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Coronavirus: UK supermarkets hire 136,000 staff during pandemic

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·6-min read
female supermarket cashier in medical protective mask working at supermarket. covid-19 spreading outbreak
Photo: Getty

Britain’s seven biggest supermarkets have hired at least 136,000 new staff since the pandemic began, according to analysis by Yahoo Finance UK.

The hiring spree significantly exceeds the 44,000 roles they vowed to create as Britain went into lockdown in March. Not all companies provided up-to-date figures, so recruitment is likely to be have been even higher, though the number of temps still in work now was not available and could be much lower.

Morrisons (MRW.L) recruited more than seven times as many workers as initially planned in March, Asda (WMT) recruited more than four times as many temporary staff and Tesco (TSCO.L) recruited more than twice as many temps. Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) recruited 25,000 workers but did not provide figures in March, however.

The coronavirus has plunged the UK economy into its worst downturn in decades, and unemployment is only expected to get worse as the government’s furlough scheme is wound down.

READ MORE: UK supermarket growth slows as shoppers ‘ease back to normality’

But Britain’s supermarket industry is one of the sectors to have bucked the trend, creating jobs at a rapid rate. The recruitment drive looks set to continue, with Tesco unveiling plans for 16,000 more permanent workers this week and Lidl and Aldi planning to open a new store every week.

Supermarkets have enjoyed record growth in sales during lockdown, with the market expanding at its fastest rate since records began in the 1990s. The sector grew by 16.9% between mid-April and mid-July, according to market research firm Kantar.

Shoppers spent a record £31.6bn ($40bn) in the 12 weeks to 12 July. Frozen food sales jumped by 22%, as Brits stocked their freezers for lockdown and alcohol sales also rocketed.

The biggest UK supermarkets by market share. Chart: Kantar
The biggest UK supermarkets by market share. Chart: Kantar

Growth in the UK grocery market has slowed over the past month, however. The easing of coronavirus restrictions has moved the sector closer to normality and widespread stockpiling has long since subsided. Marks & Spencer announced 7,000 job cuts last week, though food is only one arm of its operations and the cuts affect its shops, management and support centres.

Much of the hiring also reflected the challenges of high staff absence levels as well as growth, with tens of thousands of existing workers shielding.

Yet sales continue to grow with millions of people continuing to work and shield at home. Average spending per trip has dipped below £25 for the first time since March in the past month, but remains well above the £19 average pre-virus spend, according to Kantar.

Yahoo Finance UK has analysed statements by leading supermarket chains to see how staffing has fared, and approached all the supermarkets listed below about recruitment and retention. The most recent data and future plans are included where provided or publicly available.

Tesco: 47,000 temporary workers, 4,000 permanent roles

In March, Tesco (TSCO.L) said it wanted to take on 20,000 temporary workers “to help feed the nation.”

It said in June it ended up hiring 47,000 temporary workers. They were hired not only to meet increased demand, but also to cover for 26,000 vulnerable staff given three months’ paid leave to protect them from COVID-19.

The UK’s biggest supermarket chain then announced this week it will create 16,000 new permanent roles amid growth in its online business since coronavirus lockdowns took hold. The new jobs are on top of 4,000 permanent roles already created since the pandemic began, according to the company.

New roles will include 10,000 pickers — the people who assemble customer orders — and 3,000 delivery drivers. There will be a variety of other roles in stores and distribution centres.

Many roles will be initially offered to temporary workers that joined the company during the pandemic, the supermarket said, with the remaining vacancies opened up to external candidates.

It expects to offer 1,000 young people roles under the government’s Kickstart Scheme.

Morrisons: 25,000 new workers

Morrisons (MRW.L) announced plans in March to hire 3,500 more staff to expand its home delivery service, with about 2,500 pickers and drivers and 1,000 staff in its distribution centres.

But it eventually recruited more than 25,000 new staff in stores, manufacturing, its supply chain, and online and home delivery teams, according to a trading update published in May. It did not specify if roles were temporary or permanent.

It said recruitment reflected efforts to “significantly expand capacity,” but also said it had been dealing with temporary absences of up to 20,000 staff.

Asda: 23,000 temporary staff

Asda’s temp hiring was also far higher than initially planned. It said in March it would hire 5,000 temporary workers, aiming to take on staff from other major firms making cuts.

It eventually hired 23,000 new temporary staff, according to its second-quarter financial results published last week and a spokesperson contacted by Yahoo Finance UK. It also paid for more than 10,000 vulnerable workers to shield on full pay for 12 weeks.

The company has been approached for comment on current temp numbers and how permanent roles have fared.

Lidl: 2,500 temporary staff

People follow social distancing rules while they queue outside a Lidl store in South London as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Queues outside Lidl earlier this year. Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Lidl hired more than 2,500 temporary staff in the UK to help existing teams from March onwards as Britain went into lockdown.

Its drive to lure customers away from the ‘Big Four’ also continued at pace, with new openings continuing.

In July it announced plans to open a store a week over the next six months, creating up to 1,000 new jobs by the end of the year. Earlier this month it then announced fresh details of its expansion plans in London, with plans for 1,400 jobs at 30 new stores in the capital by the end of 2023.

Aldi: 2,800 permanent staff

Aldi launched a recruitment drive for 9,000 new staff members in March, looking for 4,000 permanent staff and 5,000 temps in stores and distribution centres.

It said in July it had created 2,800 new permanent roles, and planned to hire the remaining 1,200 by the end of the year.

With similar expansion plans to rival Lidl, the German supermarket chain said it planned to open around a store a week between July and Christmas.

READ MORE: Stockpiling fuels recruitment drive by UK supermarkets

Sainsbury’s: 25,000 new staff

As Britain went into lockdown in March, Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) mirrored its rivals in ramping up hiring but was unusual in not giving a target for recruitment numbers.

But at the start of July it said it had recruited more than 25,000 staff to work in stores, driving and distribution centres. Its first-quarter trading statement, which included the figure, did not specify if roles had been permanent or temporary and how many staff had been kept on, however.

The Co-op Food: 7,000 temporary workers

The Co-op announced plans to create 5,000 new permanent and temporary roles in stores in March, hoping to hire jobless hospitality workers. The jobs were all filled within seven days, and it ended up hiring more than 7,000 people.

It has also announced new stores in Poole and Harlow, creating more than 30 roles.

Additional reporting by Lucy Harley-McKeown.