Tesco hires 35,000 workers as UK stocks up 'pandemic pantries'

Britain's coronavirus lockdown has triggered a surge in grocery shopping as people turn to online orders.

    Tesco deliveries, like those of other major retailers, have been in high demand since the UK's movement restrictions came into effect [Matthew Childs/Reuters]
    Tesco deliveries, like those of other major retailers, have been in high demand since the UK's movement restrictions came into effect [Matthew Childs/Reuters]

    The United Kingdom's largest retailer, Tesco, said on Tuesday that it had recruited 35,000 additional workers in the past 10 days to help get it through the coronavirus emergency, which has triggered a dramatic increase in demand for groceries.

    The supermarket group is the country's largest private-sector employer with around 340,000 workers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and nearly 3,800 stores.

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    The new workers, including in-store shelf stackers, pickers for online deliveries and drivers, will help fill a gap left by those absent due to sickness or self-isolation.

    In a letter to customers, Tesco Chief Executive Dave Lewis said that after a week of national lockdown most panic buying by shoppers had eased.

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    He said in fresh food, stock levels had returned to almost normal levels, with plenty of fruit and vegetables available, while in packaged groceries, the recovery would take a few more days.

    Lewis also said Tesco was donating 30 million pounds ($37.2m) to community organisations under pressure from the crisis.

    Separately on Tuesday, industry data showed UK grocery sales leapt more than a fifth to a record 10.8 billion pounds ($13.4bn) in the four weeks leading up to March 22, as Britons stocked up on everything from pasta to pet food ahead of the lockdown.

    Britons made more than 79 million extra grocery shopping trips in the four weeks leading up to March 21, year-on-year, as they stocked their "pandemic pantries", driving a 20.5 percent jump in supermarket sales, industry data published on Tuesday showed.

    Market researcher Nielsen said British consumers spent an additional 1.9 billion pounds ($2.4bn) on groceries.

    Online ordering overwhelmed

    The data showed that in the week ending March 21, two days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the full UK lockdown to try to contain the coronavirus spread, sales rose 43 percent compared with the same period last year.

    Nielsen found that in the four-week period, shoppers typically added just one extra item to their basket during each shopping trip, with the average shopping basket increasing from 10 to 11 items, and average basket spend rising from 15 pounds ($18.60) to 16 pounds ($19.85).

    "With households making almost three extra shopping trips in the last four weeks, this small change in individual shopping behaviour has led to a seismic shift in overall shopping patterns," said Mike Watkins, Nielsen's UK head of retailer and business insight.

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    "As well as increased store visits, consumers opted to shop online - many for the first time. However, unlike stores there is a finite capacity for online grocery shopping, due to warehouse capacity and available delivery slots, and this will have limited the growth of online sales."

    Prior to the health crisis, about eight percent of British grocery demand was ordered online, with 92 percent bought in stores. But major supermarkets are reporting demand has surged to about 75 percent of people wanting an online delivery.

    Last week, online supermarket pioneer Ocado said it had around 10 times more demand for its services than it did before the outbreak began. It has stopped registrations from new customers.

    A source at another major supermarket group said its website offers delivery slots for three weeks out.

    "The new slots go on every day at midnight; they go like Glastonbury tickets," the source said.

    "Even if we were all very creative, and despite all the pressures, doubled our capacity, it still doesn't touch the sides of what people would want."

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency