Supermarkets and empathy

16 Jun , 2015  

Text and cover photograph: Arturo Nicolás | Versión en castellano

Who would think that a supermarket would be a perfect place to train social work skills? This is a story about seeing opportunities where apparently we can just see trivial routine.

Let us start at the beginning. After finishing my adventure as a wwoofer in a farm in Nottingham I came back to Bristol to get a job. My first choice was looking for a placement as a support worker, one of the doors to be a social worker in the future, but interviews did not appeared and I needed to pay my bills, so I started to apply for an opportunity in some supermarkets. Finally I passed an interview with Sainsbury’s and I became a customer service assistant in their local in Union street, a small convenience store in the city centre.

Attitude matters

To be honest, the beginning was not easy at all. The staff gave me a warm welcome, but the language was still a barrier for me –I was born in Spain and my English could be much better, definitely. Besides, I have come to the UK to develop my career as a social worker, so working as a retail assistant was not precisely in my plans. But you know, Roberto Bolaño was right in The savage detectives: «There is a time for reciting poems and a time for fists».

My first approach to my new job was based on humility, deep respect and curiosity. After all, my only experience in retail shortened to a recent volunteer work in a charity shop, so this kind of job was almost unknown for me. But I am a person that tries to give his best in every project. Most of the time, only hard work can help us to reach the right to be lucky.


Just a few days after start working there, I could clearly notice that supermarkets are places full of life. My main tasks are not only replenishing stock and clean the facilities, but also trying to help people to satisfy their needs. Ups. Wait a second. Have I mentioned help people? help people to satisfy their needs? In effect, that is a key idea that matches in essence business and social work.

However, there is another important feature to bear in mind. Supermarkets, specially if they are in the city centres, are common places to all social classes. Actually, our customers are business people, students, migrants, homeless people, middle class families, etcetera. No matter what social class you belong: If you live in urban areas, you will probably have daily needs that supermarkets will cover.

Carl Jung, a famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the 20th century, used to say that «it all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves». Life sometimes gives you the privilege to get new perspectives, so that was my starting point in this new stage: Let things happen and take the chance to learn from new points of view.

Empathy, a relentless driver to make the difference

There is a hazardous risk for cashiers at the checkouts: Day-to-day work often makes us become a robot that simply repeats automatisms. And people realise when you say have a nice day like a machine. Fortunately, there are some key skills inherent to social work that a retail assistant can use to give a better service to customers. One of them stands up from the rest: Empathy. But, how can a customer service assistant be empathetic?


The repetitive nature of working in a supermarket, seen by Leonie Snow.

Truth be told, it is not easy. Generally there are two moments where customers interact with retail assistants: when they ask doubts on the shop floor and payment time on the checkouts. Though in both scenes the contact usually is really brief (the average duration is 30 seconds), we can note some skills that make empathy happen:

  • Eye contact: Yes, I am talking to you! Non-verbal communication is a powerful tool to develop empathy.
  • Active listening: If we pay attention, we can get extremely valuable customer insights: what they like/dislike, what they really need, what would they do to improve the service, what can we do to make their experience better. This is remarkably important to make innovation happen.
  • Care for the details: Trying to memorise daily customer orders or know customers’ names are just some simple ways to show that we care about people.
  • A constant exercise: put yourself in others’ shoes: We sometimes have to deal with angry customers and it is important to be clear about that anyone can have one of those days. Evidently we always have to be polite and helpful, but we can go extra mile: Let us see those moments as opportunities to show customers that we are trying our best and they can rely on us. Curiously enough, Chinese word for crisis is composed of two Chinese characters that represent danger and opportunity.

On the other hand, empathy can also help to get a supportive environment at work with our colleagues. Small gestures like saying hi, smiling (it is contagious!) or giving a little hug can transform another given shift into a great day. It is obvious, but it is good to remind. Even at the risk of being cheesy, I am convinced that this kind of actions can start a mighty chain reaction of happiness. To understand better this idea I strongly recommend to read a short tale from the best-seller Chicken Soup for the SoulLove and the Cabbie.

Moving beyond the above, empathy also can play an influential role in a bigger dimension. As human beings, we are going through decisive times to ensure our survival. And empathy keeps us away from individualism.

Big challenges on the horizon

As I said earlier, supermarkets are places full of people from every social stratum. This gives us a golden opportunity to understand our society, the way it works, the way we might run the system better. And best of all: this gives us a small chance to shape a sustainable Western way of life. How? Supermarkets are extremely powerful spaces to change the way we cover our needs, the way we live. They can lead the way.

Sainsbury’s have implemented its Sainsbury’s 20×20 Sustainability Plan, 20 sustainability commitments to be delivered by 2020. You can check the 2014 update and see the efforts so far taken to respect the environment, to decide what to do with food waste or to source with integrity, among others purposes. Unfortunately, this is not enough.

After five months working for Sainsbury’s, I can discern two main challenges in the long term for supermarkets:

  1. Go slower: As a species we have a big problem called global warming. We live too fast. Supermarkets are one the best places to stimulate a global awareness of climate change issues. The example of Lauren Singer and live a zero waste life should be a must to look after our planet, our home. Along these lines, Original unverpackt is a German project that could influence the strategies of big supermarkets chains in the future. It is just a matter of survival, not only as a company but also as human beings. Coherently, Slow Movement proposals also might be a reference to study and implement.

    Original Unverpackt_ JendrikSchröder_ Foto1

    You can get more info about Original Unverpackt in this article by The Guardian. Photograph: Original Unverpackt

  2. Be more inclusive: Disabled people deserve an independent chapter. I have learnt many things from customers like Andy, Nick or Chris. Unfortunately, there are many structural changes to carry out if we want to make supermarkets an inclusive place. We are building a society where disabled people are getting a normalised role, so supermarkets need to get up-to-date and keep on making some upgrades. Designing shelves adapted to everyone seem to be an urgent task.


    One small upgrade we have achieved: Provide a short column of baskets that can facilitate disabled people’s experience in a supermarket.

«It all starts today»

I have warned you, this is a story about seeing opportunities where apparently we can just see trivial routine. This is just a bunch of thoughts about how empathy can change the way we understand supermarkets. As long as we find a balance between short and long term, we will conquer what we want.

It all starts today. I do love the message hidden behind the title of that Bertrand Tavernier‘s film. It is a call to action, every single day matters. It is up to us.

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3 Responses

  1. Milagros dice:

    Me encanta que a través de las actuaciones que tú nos has mostrado podamos ver como es la actitud de grandes cadenas comerciales, que se implican con el planeta, y de como además se busca la normalización de discapacitados, eliminando barreras arquitectónicas, buscando su autonomía. Buscare sopa de pollo para el alma. Buen artículo. Que te vaya bien.

    • Arturo Nicolás dice:

      ¡Hola Milagros! Gracias por tu comentario, es genial sentirse escuchado. Los grandes supermercados están haciendo esfuerzos, pero mientras el dinero sea el principal motor de la sociedad estaremos perdiendo la batalla.

      Así las cosas, soy optimista. Tenemos retos preciosos por delante y ganas de dar mucha guerra. Que te vaya bien a ti también, ¡un gran abrazo desde Bristol!


  2. Jose dice:

    Outstanding essay!
    Well done. You are so right.

    I agree with your points, however this attitudinal/behavioral movement you mentioned has to be supported by more people, feeding and transforming people´s behavior in a more consistent and constant way. Otherwise consumers, user or people in general are asleep, and unconscious of the transformational message someone is offering to them.

    It would be great to know where you work in bristol , so any random day I can go and say hello to you! Because you started the action today already;)

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