Pale Monday evening sun sets on the Big Tesco in Bow, a superstore spreadeagled at the edge of an east London A road. In its back corner, beneath Easter signage promising rosemary-speckled chicken and hot cross buns slick with butter, are four empty shelves.
The “Reduced to Clear” section, a chiller between the bakery and rows of Mr Kipling cakes, has been cleared out. Unless you’re in the market for a rather medical-looking half-price unsmoked gammon joint, a solitary Classic Pizza Express La Reine (“was £5.50 NOW £2.64”), or some shrinkflated pork pies, the bargains are gone. Pensioners wheeling trollies, a dad with two toddlers and a young couple in gym kit all sidle by, staring into the striplit void as, gloriously, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King plays on the store radio.
It’s the aftermath of what is known in retail land as “magic hour”: the time when supermarket staff go around with price guns, sticking reduction labels on certain foods (dubbed “whoopsie deals”, after Asda’s “WHOOPS!” yellow discount stickers). And something is rotten in the state of markdowns.
Beside the chiller is a bright yellow plastic barrier, folded up with instructions to staff on how to use it in the store. It’s become a symbol of the carnage at other branches of Tesco, and some Morrisons, around the country. Over the past few weeks, videos on Twitter and TikTok have periodically resurfaced showing supermarket staff doing discount stickers behind security barriers, surrounded by customers.
[See also: Unspoken conversations with my grandma in Tesco]
This video of Tesco staff surrounded by barriers as they stock reduced items, to stop people descending in a panic to grab the cheaper foods, whilst queues form around them… Man, we are such a depressing joke of a nation. pic.twitter.com/74nm0cOOJn— Chimene Suleyman (@chimenesuleyman) February 28, 2023
@catchupnews According to The Sun, the barriers might be a worrying sign showing that the cost of living crisis is deepening in the UK #catchupnews #uk #dealseeker #reducedprices ♬ original sound – Miles
@willdhallam Cost of living got us like #costofliving #tesco #shopping #food #supermarket #uk #british #funny #millennial #humour #fyp #foryoupage ♬ Funny Song – Mas Gombal
These scenes look dystopian. Shoppers so desperate for deals that, like seagulls following a trawler, they encircle the discount shelves in a frenzy. Staff so frightened of a stampede that they must be caged for physical protection.
“Some retailers have implemented additional protection in stores to protect staff,” confirms Graham Wynn of the British Retail Consortium. “[Other] measures include CCTV, increased security personnel, and body-worn cameras. Some retailers also provide their staff with de-escalation training.”
One Tesco worker (who doesn’t want to be named) reports staff at her branch feeling “harassed” and “overwhelmed” by customers “grabbing” and “snatching” items while they’re doing the final reductions of the day. Now, she and her colleagues put up the barriers when they’re “yellow-stickering” items so that they feel better protected.
Supermarket inflation has now reached a record high – the year-on-year rise in grocery prices was 17.5 per cent in March, according to the latest data from the retail monitor Kantar. The prices of eggs, milk and cheese rose the fastest.
With prices like these (and even discount deals becoming less generous and less common), supermarket aisles have become a front line of the cost-of-living crisis. I have spoken to many Britons over the past year who are struggling to afford their usual food shops, and feel forced to be savvier at finding deals.
An irony is that supermarket staff themselves, paid around £11 an hour, would also like this cheaper food. One Morrisons worker in west Yorkshire tells me she is cutting down on luxuries and struggling to budget even with her 15 per cent staff discount.
“There has been a definite uptick in people browsing the yellow sticker sections in supermarkets,” says Fiona Hawkes, a prolific blogger on yellow-sticker food shopping, at Savvy in Somerset. She can “absolutely see how staff might feel intimidated”, and has even seen customers asking staff for further reductions on discounted goods when they have their price guns out.
“Reductions can happen at any time of day, so if you want to avoid the queues you could try shopping at a different time,” she advises. “Some of my best yellow sticker reductions have been found at 9am when shopping after the school run when there aren’t crowds of people looking for a bargain.”
Assault, violence, threats, and racial and sexual abuse against retail workers have almost doubled from pre-pandemic levels, according to the British Retail Consortium’s most recent survey. There were more than 316,000 violent or abusive incidents in 2021-22, and 29 daily occurrences of violence ending up in injury. “Sadly, the pandemic has normalised appalling levels of violent and abusive behaviour against retail workers,” says Wynn.
John, a worker at a Tesco branch in East Anglia, says he and his colleagues wear bodycams. Discount products sell rapidly, customers often realise at the till that they can’t afford their shopping, and he has seen arguments over products break out in the queue. Having worked there nine months, he says the lack of safety for staff has “got a lot worse lately”. Shoplifting happens every day, having increased rapidly over the past two months.
“They usually take meat and medicines – all those items over £3 or £4 are now tagged,” he says. “We spend more and more of our time simply patrolling the store, watching the meat aisles, watching who enters, and then writing in our incident books to ‘log’ the incidents.”
It’s now management policy for him and his colleagues to open and close the doors with a remote control from 3pm onwards, to control who can come in and out. “Often we’re told to watch the doors and spend time we should be spending doing normal duties effectively as security guards. We are not paid to do this.” He earns £11 an hour.
While he sympathises with customers who are “genuinely desperate”, he says shoplifting brings “abuse and general threats of physical and verbal aggression towards staff, the whole package”.
According to Tesco, the security barriers themselves are not new and have been in use for years. It’s up to individual stores whether to use them, which is why some social media users are shocked by the footage and others have seen such practices themselves. The company is revamping its discount signage (to “Reduced in price – just as nice”) to make it clearer where customers can pick up deals, which could have the effect of drawing bigger crowds.
Morrisons began using the barriers during the pandemic to keep customers at a safe distance, and some stores have continued with them since.
What happens in UK supermarkets is a “more sophisticated” barometer of voter behaviour than anything political parties can come up with, as a recent column in the Economist argued. It should surely sound a red alert in No 10 when the British are abandoning their impulse to queue.