Supermarket Industry Raises Bar for Top Positions

By Toni Vranjes

July 3, 2012

Even when economic times are tough, people still need milk, bread and other household staples. But many are clipping coupons, shopping at discount stores, and looking for other ways to save money on groceries.

This is a key trend affecting executive hiring decisions in the supermarket industry, according to recruiters who work with clients nationwide. Supermarket chains are seeking candidates who know how to get price-conscious consumers into their stores, and they’ve become more selective when recruiting new employees.

Meanwhile, economic conditions continue to pose challenges for job seekers. Faced with a tough housing market, candidates may be unable or unwilling to relocate for a job opportunity.

The result: it’s more difficult to find the ideal match for job openings. But the recruiters are working hard to find the right candidates for their clients, which operate in a fiercely competitive market.

Industry Trends

In recent decades, the big supermarket chains have gotten bigger. Meanwhile, more players have entered the market, and the industry has become very fragmented.

For instance, the supermarket industry includes:

“Many more people are selling groceries than in times past,” says Gary Preston, managing partner of Preston Reffett in Doylestown, Pa.

Today, price-conscious shoppers have a lot of choices. And consumer loyalty is very hard to get, according to Jean Forney, managing partner at Samuel J. Associates in Boca Raton, Fla.

“Our clients are putting every financial resource they have into being price competitive,” she says.

As supermarkets focus on strategies to attract and retain customers, they’ve been finding ways to differentiate themselves.

For instance, traditional supermarkets may tout the quality and convenience of their “perishable food” departments, Forney says. These departments include produce, bakery, deli, and meat and seafood. This strategy helps bring in customers who are drawn to the fresh foods in these parts of the store. It’s one way that traditional markets can differentiate themselves from supercenters, she says.

Recruiter Rich Mazzola notes that discount supermarket chains are a huge factor in the industry. Mazzola, who is vice president of Futures Search in Lynnfield, Mass., works with some of the discount chains.

“They’re attracting people who are affected by the economy, who are concerned and watching their pennies,” he says.

Meanwhile, there have also been changes in the leadership structure. The supermarket industry previously was male-dominated, but that has changed significantly over the last decade, Preston notes. The leadership teams have become more diverse.

Employment Trends

Supermarkets are part of the “food and beverage store” industry, which has added 57,000 jobs since January 2011.

In contrast, the industry cut 8,000 jobs in 2010, and it shed 43,000 in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For several years following the 2008 financial collapse, clients generally hired only if absolutely necessary, according to Mazzola. To save money, they spread out responsibilities among existing employees.

Hiring has increased gradually over the past year, although employers are still proceeding cautiously, he adds.

“They feel a little bit more comfortable in making the decision to hire someone,” Mazzola says.

Mazzola places candidates in a variety of jobs, ranging from mid-management to executive level. One of the recent jobs he filled: director of industrial engineering at a supermarket chain.

Forney also has noticed a change. She fills top corporate positions like CEO and CFO, but she also recruits for lower-level jobs, such as store manager. Her firm is busier now than it was a couple years ago, and business has increased at all levels.

For Preston, there’s been no downturn in his work, despite the tough economy. His clients include supermarkets and a variety of other retailers.

In the supermarket industry, 90 percent of the firm’s work is at the vice-president level and up. His firm also does some work at the director level.

Preston says that business has increased over each of the last seven years.

“For the kinds of jobs we do in the supermarket industry, our business has grown,” he says.

Hot Skills

As competitive pressures increase, employers have become more selective when trying to fill new positions. Companies are very specific about the experience and skills that are required for a job.

“It’s very targeted,” Preston says. “They not only want someone who will be a cultural fit, they’re also looking for someone who has a specific set of skills.”

Job seekers must go through intense scrutiny, because companies have extremely high expectations for their new hires.

“This is no longer the time when companies hire just to fill a slot,” Mazzola says. “They need someone who’s going to carry the company to the next level.”

Candidates with merchandising, marketing and operational skills who know how to reach price-conscious consumers are in demand, Mazzola adds.

As traditional markets try to stay competitive through top-notch perishable foods, they’re seeking to bring in new talent. This year, there are many job openings in this area, according to Forney. They include corporate positions, such as director of produce, and director of meat and seafood.

Employers also are interested in candidates with expertise in capturing the growing Latino market, Mazzola says.

According to Preston, companies also are emphasizing digital marketing and social media, and they’re seeking talented people for those areas.

It’s not only employers who are being choosy. Candidates also are more selective these days, Preston says.

“Getting a fit for a company is harder today than it was before,” he says.

Hurdles Facing Job Candidates

As job seekers carefully consider their options, they’re confronting many challenges. One of those is the tough housing market of the past few years.

In certain parts of the country, it has become more difficult for candidates to relocate for job opportunities. Many candidates would like to move to take a new job, but their mortgages are underwater, and they can’t afford to move, Forney says. And companies often are unwilling to help with relocation costs.

Mazzola also has noticed the impact of the real-estate market. Candidates are finding it more difficult to relocate to areas with high housing costs, he says. For instance, this may be the case for people considering a move from the Midwest to a large metropolitan area like Boston, New York, or Los Angeles.

It’s challenging not only for candidates and employers, but also for recruiters.

“People are a little more reluctant to move,” Preston says. “As a search firm, you need a compelling argument.”

But housing isn’t the only potential obstacle for job seekers. There are many others — including one that may affect jobless candidates.

Some supermarket clients have a bias against the unemployed, Forney says. The perception is that people who get laid off are underperformers. But that’s not necessarily the case, she says.

Forney tries to convince clients to hire candidates who are talented, but unemployed. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Take-Away Message for Job Seekers

If you’re seeking a job in the industry, keep in mind all of the potential challenges – and opportunities – that are out there.

Figure out how you can help potential employers gain a competitive edge, and be able to convey that message to them.

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