Finance Consumer Supermarkets ease buying restrictions as excess workers drop off

Supermarkets ease buying restrictions as excess workers drop off

Supermarket restrictions
Coles and Woolworths hired more than 30,000 casual workers to meet unprecedented demand. Now, they're no longer needed. Photo: TND
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As supermarkets grapple with balancing panic-buying and an oversupply of slim margin inventory, product price drops will start to pop up on shelves.

But bargains won’t come without casualties.

Coles and Woolworths have lifted most, if not all, buying limits on “essential” items, signalling the first steps to a return to normal for supermarkets as we know them.

The other signal is that 32,000 casual workers who were brought on to carry the avalanche of demand brought on by the pandemic have begun to have their hours cut in response to grocery demand levelling out.

It wasn’t as though we didn’t see it coming, senior marketing lecturer and retail expert Louise Grimmer said.

From mid-March, supermarkets experienced panic-buying like Australia has never seen before – namely toilet paper, hand sanitiser and non-perishable foods – forcing them to introduce purchase limits while also reconfiguring their whole supply chain away from the “just in time” inventory model.

This meant employing thousands more staff as cleaners and stockers, manage social distancing in store and uphold extreme hygiene standards.

Many of the workers came from the first wave of industry casualties such as airline staff, hospitality workers, artists and freelancers.

“Clearly big retailers that took on extra staff at the height of the pandemic were always going to have to return to ‘normal programming’ at some stage, but it’s always worrying when we hear about job losses – even if they were only ever temporary positions,” Dr Grimmer, of the University of Tasmania, told The New Daily.

Casual workers have been splashed through headlines in the past week as a standard-setting court case ruled in the favour of workers.

Workers employed casually by supermarkets during the COVID-19 surge will not likely find themselves in situations where they’re able to claim unfair dismissal, employment law and workplace relations expert Andrew Stewart said.

Professor Stewart, from the University of Adelaide, said supermarkets had openly hired workers with no formal guarantees on the working period.

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It will be a while before Australia forgets the great toilet paper shortage that marked the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced to publicly address hoarding issues several times, telling greedy shoppers to “stop it”.

He even had a personal hand in activating Australia’s toilet paper manufacturers to up production levels.

Supermarkets followed promptly in establishing product limits for in-demand items. Those have now all been repealed at Coles.

At Woolworths, limits only remain in place for antibacterial wipes, hand wash and frozen fruit, at a cap of two items per customer.

Non-perishable foods and excess toilet paper are settling in to gather dust in pantries and storage cupboards in home across the country.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have sought extra warehouses to house these bulky goods they bulk ordered.

The cost of storing these items for when the demand returns doesn’t pay off for supermarkets: they’re better to try and offload them as quick as they can.

“In order to shift excess stock we will likely see promotions and discounts on formerly in-demand products,” Dr Grimmer said.

Casualty of a casual workforce

Although casuals are not prescribed any minimum shifts per week, some supermarket staff have seen their shifts slashed with little to no warning, a retail union told TND.

Retail and Fast Food Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan said workers with changing shifts would look to their rosters to see their allocated shifts cut from five to one, with no warning.

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association did not respond to requests from TND, but told Nine news outlets it had received complaints from both long-term casuals and recent hires.

Workers may feel hard done by, but Professor Stewart told TND it was unlikely they would find grounds for unfair dismissal if they had worked casually for their employer for less than six months.

A Woolworths spokesperson said the group was pleased to be able to offer work to 20,000 casuals during the crisis, and said many of the departing workers were returning to their regular jobs as other industries fire back up.

“As trading patterns continue to normalise, we’ll have fewer hours to offer than we did a couple of months ago,” the spokesperson said.

Coles did not respond to media requests before deadline.