I first started doing grocery store pickup at a local mass market retailer during the height of the winter COVID-19 surge. The weather was, well, frightful, and the store employee would often load the items into my trunk while enduring sleet and snow. So, I started offering a cash tip to say thank you.

Twice though, staff have refused the tip, telling me that they are not allowed to accept them. And I always wonder, would their corporate owners turn down $5 out of some sort of integrity to the staff?

If a recent New York Times article is any indication, apparently not.

It’s amazing how much better my life has been since I started doing store pickup. If grocery delivery was an option in my rural area I would happily leap to that next. But it turns out, the staff compiling these orders are being treated like replaceable machines instead of human beings.

As the article “It’s Hard Work to Make Ordering Groceries Online So Easy” highlights, staff who compile the orders, typically called “pickers,” are often penalized for things beyond their control, timed for how long it takes them to grab an item, and tasked with physically exhausting labor.

As the article explains:

“Grocery companies are using tools that promise to map workers’ routes through stores and track their speed and accuracy, bringing metrics typically associated with warehouse jobs into local grocery aisles. Pickers, in turn, find themselves doing work that can be physically taxing, mentally stifling and increasingly guided by automation and technology.

‘The guinea pig for this is warehouse workers,’ said Chris Tilly, a professor and the department chair of Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles, who has studied how technology is changing retail jobs. ‘Warehouses are much more controlled environments — you don’t have customers wandering around the aisles and abandoned carts and so on. But that’s where a lot of these technologies are adapted from.’"

The article includes personal stories from pickers, detailing how awful the job can be, including one from Noell Marion, an employee at Mariano’s, a Kroger-owned grocery chain.

“Ms. Marion, 53, said that as a designated ‘veteran shopper,’ she had 72 seconds for each item.

‘That includes walking the store, getting the item, getting it scanned, getting through checkout and getting it staged and ready for delivery,’ she said, adding, ‘It never took into consideration if you had to stand in line for something if the store was busy.’

Ms. Marion was also penalized when an item was out of stock and the customer did not approve the replacement she selected. If she refunded an item like a 20-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup after a customer refused any other size or brand of ketchup, that also counted against her.

According to data reported in the New York Times article, the demand for store pickup and grocery delivery is only growing.

“In 2020, online grocery sales rose 54 percent to $96 billion, or 7.4 percent of all grocery sales, according to data from eMarketer,” the article said.

So, online grocery shopping isn’t going anywhere.

If you’re a candy manufacturer, it can be easy to feel removed from things like this. But like it or not, this is how many consumers are buying your product these days. As such, it concerns you.

There is a lot of industry focus on the labor conditions at the beginning of the supply chain, with almost daily splashy announcements of corporate initiatives set up to promote “sustainability.”  This is just the other end of that chain. The staff at the store-end are just as vital to your business, and just as much a part of it, as the cocoa farmers are.

Personally, I struggle to understand who is asking grocery stores to treat staff like this. I can’t imagine any consumers wanting employees to get in trouble when they turn down a replacement option. And I would happily pay a premium for an online grocery order if stores would guarantee that pickers weren’t penalized for waiting in the deli line on my behalf.

The New York Times article did touch on what grocery store pickup might look like in the future.

“[Chris Tilly, a professor and the department chair of Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles] anticipated that eventually, grocers would expand facilities designed specifically for online orders.”

I agree that the logical conclusion to all this is basically swapping walk-in grocery store locations for pickup-only warehouses. While I’m cautions about advocating for more automation at the expense of jobs, it sounds like that may be the best-case scenario here. As it stands, grocery stores are treating staff like warehouse workers, while making them navigate the conditions of a crowded grocery store. It’s just not a sustainable formula.

Although it must be said that warehouse workers are human beings too, and they should not be forced to meet unrealistic expectations either. If the grocery model does shift in that direction, the importance of fair working conditions won’t end.

In the meantime, while the industry goes through growing pains, it seems like the least grocery stores could do is “allow” staff to accept cash tips so shoppers can do their part to negate the crummy working conditions they’re dealing with right now.