Every Little Helps – Isabel Hawksworth

Since the panic buying of early March has relaxed – when Britons spent a whopping 60 million extra in supermarkets – shelves are back to being stocked and you can even get pasta and tinned tomatoes again. But what’s the current reality of supermarket essential services? How have things adapted and what’s it like working in a UK supermarket right now? Isabel Hawksworth gives you the lowdown…

When I first started a temporary picker job at Tesco at the end of March, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Part of me pictured a rain cloud of sadness hanging over the heads of staff whilst customers fought over the last packet of toilet roll. But in reality, there’s a real spirit among frontline supermarket workers. Our trade-mark Sheffield banter is heart-warming and there’s hope among us all.

If you overheard our conversations, you wouldn’t exactly think we are in the middle of a pandemic. We’re not spending our breaks updating on the news or discussing what Boris will announce next. In truth, we talk about our lives outside of lockdown, what we saw on Netflix last night, the weird guy who comes in on a Tuesday. Chitchat you’d expect. You’ve got to hand it to us for being mostly cheerful. Some of us start as early as 2am!

One of the lovely things about being in it together is that we’ve all formed unlikely friendships with people we’d probably never have talked to otherwise. Nobody can say working in a supermarket isn’t a form of education. We’re all walks of life and all ages. From people like me, fresh out of school and studying at college, to uni students (still trying to figure out what they want to do), to mums and dads providing for their kids. There are even grandparents too. We’re all in the same boat, so age, gender, life experience, everything else, doesn’t matter.

One of the lovely things about being in it together is that we’ve all formed unlikely friendships with people who we’d probably never have talked to otherwise. Nobody can say working in a supermarket isn’t a form of education. We’re all walks of life and all ages.

Many of us new staff have similar stories as to why we’re here. Some, like me, have lost our job completely, and need a source of income (I was furloughed from my part-time job at a shoe shop). Others have come home from university and it’s something for their CVs. Many of us also knew we’d be bored in lockdown and needed a reason to get out of the house. We appreciate having something to occupy us. I guess the odd thing is, none of us would’ve pictured we’d be here working at Tesco this spring not so long ago, but here we are.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect and like anyone working a high-alert, unglamorous job, we need our gossip time together, or to have a moan about who’s not turned up, or how many hours sleep we’ve had. We bond over free Krispy Kreme doughnuts at 7am. It’s like nothing else matters and we’re keeping things moving in this strange lockdown world.

We bond over free Krispy Kreme doughnuts at 7am. It’s like nothing else matters and we’re keeping things moving in this strange lockdown world.

And to deal with customers who are occasionally rude and feeling the pressure of lockdown (and sometimes take it out on us!), we laugh about how they tell us, we’re ‘in their way’, even though they know we have a job to do. We wave to each other across the aisles or bag a quick catchup next to the bread section when we happen to be picking the same items.

By picking, I mean my job preparing orders for delivery. My day starts at 5am. By 6am I’m on the shop floor with my trolly and scanner-picking items for everyone’s food deliveries. I do around a dozen trolly orders per six-hour shift. I scan an item, put it in the correct crate, scan the crate and keep going. It’s a simple and repetitive process, but right now, in this pandemic, it’s weird to think, it’s more than a useful convenience, it’s actually a really important job that needs to be done.

It’s a simple and repetitive process, but right now, in this pandemic, it’s weird to think, it’s more than a useful convenience, it’s actually a really important job that needs to be done.

At the start of the pandemic, UK supermarkets released 2.1 million delivery slots to cater for the ongoing demand, but they’ve been forced to rise up to 3 million. I’m one of the clogs that helps that wheel turn. Unsurprisingly, sometimes it seems like the amount of deliveries are never-ending. Between 2010 and 2016, average online sales in food stores doubled. Who knows, if we could fully meet the demand right now, what would the figure be like?  Standing there under the bright strip lights with so many people’s shopping passing through my (you’ll be pleased to know) gloved hands is surreal.

At 17-years-old, it’s a weird environment to be in. Most of my friends are only just going to bed when I’m getting up for work. Most people don’t understand what it’s like being on this kind of frontline, and certainly not peers my age. It feels so weird to be doing such an important role so early on in my working life.

At 17-years-old, it’s a weird environment to be in. Most of my friends are only just going to bed when I’m getting up for work.

Before I got the job, I didn’t think about how much of a toll it would have on me mentally and physically. The 6am starts four to five days a week are draining. I’m not sleeping properly, and even when I do, I’ve started sleepwalking and talking. In truth, I’m petrified that I’ll catch Covid and then potentially put my family at risk. Even though I know I’m young and careful and I probably won’t catch it, it’s always in the back of my mind that I might. It’s scary for any of us thinking that one minute we could be fine, and the next on a ventilator fighting for our lives. Behind the laughter and banter of keeping our spirits up, we all have the same worries.

My fear of getting ill means I’m scared to get on public transport. Now the buses are even busier. Using a bus was something I never had to think about in my whole life only a few months ago. You could sit in close proximity to whoever without worrying about catching anything. I end up feeling like I’m in a breeding ground for the virus when I’m simply sat on a seat wishing my 15-minute journey would turn into 15-seconds.

Part of me doesn’t feel like I am classed as a key worker. I’m not a nurse or a doctor. I’m not on the frontline in hospitals watching people fight for their lives every single day. When the nation claps at 8pm every Thursday, I’m clapping for everyone working in hospitals and care homes who are dealing with far worse. I’m just a temporary supermarket worker that needed some extra money and experience on my CV.

My heart aches when I see elderly people in the store. Sometimes you can see the fear in their eyes behind their makeshift masks made from an old scarf. They loiter around the front of aisles waiting for other customers to move forwards so they can keep a good distance from everyone around them. You can almost hear what they’re thinking. Like they’d like nothing move than to whizz around the aisles so they can get out and safely home as fast as they can. And let me tell you, it’s sad to see how disappointed they are when we run out of essentials. They might have been planning to make some bread or a cake, and they see there’s no flour.

And let me tell you, it’s sad to see how disappointed they are when we run out of essentials. They might have been planning to make some bread or a cake, and they see there’s no flour.

So, the next time you d a supermarket shop, do spare a thought for other customers, and all of us there to serve you, and take note of what we say. Security guards and supermarket staff need to be listened to and respected. Also, follow the arrows. They’re there for a reason, to help you stay safe and avoid a bottle-neck of people too close together. And remember, we also know how unsafe it feels too. Spare a thought for us who aren’t there just for an hour but for five or more days a week.

As crazy as it sounds, staff are at risk provide you with food so please just be patient with everyone there – the security guard letting people in slowly, the checkout staff making sure everyone’s queuing properly, the shelf stackers and the pickers like me, who might be temporarily in your way, but who are there helping to feed the most vulnerable. Yes, we may not have the 12 pack of Walkers you wanted but some first world problems aren’t there to be stressed over. Remember, we’re working as fast as we can, and some of us have been working since 2am.

Yes, we may not have the 12 pack of Walkers you wanted but some first world problems aren’t there to be stressed over. Remember, we’re working as fast as we can, and some of us have been working since 2am.

And nobody really needs to rush around for anything. In truth, most have all the time in the world at this point in time. Be mindful of how much food you buy too. Yes we can’t stop you from buying numerous amounts to hoard but you need to ask yourselves – do I really need that much flour? The majority of the time, the answer is no. For most people, going to the supermarket at the moment is the most exciting part of their week, so please give us time to sort products so everyone can leave with a smile on their face.

All that said, many people are great to us. It makes our days when we’re acknowledged and thanked, or told to stay safe and have a good day. That makes the job worth it. Nothing is nicer than when a customer leaves a thank you message on their delivery notes to us, it really makes us feel appreciated. And, you know – every little helps!

Isabel Hawksworth

Isabel Hawksworth is a 17-year-old journalism student and retail worker turned key worker during the Coronavirus pandemic. She’s currently studying at The Sheffield College and has plans to study journalism at university next year. Follow her on Twitter @Izzy_Hawksworth

Top trolley photo (modified) courtesy of Jernej Furman