Christmas means different things to different people. For a variety of reasons, some people love it, some hate it and some ignore it. But, whatever the opinions, there is a huge demand for food and feasting. Supermarkets gear themselves up for a stampede of customers and those customers expect supermarkets to supply everything required and trust them, amongst other things, on food quality. But, as customers, are we too trusting? As truckloads of food are delivered to shops in the peak season, do we have anything to worry about? Let me share a true experience with you.
I had a retail management career for over 35-years, so I think I have the knowledge and credentials to highlight something that might be of interest to the general public. The longest week of my retail life was at Christmas a few years ago. I was managing a food and non-food superstore in the English Midlands. The strategy for this most important season had been set a few months before at a Christmas conference where store managers were reminded of the fact that 40% of the year’s sales depended on the October to December period, peaking in the frenzy of the ten days up to Christmas. We were informed that product availability, especially fresh and frozen food, would be second to none and more than ample to meet demand. This was big business for turkeys, vegetables, hams, meat, pork pies, dips, salads, cheeses and all the rest of it, so to miss out on sales by not getting the supply and distribution chains right would be a disaster for the balance sheet. But what happened in the course of this particular big week leading up to Christmas was challenging, frightening and, in some ways, dangerous.
The buyers had bought enormous quantities of fresh and frozen food. The directors had signed off the plan. The store managers had to manage at best and cope at worst with increased deliveries of pallets and pallets and pallets of food, before more and more pallets arrived. The rules of fresh and frozen food handling dictated that we had to receive the delivery and have it checked and refrigerated within an hour at most, but within twenty minutes was the ideal target. Even Tom Cruise would have found that mission impossible on some heavy days. We found it impossible in stores and I can tell you that huge quantities of fresh and frozen food did not see refrigeration storage for days. Luckily, the weather was on our side. Outside in the warehouse yard, it was bitterly cold, icicles hanging from the roof and snow on the ground. and so, I suppose, by default, we complied with chilled and frozen conditions. But the fact of the matter was that the amount of food sent to us, predetermined by buyers and merchandisers, far outweighed our storage capacity on the premises. What if the weather that week had been mild?
On our daily Christmas conference call, store managers voiced concern about the avalanche of food arriving several times each day. This was a widespread problem. On one of the calls, the Chief Executive of the company brushed our concerns aside and told us that our top priority this Christmas was to maintain availability of all fresh and frozen food products to closing time on Christmas Eve. He seemed unconcerned about the mountains of food being stored in supermarket yards for several days. The general public had no idea. All across the UK, delivery areas of supermarkets were choked full of product that belonged in properly refrigerated storage. We had to manage the situation as best we could and we did, with flying colours, if flying by the seat of our pants was a legitimate way of working. We got away with it because of the freezing weather but it taught me a few lessons about sales pressure and the ability of some senior people in retailing to turn a blind eye to practical problems, preferring to concentrate on the balance sheet above and beyond customer safety and care sometimes.
This happened about ten years ago but I was reminded of retail standards when I was writing about the steep decline of supermarket staff appearance and the emergence of tattoos, face jewellery, lank hair, scruffy stubble and other stuff that would never have been tolerated in the past. Some aspects of supermarkets are inefficient and, at times, downright sloppy, service can be erratic and good manners are a lottery. The next time I’m greeted with “Awright, mate” or an irritating “Do you want a bag, sweetheart?”, I will not be responsible for my actions. There are glorious exceptions, of course. There are some naturally nice, well-mannered, well-groomed retail employees, but not enough of them. However, I digress and leave that aspect for another day. But there is a connection with inconsistent management, cutting corners and evidence that the customer is not always the centre of attention.
On fresh and frozen food handling and storage, I decided to update my knowledge, having seen recently some customers or their children sticking their fingers into salad bar food or rummaging around in unwrapped bread displays. I have witnessed this kind of thing a lot in my retail management days and I have lost count of how many people I have chastised. So, I wrote to a selection of food businesses to get their response to this message via their website feedback sections:
“I wonder if you could ease my mind about something. I would love to buy more products from salad bars, be more adventurous with unwrapped bread and other exposed food. But I worry about some customers being unhygienic when shopping in these areas, maybe some customers searching through the bread or tasting the salad stuff and being a bit, well, grubby in the process. Is this a concern for you too, or am I just worrying unnecessarily?
Also, as Christmas approaches, I often think about the enormous amounts of fresh and frozen food delivered to stores and wonder if there is enough storage space to keep this food at the right temperatures. We customers don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes. Maybe it’s just me needing a bit of reassurance. Thank you.”
I was asking the question as a customer with genuine concerns, albeit based on my inside knowledge over the years. But I thought the replies might be of interest to others.
Marks and Spencer replied thus: Many thanks for getting in touch about our policies surrounding hygiene in stores, I do appreciate your concerns and that everyone has different standards of hygiene. I am a clean freak myself so similar thoughts cross my mind. Customers are able to select loose salad items in store, yes this means they are able to touch the produce and find the items they wish to purchase. I would say it is rare that customers need to rummage to find something meaning they often keep the first item they select. Many customers use the loose carrier bags to select their items but not all do. However, the items which are loose are those which can be washed before consumption, as you would do from any store, to ensure they are perfectly safe to eat. We also sell the majority of the loose items as a pre packaged variety too, these are obviously in larger portions so may not be suitable for your requirements but this would eliminate your concerns with other customers handling your items. In terms of our fresh bakery produce, there are loose bags and utensils for customers to select their goodies with. The utensils are regularly washed throughout the day and items and staff monitor the bakery items and replacement or removal of items will occur if we have question to believe they are not safe for consumption. In terms of the Christmas food, this is our busiest time of the year with food items moving in and out of our stores faster than you could ever believe. We have such strict refrigeration and hygiene policies to ensure the items reach our customers in the best condition for them to enjoy for their special celebration. The procedures in place are planned down to a T and run as efficiently as a military operation. We spend the majority of the year planning for the festive season with maximum care and attention paid to making the occasion special. I have every faith that you have nothing to be concerned about on this front. I hope I have reassured you with our processes and policies and that you will be able to enjoy our produce with ease from now on.
Tesco responded: Thank you for your email regarding the storage and display of some of the products we have in our stores. We maintain very high standards of hygiene and cleanliness in our stores whilst adhering to all government legislation and EU regulations relating to displays such as the salad bars. I do understand your concerns regarding these areas (I think most supermarkets now have similar self-service units), however please let me assure you our stores do receive an internal independent audit twice a year, and those with counters four times per year to ensure all standards are met. If ever you have any concerns regarding the products on display or the behaviour of another customer towards these displays, please do not hesitate to inform a staff member. With regards to the storage of Christmas goods, our stores do start planning for the additional stock several months in advance to ensure everything is stored correctly. Many of the products our customers buy must be kept at certain temperatures to maintain their quality. It's for this reason we have Refrigeration Alarm monitoring staff who will then notify a store if a fridge or freezer is running at a high temperature. I hope this information is of help. If you have any other queries, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Waitrose: Thanks for your comments about the way goods are displayed and handled on the salad bar counter and open bread fixtures. We aim to sell food to our customers in the best possible condition. This means we apply high standards of personal, food and surface hygiene. We also keep products, such as open products in correct storage conditions and handle them in a way that prevents contamination. Our premises and procedures, and those of our suppliers, conform to strict hygiene standards and are subject to routine inspection by Environmental Health Authorities. However, if you're still not happy to purchase products from these areas, we do stock a range of similar goods that are pre-packed. Christmas is indeed fast approaching and as you quite rightly point out, is a busy period for use. I can assure you that all of our branches do have adequate space for storage, with extra units being erected where needed. These include temperature controlled areas for all of the extra chilled and frozen stock that we’ll be selling. Thanks again for your comments and for giving me the opportunity to clarify our position. I hope that you’ll now have the confidence to be more adventurous and try some of the delicious products that we sell at our open counters.
Morrisons: Thanks for taking the time to contact us. I can assure you that all of the food on available on our salad bar is perfectly safe we have separate tongs and spoons for each product and labels above each bowl. The staff members carry out very regular visual checks on the items and anything looks as though it needs replacing or is something has been mixed with another item they will remove it immediately and put out fresh products. With regards to storage space in store we will only ever send a store what they need so that they have the sufficient storage space we would never send anything that they did not have the room for. If you would like more information regarding this, please feel free to speak with the Store Manager on your next visit and he will provide you with more information. I hope this helps and if there is anything else I can do please let me know.
Sainsbury’s did not respond.
I applaud the lengthy replies and the thought that went into writing them, but there is a feeling that the respondents are towing the party line, talking about what should happen. What happens in practice in stores and their warehouses might be another matter. Maybe things have improved in recent years and storage space is adequate at peak trading times.
Retail teams on the front line work extremely hard, especially around Christmas. They are up against all sorts of challenges and pressures, and I am certainly not criticizing them. I hope that for their sanity and the safety of customers that my nightmare before Christmas is not repeated.
If anyone is worried about this kind of thing, simply ask your local store manager if you can see behind the scenes - they are hardly likely to decline a customer request - and make up your own mind. Hopefully, everything will either be fine and dandy or as wobbly and uncontrollable as a wonky trolley.
Let the customer beware of what goes on behind the scenes.