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    HUMAN RESOURCES: Added benefits

    The most labor-friendly supermarkets are keeping their employees happy with more than competitive wages.

    By Jenny McTaggart

    The resumes must be rolling in at Wegmans, the Rochester, N.Y.-based supermarket chain that topped Fortune magazine's list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2005. That's right, best companies -- not just best retailers. Likewise, Stew Leonard's, Whole Foods, and Publix, the other grocers that made the Fortune list, will certainly see their share of eager job candidates in the coming months.

    These companies should serve as an inspiration to supermarket operators of all sizes that want to improve their human resources operations. Additionally inspiring is the fact that the grocers on Fortune's list are also financially solid performers. That's not an accident. As Jill Leonard Tavello, s.v.p. of culture and communication at Stew Leonard's, observes: "You can't have happy customers if your employees aren't happy."

    Common denominators

    While there's no one-size-fits-all formula for making workers happy, there are several common threads that unite the human resources strategies of these four retailers -- threads that could be woven into virtually any operation. Beyond the traditional perks of competitive salaries and health care benefits, these retail employers are relying on nontraditional incentives, as well, to create a more holistic working environment.

    "Great pay and benefits are not going to make you the best employer to work for in today's competitive environment," notes Bill Ford, president of Sesco Management Consulting in Bristol, Tenn. "Based on our research, the common denominator is a pro-employee, pro-family, pro-community culture, as these retailers demonstrate.

    "We're finding that in the supermarket industry, as well as outside the industry, more supplemental benefits are being provided. These aren't necessarily costly benefits, but things such as family time off, scholarship opportunities, and chances to be involved in the community. The key is to make a connection with your employees."

    Creating a "family feeling" among workers is one of the greatest strategic strengths of Norwalk, Conn.-based Stew Leonard's, which came in at No. 29 on the Fortune list. Notes Tavello, "When employees are going through an emergency or a tough time, or need to be with their families, we provide that flexibility."

    For example, when Tom Anrico, the company's executive director of fresh products, learned that his newborn son had to have open-heart surgery -- right before Thanksgiving -- company president and c.e.o. Stew Leonard Jr. told him to take the time off, and not to rush back for the holiday crunch. Anrico was able to take the entire month off, and the company continued to pay him.

    Stew Leonard's also provides flexibility in nonemergency situations that require a family commitment. "We recognize managers who have kids looking at colleges for the first time," says Tavello. "They may need a little flexibility to go visit schools. By allowing that flexibility, we send the message that it's important for them to be with their families. It's about realizing that there's a person behind the job, and they need to balance work with family."

    Community involvement is also recognized at Stew Leonard's, and it serves as a source of pride for employees, Tavello notes. During the recent tsunami disaster in southeast Asia, team members wanted to use in-store "wishing wells" to collect donations for relief efforts. The company agreed to match the donations, and ended up presenting a $50,000 check to AmeriCare for tsunami relief as a result of the effort.

    Management was also willing to let employees do a community service project on paid time: About 60 volunteers from Stew Leonard's got together to renovate an elderly woman's house through an AmeriCare project.

    Extra incentives

    Community service has become a much more appealing incentive these days, observes Ford, particularly for aspiring college students. "Community service for college applications has gotten huge," explains the consultant. "In some instances people have to choose between work and community involvement. Combining the two is a great incentive."

    Most college-age kids also have careers on their minds, so training becomes an even more important attraction to them. "Everyone wants to know where they're going next and how to get there," notes Stew Leonard's Tavello. "We focus on creating opportunities for our employees to grow." Eighty-five percent of the company's managers have been promoted from within the company, as part of its program, cleverly called "Mooving Up the Ladder" to reflect the company's roots as a dairy store.

    Recognition is another carrot for staying at a company. Stew Leonard's employees are recognized regularly for their contributions with "Moo Notes," which entitle them to a free lunch. Other recognition awards include the "Super Star of the Month" and the ABCD award, which stands for Above and Beyond the Call of Duty.

    "We have a motto at Stew Leonard's that says, 'What gets rewarded, gets repeated,'" explains Tavello. "One of our priorities is to make sure that our team members are recognized and rewarded for their contributions."

    Likewise the company works toward creating an open environment in which each employee's needs are heard. "We do attitude surveys and ask employees how they feel about working at Stew Leonard's," says Tavello. "They offer ideas to make their jobs better -- even tiny things such as having wet wipes for the cashiers or providing hooks to hang up jackets. These are things that management may not notice, but they're important to people."

    As for the more traditional perks, such as a competitive salary, Stew Leonard's recognizes their importance, too. "We focus on offering great pay and benefits," she says. "We're always looking at what other supermarkets offer in terms of health care and other benefits, to make sure we're competitive." Employees can participate in profit-sharing and 401(k) programs, as well.

    Still, the more nontraditional incentives that recognize, motivate, and prepare employees for the future are, as Sesco Management's Ford puts it, "the things that bring life to pay and benefits."

    By Jenny McTaggart
    • About Jenny McTaggart

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