Shelf Life 5

After five weeks our anonymous supermarket employee heads for the check-out

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“Look at this!”

“This” was a big pile of Easter eggs that never got sold, and was now in the process of being piled up on the promotion ends and discounted.

“We’re actually risking our lives putting this stuff out, just so that people will come to the store when they don’t need to,” my colleague added.

Well, maybe. Supermarkets will be supermarkets even when they are coping with a major national emergency.

These days I don’t argue with colleagues or even disagree with them. If someone under stress needs to get something off their chest I’m not going to tell them to keep it there. We’ve all got to help each other get through this.

And it’s a real issue. Our company has just under 50,000 people off work. Many of these are in the officially vulnerable category – over 70, pregnant and so on – and have been sent home on full pay. Others are self-isolating because people they live with have symptoms of the virus. And of course others have symptoms of the virus themselves. We’ve not been told how many. But people whose family members are vulnerable but not showing any symptoms are still coming to work at the risk of infecting their loved ones. These are the colleagues most worried about what exactly they will take home with them when their shifts are over.

But I still think she was wrong. As I write this we’re four weeks into a grinding process of social distancing, with no idea when it will end. In this context, anything that helps people endure the process and keep on keeping on counts as necessary. To adapt the old saying: a little of what you fancy helps keep us all alive.

This is about all that I’ve got to say on the subject of retail life in time of pandemic. I hope I’ve given a sense of how strange it all is. But there’s a reason the everyday things shopworkers do are known as “routines”: after a while even the strangeness becomes routine as we settle into the new normal and hope
it’s not too long before the old normal comes back.

And I have to say that the main reason we’re all turning up for work right now is the same reason we always turned up: we need the money. We’re thankful for the danger money premium we get right now, though obviously not thankful for the danger. Not that we’re in that much danger. The company secured large amounts of PPE at the beginning of the crisis and has passed most of it on to the NHS. Its need is greater than ours.

I will say that it’s nice to have suddenly become a “key worker” rather than just a shelf stacker. It’s good to hear all the shout-outs by the DJs on late night radio. It’s pleasing that the Google people gave shopworkers some recognition on their homepage doodle, along with all those famous people you never heard of. It’s nice to be remembered from time to time.

Some other people to remember. The thousands of temporary colleagues and agency people who stepped up to fill the gap when so many of our friends and co-workers had to stay home. The millions of people in non-key worker jobs who have to expose themselves to danger because their companies don’t see why a potentially lethal pandemic should stop them making money. And the people who don’t have any work at all: a recent industry survey of 4,000 people by a retail industry group found that 3 per cent had eaten literally nothing over the past 24 hours.

We still have the food bank bins in store. Pick up a few essential items for them if you can. And why not pick up a few inessential items while you’re at it. I hear Easter eggs are going cheap right now.

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