The news feature referenced off the front page of this week's SN raises one of the most important questions facing the food-retailing industry: Where will the next generation of industry executives come from?
That has always been something of a quandary in the industry. The outside face food retailing presents is that of drudge work characterized by lifting and opening boxes for low pay. Moreover, it has traditionally been an industry with a high number of part-time workers, and, as a consequence, a high turn rate. That suggested a business style with little continuity and no evident career paths.
Career options also tended to be concealed by the far-flung nature of the business. Supermarket chains have many store locations far from the headquarters, so most employees have no contact with upper management or much concept that responsible work exists beyond the store.
In the past, retailing executives were often plucked from the ranks of store-level workers who showed enough tenacity to toil away until lightning struck. That was to the good, in a way, but it also implied that the prospect of rising to a topside job from a universe of tens of thousands of workers was about equal to that of winning the lottery. That sort of career path still exists, but layered on top of it is the current fashion of picking top food-retailing executives from outside the industry. That makes the route to the executive suites even more obscure to fledgling supermarket workers.
So there are future-leadership challenges facing the industry. But there are ways of ameliorating that problem by presenting a different face of the industry to college graduates. Some of those, as set out in this week's news feature, include:
Value in-store: Although aspiring food-retailing executives might not put much value on working in a supermarket, doing so is necessary, not only to learn the mechanics of store operation, but to get the experience of working with customers. That story should be sold. But the key is to make sure it doesn't appear as though the store is the beginning and the end of a career. "I do believe, to some degree, that there is something to be said for walking a mile in someone else's shoes before you can effectively manage them," one retailer told SN. "But I don't think you need to walk in them for 20 years." And, as an academician pointed out, "Ten years from now, experience at the retail level is going to be added value to your career."
Variety: But what about non-store jobs that could be the next career step? There is a great deal going on in the food-distribution industry in addition to store work. So the story that it's a varied industry should be sold to potential executives. Specifically, there are good stories attached to careers in marketing, brand management, logistics, site selection, procurement, consumer research and public relations, to cite a few.
It's big: Another selling point is that the food-distribution industry is huge and, in the aggregate, the biggest business there is. That implies opportunity in itself.