. So if you’re having lunch for an hour, you should do it anyway because you’ve got that KPI.

All (scanner) pistols in the store drop that sound. It reverberates through the store. The customers can’t hear it because they don’t know what it is. But we all know what it is.

Delivering urgent orders to couriers from gig economy platforms such as DoorDash and UberEats has a significant impact on supermarket workers. DoorDash

The on-demand orders must be prioritized next to existing orders, forcing the personal shopper to juggle competing time pressures simultaneously.

It’s urgent, and they just come out of nowhere. So you really don’t know when they’re coming until they’re there. It’s super busy. I really hate them.

Enter the gig worker

Once the order is picked in the supermarket aisles, the employee hands it to a gig employee for home delivery. Grocery store workers say their interactions are brief and often impersonal.

It’s a complete mess. You have no idea who’s coming to pick up these things. And it’s just people showing up with their headphones to show you that they have this order on their phone. There is no real rhyme or reason for it.

To supermarket workers, handymen are not colleagues or customers, yet they play an essential role in home delivery and customer service.

However, if something goes wrong, such as a missing bag or broken eggs, it’s the supermarket employees who handle those complaints. Likewise, when personal shoppers are behind schedule, it has punitive effects on gig workers.

The on-demand model, intentionally or otherwise, can pit two groups of employees against each other, causing frustration on both sides.

Usually they are pretty good. They’re going to work on it. It’s just those bad times where we might be behind and then they don’t handle it well.

A new work regime

At first glance, the partnerships between supermarkets and gig economy platforms seem like the supermarket is outsourcing the delivery work.

But this is a simplification: In effect, the traditional companies are bringing the precarious and on-demand labor of the gig workers into their own company and making it legitimate through formal partnerships.

The ‘dedicated team’ behind Woolworth’s Metro60 app is made up of traditionally hired staff and gig workers. Woolworths

How do supermarket employees view on-demand groceries?

Most personal shoppers I spoke to are ambivalent or wary of the growing on-demand services.

The people I work with either love it or hate it. They like it because it is different, you are never bored and you always have something to do. But that’s why other people hate it. Because you don’t get a chance to stand for a while, you always have to do something.

Some enjoy the fast pace and express their satisfaction with achieving goals and satisfying the customer.

We are all now at the point where we are attuned, we hear the bell, we know what actions to take. So it happens almost autonomously. And before you know it, another one comes along and you just keep going.

Others expressed concerns about burnout, unpredictable work pressure and an increasing work pace.

It is clearly a very demanding job with high speed. That’s probably the biggest frustration. We also have pick rates, essentially like Amazon where we’re told this is how many items we should take on average per hour… and often people can’t hit the average.

Employees who have been in the position for more than a decade have seen the pace of work accelerate significantly during their tenure and are more critical.

You are not a person when you walk in the door, you are a machine.

Some expressed broader concerns about the possibility of their role being completely taken over by the gig economy. In the words of one shopper:

I was a little stunned when the whole DoorDashing started because it’s like, oh no, the gig economy is getting closer and closer. Gig stuff always… makes me uncomfortable… It’s all this very long term ploy to destroy an existing industry or place, or eliminate worker protections.

Another expressed a similar sentiment:

My biggest concern is that they are going to outsource the actual shopping process. I think that would be the next logical step, similar to what America has with Instacart.

Supermarket jobs of the future

All of the personal shoppers I spoke to took pride in their work and their in-depth knowledge of the grocery store and the local community. How the role continues to evolve through partnerships with the gig economy is not inevitable, but a matter of choice.The conversation

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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