Working in the low-cost retail: the hidden side of low prices
Loss in purchasing power has contributed to the emergence of low- cost businesses which developed successfully in many economic sectors. They all feature oversimplified offers and services, plain sales outlets, low margins and low prices, all these common ingredients characterizing a « revolution » which has vastly changed traditional retailing. Beyond this commercial disruption, how has low-cost affected the structure of organizations and employees’ working conditions?
« Moving into low-cost necessarily implies extremely low costs », one of the Bricostock’s ex-managers explained in an interview about the discount DIY retail store he founded in the 1990s. Right from the start and in their day-to-day management, low-cost companies are therefore focused on costs, which are to be squeezed as much as possible.
Both product ranges and choices are consequently extremely reduced as compared to traditional stores, and so are sales areas since low-cost stores are smaller. Besides, customers are offered less services: no garden centres, no glass cutting, no customized DIY products. The low-cost organisation also strongly impacts the working conditions of employees: limited workforce, flexibility, multi-tasking and job insecurity are at the core of this economic model.
My research relies on two complementary surveys conducted in immersion in two low-cost sectors. The main survey consisted of a seven-month participant observation as a sales trainee in two low-cost DIY stores (which I called Bricostock) and of 61 interviews. The secondary survey was also conducted during a two-month participant observation, in a hard discount grocery retailer (named as Maxeco), together with 23 interviews.
Working under low-cost pressure
Employees daily experience and make do with such constraints as working in confined areas dealing with a limited product range delivered in bulk quantities. In the low-cost sector, labour is the major factor affecting cost reduction as shown by the comparison of payrolls (labour share in relation to company revenue) in the sector’s three major stores: 11 % against 16 % in the two major traditional stores in 2016.
Operating with a reduced workforce is actually one of the main low-cost characteristics – an average of 62 employees in a Bricostock store, as compared to 119 at Décomarché and 163 at Dupont-Mat. The reduction is even more striking in hard discount grocery retailing where there are only 6 employees per 500 square meters against 12 in a traditional retail store, twice as much!
Hence, very small teams have to manage, at the same time, the mass of customers attracted by low prices, for which they have no training, and bulk quantities of goods to be stacked on shelves in a confined space with very few and small storing areas. A reduced workforce also implies much more multi-tasking.
In the DIY sector, sales assistants simultaneously manage customers, do shelf-filling and stock management whereas in traditional stores, customer assistance is the recognized core of the trade for which they may be trained and which reduces the number of tasks related to goods management. In hard discount grocery retailing, self-service employees are likely to checkout, do some shelf-filling, some cleaning or handle deliveries, all in the same day. They are faced with an ever-increasing workload and are under continual pressure.
Multitasking at the workplace is matched with strong employment flexibility. Although CDI (permanent employment) contracts remain the majority, there is a greater use of other specific forms of contracts as compared to the other retail stores: at Bricostock, the rate of temporary work was 6,3 % in 2016 against 0,3 to 1,8 % at his two traditional competitors, with only 13 % part time contracts against 20 % at Bricostock. At Maxeco (the hard discount grocery retailer), all the staff work 28 hours, without any possibility of being rescheduled for more hours. Schedules are variable and non-standard, particularly in DIY low-cost retailing: 6a.m-13p.m / 10a.m-18p.m / 13p.m-20p.m, so as to have a wider range of shopping hours than traditional competitors whose stores generally open between 8a.m and 9a.m (7a.m at Bricostock).
Socially vulnerable employees
In low-cost DIY retail stores, checkout employees, sales assistants, reserve employees (we call low-ranking staff to stress their position at the very bottom of the job ladder) come from the margins of the urban working class, sometimes from immigrant background and are very little educated (most of them with uncompleted BEP or CAP). Their professional backgrounds are particularly jerky, in-between short-term contracts, unemployment benefit and income support allowances such as the RSA (minimum level of income).
Because of these numerous entwined experiences, they tend to strongly value the CDI contracts offered by the low-cost sector in spite of the difficult working conditions. Similar profiles are found in hard discount grocery stores, only there, employees are mostly women and a little more educated: for instance, some immigrant employees have got diplomas or qualifications from their country of origin which are not recognized in France, which constrains them to put up with low-cost jobs.
The two sectors share one feature in common: the low-cost model intensifies gender-based employment. 75 % of the staff in hard discount grocery stores are women against 60 % only in traditional stores while 83 % low-cost DIY sales assistants are men, against 72 to 74 % male employees in the two traditional competitors. Employment depends on gender-based competencies, physical strength for DIY jobs, « interpersonal » skills and service in the discount grocery retail sector, which constrains recruitment within gender-based stereotypes seemingly accepted by managers.
Because these competencies are regarded as « natural », they do not imply any recognition, as testified by pay scales. In 2016, Bricostock employees earned an average monthly gross salary of 1562 euros against 1654 to 1747 euros in the case of traditional DIY retailing. In hard discount grocery retailing, salaries are hardly above minimum wages (SMIC).
Working as a labour collective in discount retail stores?
In spite of the exacting professional context, the prolonged period of observation in the discount DIY retailer made it possible to grasp the occasional emergence of some work collectives varying according to circumstances and mostly revolving around department sales assistants, a truly necessary resource to help staff face such working conditions.
This team work first centers upon the activity itself. Working solo, due to limited workforce and lack of training, encourages cooperation and knowledge transmission. Sales assistants ask « to be given a hand » for heavy lifting or to meet customers’ complex requirements. Even though time runs short, those with CDI contracts give temporary employees some ins and outs to help them work faster or protect their body from occupational or work-related hazards.
Strong social interactions, forged away from managers, help enliven the activity. To relieve the pressure and to make up for insufficient workforce, employees actually share jokes and verbal jousts, even « cracking up », their own way to put laugh back into an intensified activity.
The work collective is also constructed against the two types of actors they differentiate themselves from, i.e., management on the one hand and customers on the other. They counter « managers » by putting forward male postures resting on their physical abilities, their endurance, using the gender-based sexual repertory to collectively assert their class and occupational condition.
For instance, offstage, they may blame managers supposed physical weakness when confronted to handling, suggest the latter’s exaggerated fear when being confronted to some irate customers or to their own hierarchy – as opposed to their own capacity as employees to face these constraints. They also sometimes blame managers’ presenteeism which they see as some lack of interest in private and family life, which, to them, is unthinkable.
Low-ranking employees also differentiate themselves from customers whom they see as DIY amateurs and they assign them to multiple social categories in terms of race, class and gender: because customers are attracted by low prices, they are often seen as « poor » and « tiresome » because of their lack of technical culture or their desperate need for staff’s advice.
Thus, low-ranking employees assert themselves by battling out with two very close class fractions. In this complex set up, the place granted to the very small minority of female sales assistants is ambivalent: it alternates between being fully integrated to the group whose social class and occupation they share with male sales assistants and being mocked by customers and by their male peers, coping with gender-based warnings which sometimes reassign them to the back seat in the group.
Solidarity and forms of resistance
The strength of the group is better understood in the light of the multiplicity of the actual conflicts and forms of resistance developed against the workload and managers. Even if trade union memberships are few, low-ranking employees find other ways for expressing their protest. Multitasking is often criticized as an obstacle to quality of service undermined, according to them, by frequently switching back and forth from one department or one task to another.
But it is not easy to put forth one’s arguments in such a constrained context – as a consequence, confrontation is most often underlying and consists in evading, sidestepping orders. These practices of unobtrusive resistance can take the form of staging deference towards managers to be able to go one’s own way when they are not there. Employees then unofficially reorganize their activity according to their own ideas of what they think is proper work and are thus able to stamp their own mark on an organisation which apparently does not leave them much space.
Studying low-cost retailing from the point of view of labour– which has hardly been done so far –, provides a new vision of the consequences of labour cost-cutting strategies, which is a major trend of contemporary work organisation. Attractive prices are not the only feature of low-cost retailing, also characterized by employment and working conditions revised downwards, which affects socially vulnerable people left with no other choice.
Nevertheless, reporting on the violence generated by this economic model is incomplete. A closer look at the employees’ daily experience at the workplace reveals a great diversity in the way they relate to work and to the low-cost system, from involvement to distance and conflicting relationships. Although pressurized by this management machinery, they are capable of getting together and of resisting, organising unobtrusive forms of confrontation and evasion, well worth investigating.
Illustration d’Adèle Huguet pour Mondes Sociaux : tous droits réservés Adèle Huguet.
Pour découvrir ses dessins, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
Crédits images en CC : Flaticon Smashicons, Icongeek26, Nhor Phai
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Cyrine Gardes (2021, 25 octobre). Working in the low-cost retail: the hidden side of low prices. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 22 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9jy