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Photograph: Sainsbury's/Time Out London

View from the Frontline: the supermarket worker

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

In the second instalment of our new View from the Frontline series, we talk to Elephant & Castle local Helen Grater, who’s worked in a Southwark branch of Sainsbury’s for the last four years. As well as her usual job responsibilities, Grater has been delivering shopping on her bike to elderly and unwell locals who can’t make it to the store.

Initially, it was quite frightening [at the supermarket]. It was crazy, people were going a bit OTT. Some people were getting quite aggressive when they couldn’t get things. They were being aggressive to each other and to staff but mainly to each other.

It’s definitely been a lot busier. There are a lot more people coming in and we’re just trying to get most people satisfied instead of disappearing with absolutely nothing.

In the last few weeks, I was off for seven days and wasn’t very well. I believe I had symptoms of coronavirus. I was lucky as I only had mild symptoms. But after that week I had off, it calmed down a little bit. My colleagues at work had quite a lot to deal with, we had to get security in because people were getting irate. 

I’m not seeing so much stockpiling now – apart from eggs and flour. Everybody’s after eggs and flour, eggs and flour! We put out a whole box of eggs but within five minutes it was already gone.

When people started stocking up it had a knock-on effect. We had the same amount of food coming in – in fact, we had more because of what was going on – but we couldn’t keep the shelves stocked. We’d bring it out and it was gone.

It’s calmed down a lot in the shop. We’re quite a local shop so there’s a lot of local customers that we’re very used to. In the madness a few weeks ago there was a lot of other people coming that we’d never really seen before, just searching for whatever they couldn’t find elsewhere. We’ve got bigger orders of stock too. Before, it was getting sold as quickly as we could get it out.

The thing I was most surprised to see people stockpiling was toilet roll. Why do you want so much of that? So many things we don’t sell a lot of usually were all gone. It was ridiculous. They bought everything – goose fat, tins of potatoes, tins of chickpeas – everything was gone. Paracetamol too, that just disappeared, I don’t know what they were doing with them, they must have been eating them like sweeties!

We’ve got a security guard on the door now and that makes that life an awful lot easier. He controls the number of people who come in so we can get on with what we have to do. 

I’ve been delivering shopping to the elderly and people who haven’t been very well. There’s a woman who’s in her late ’40s and she’s got ME so I deliver to her as well but it’s mainly older ladies. My colleague Rita has started getting a list for one couple and then there were a few ladies that we all know. They were getting worried about coming in and we said: Just phone us up and we’ll come to you. Because I’ve got a bike, I said I’d deliver it.

When I deliver shopping, the older ladies always want to give me a tip. They’re just like: Take that! I’ve got a 91-year-old who always tries to give me a fiver. And there’s another lady, Jean, who’s giving me grapefruit because she’s got a grapefruit tree in the garden – her husband threw a seed in 40 years ago and it’s bigger than the size of her house so she gives me a couple of grapefruit, which is nice. Their reactions have been lovely and they’re so appreciative. Although I wish they’d stop trying to give me a tip! 

There’s a little lady called Rose who usually comes in on a Wednesday after she gets her hair done. She wanted tomatoes but we didn’t have any. There was another lady in the queue and she went into her shopping that she’d bought from another shop – she brought out her tomatoes and said she could have them. There’s a lot of that kind of kindness going on.

All the customers talk about is coronavirus. And eggs and flour. I’m actually desperate to get back to the Brexit conversation again to be honest! 

Want more stories from the frontline? Read our interview with a St John Ambulance volunteer.

Here’s how to help (and get help) in London during lockdown.

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