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Pingdemic of empty shelves and staff shortages | Recruitment News UK

Reports this Thursday cited staff shortages as the reason for empty shelves in UK supermarkets.

Britain’s supermarkets may look a little bare at present. Many of the nation’s best known High Street retail brands are struggling under a staffing shortage. The extent of the problem is so great that the British Retail Consortium has stepped in to urge the government to take action.

The staffing shortage is having its own knock-on effects in the supply chain. An absence of produce on shelves has been widely reported in the UK media this week.

The risk to supply chains

A number of causes are being cited for worker absences – including Brexit and Covid lockdowns. The UK retail supply chain implements highly complex logistics, across multiple stages of supply. It means that any delay at one point of the chain can have critical knock-on effects across the entire system.

It means that, in some cases, goods may make it to stores but remain in stockrooms as staff struggle to fill the shelves. In other cases, a fall in long distance haulage drivers in the UK may mean that produce is not reaching its final destination in time.

When complex supply chains break down, there is an increased risk of perishable items spoiling and adding to food wastage.

A Possible Pingdemic?

However, a larger point of frustration has been the theory that much of the staffing shortage could have been avoided.

Some have claimed that the UK Track and Trace app has lead to a wave of false positives – with more than one source dubbing the phenomenon the “Pingdemic”.

In this case, staff may be remotely instructed to self-isolate, even though they may be entirely healthy and safe to work.

Increase in job creation

But how accurate is the Pingdemic theory? In the case of temporary, short-term absences, we would expect to see a sharp rise in temporary staffing requirements in retail.

Using live, real-time job market data extracted from the eBoss Jobfeed feature, we have compared job creation in the UK retail sector with similar, temporary positions.

Job listings (posted by the employer)
• Today: (24)
• yesterday: (42)
• last week: (174)
• last month: (373)
• All on database: (506)

Job listings (posted by a recruiting agency)
• Today: (11)
• yesterday: (26)
• last week: (76)
• last month: (228)
• All on database: (310)

The Data

We acquired the data by running a live job search under the <strongRetail cateogory with the and/or keywords “Shelf” and “Stacker”.

While this non-scientific system may risk missing some listings, there is nonetheless a clear trend towards more rapid job creation in the last month.

While there is a growing demand for retail chain operatives, can we glean any information about the types of employers that our supermarkets are looking for?

If the Pingdemic theory were accurate, then we might expect to see a rapid and substantial growth in temp listings – as stores and agencies seek to plug short-term gaps in the workforce.

Yet the opposite appears to be true. Permanent listings are increasing at a more rapid rate than agency listings.

With 174 permanent shelf-stacker roles created in the last week, that makes up 21 per cent (21 %) of all listings on the database. It also represents a 160 per cent (160%) increase on average weekly figures – up from 66 places in each of the three weeks previous.

By comparison, similar agency listings numbered only 76 in the same time. That is nine per cent (9%) of all vacancies on the database. The weekly increase for agency positions is also growing more slowly: increasing by 50 per cent (50%) on the previous three-week average of 50.6 vacancies.

What does this tell us? That the “Pingdemic” narrative is an unsatisfactory explanation for the missing produce. That, in a complex logistical system like a modern retail supply chain, there is rarely one single active influencer on outcomes.

Covid, Brexit, and self-isolation warning messages are all likely to play a considerable part in staffing levels in the retail sector. But are empty shelves the result of an over-active track and trace app? That seems a little less likely.