The lives behind the stocked shelves: being a customer assistant in a global pandemic

Over the last year many lives and jobs were put on hold to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The UK was told to work from home when possible and to only go out for essential items. However, some jobs cannot be done from home, jobs such as a customer service assistant.

A supermarket worker. Image by Tesco.

Up and down the country supermarkets have remained open for the entirety of the pandemic. This is so that essential items were at people’s fingertips. Though they were open there were precautions in place to protect the workers who were putting their lives and health on the line.

Some rules that were put in place were: Masks in stores, two metres apart rule, barriers around all tills, limited number of customers in store and no cash was to be used where possible.

Many customer service assistants found the new adjustments difficult. Bekkie Blackburn is a customer assistant at Lidl in Leeds. She said:“I’ve been working for Lidl for a few years now and honestly I’ve never seen such a change in customer behaviour and patience..

“The hours are long as we had to reduce the number of staff on each shift, and it has just been mentally and physically draining.”

Customers during this time have been described as short-tempered and argumentative, owing to the increased frustration as the rules continued to be in place for longer than the UK public anticipated.

As the customers’ frustrations rose so did the frustration of the customer service assistants. Being in the public constantly and having to remain cool, calm and collected influenced the mental health of those working long hours on a daily basis.

“The hours are long as we had to reduce the number of staff on each shift, and it has just been mentally and physically draining”.

Bekkie blackburn

 With the rise in panic buying at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 there was an increased need for shelf stocking and inventory. Customers were buying toilet roll, eggs, flour, and other essential items in bulk.

According to Blacktower Financial Marketing Group, there are 27.9 million households in the UK, it was found that each was spending £13 more each week at the supermarket totalling £361.4 million more overall each week.

This meant customer service assistants were working harder and faster to keep up with the demand of the customers, which at the end of the day is the most important factor in the job, catering to the needs of those who shop in the supermarkets regularly.

For those who have worked in the retail service industry for an extended period such as Keiron Elliot, a store assistant at Home Bargains in Salford, their opinion of attending work has also changed.

Image from Home Bargains

Keiron Elliot, described going to work previously as enjoyable and a part of the week where he did not have to focus on University or what was going on in his personal life. Since the UK went into its first national lockdown Keiron’s opinion changed.

He said: “It’s day in and day out, you go in, do the job and leave”.

This makes the job sound very mundane and unenthusiastic.

Keiron has numerous friends at Home Bargains. Now due to the restrictions his job is on the line if he is even within two meters for longer than two minutes with another store colleague.

For many customer service assistants work is the only time they get to see many of their work friends, and with the rules in place, even that has been taken away.

Keiron himself even believes the pandemic rules and regulations have changed him.  “I’m normally quite laid back, but it has got more stressful. I sanitise and wash my hands so much more now than recommended”.

The pandemic has been difficult for many of the frontline workers in the UK – the stress, the exhaustion, and the constant exposure to the virus.

Customer service assistants have worked hard to ensure every customer experience in the supermarket – one of the only places many dare to go– is one they are satisfied with and they all leave happy with the essential items they came for. No matter how hard the last year has been, the customer always comes first.

What do you think?