A 1930s general store near Buffalo NY, with my great-grandfather Harold Dobstaff and his assistant.
The modern supermarket was still decades away in 1930, but the general stores of American history gradually evolved into the grocery stores of today. At first, some enterprising grocery store owners began buying up or co-operating with other stores to optimize marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and offer better value to customers. These early grocery chains became the forerunners of larger chain stores and “big box” marts, paving the way to more streamlined grocery store practices and a variety of grocery store jobs.
In the old days, general stores were often run by a proprietor and his assistant, a young apprentice who might get to take over the store one day if he stayed there long enough. In contrast, present-day grocery stores employ many workers at a time. Grocery store jobs are a blend of retail and food service, ranging from the typical retail jobs like customer service and cashier positions, to traditional food service jobs like bakers, deli servers and sandwich makers. If you’re looking for a job that’s more behind-the-scenes, grocery stores also have merchandiser and stocker jobs.
Working in a grocery store can be a fun and beneficial first job. The starting pay is usually rather low, but as an added perk they typically give you an employee discount on purchases. You may even be allowed to take home bruised fruit or other damaged items that are not aesthetically pleasing enough to be sold to the public. The job itself is not too demanding and includes things like bagging groceries, tidying shelves, filling produce bins, and helping customers find what they are looking for.
Grocery stores are often overlooked as a good place to start a long term career. But as long as people need to eat and buy food, they will continue to keep grocery stores in business. When it comes to grocery store jobs, you usually have to start at the bottom and work your way up, unless you already have some retail or management experience. Take an entry-level job, work hard to help your employer and customers, and get promoted. A bagger is an entry-level job that has launched many a retail career path.
As told in a testimonial on the Publix blog: “I started working at Publix as a bagger when I was 16. That’s almost 30 years ago… Publix has been with me as I finished college, dated and then married, gave birth to my three children and then moved 300 miles to a new city to start a new chapter of our lives… So, 30 years later, who would’ve thought? I’ve made friends that will last forever. I have medical benefits, a retirement plan, company stock, long-term disability, happiness and security. I own my own home, pay my bills, have several weeks of vacation. I don’t have to worry about having a job tomorrow when I wake up. Working at a grocery store? The best thing that ever happened to me!”
Supermarket Management Hierarchy
Selling groceries isn’t rocket science or brain surgery, but grocery store jobs are a decent way to earn a living, especially if you become a manager. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on the city and many other factors such as your education, certifications, additional skills, and how many years of experience you have, but management jobs generally pay well. As a department manager (bakery, deli, produce, etc.) you will earn between $35,000 and $50,000 per year. For a general manager, the salary range typically ranges from $65,000 to $85,000.
If you have your sights set on management, it pays to understand the supermarket management hierarchy. Department managers manage a specific area such as the bakery, deli, or produce. Assistant managers assist the general manager in coordinating the store’s daily operations, taking on full responsibilities when the manager is absent. The general manager ensures that all products and displays are merchandised effectively to maximize sales and increase profitability, while forecasting staffing needs and overseeing multiple departments under one roof. The regional manager is in charge of several stores, depending on the extent of the supermarket’s range. And finally, there is the company president or CEO of the whole grocery chain.
To become a grocery store manager typically only requires five years of experience as a store associate, along with 1 – 3 years supervisory experience. Grocery store workers often reach a management position by moving up the ladder over a period of years. They may have started out as a cashier and perhaps didn’t even intend to be a manager, but given the opportunity that is where they ended up. Of course it doesn’t happen automatically; they will have to show initiative and have the skills to be a manager. For example, in order to hold this position you must be reliable, well-organized, friendly and authoritative. You will need people skills as well as problem solving skills.
Some management training or a degree may be beneficial even if not required, as one supermarket manager explains in “The Secret Life of a Supermarket Manager”: “As a young woman with a degree from a good university, I am something of an exception in a business that employs mostly middle-aged men with little or no higher education who made their way up from employee or trainee department manager to store manager. I was directly recruited at deputy store manager level and promoted quite quickly to manager, which means that I am a good 20 years younger than my peers in management. At first, I was worried that people would think less of me because of that or think that I’d had it easy. But I found out that it was quite the opposite: most of my employees admire the fact that I have a good degree but am willing to work 12-hour days, including at weekends.”
How to turn a grocery store job into a career:
- Earn your high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) equivalent. Although this is not necessarily required for grocery store jobs, if you decide that you want to get on a management track and seek further schooling, you will need this certificate.
- Apply for an entry-level position, either full-time or part-time. You can start in high school as a bagger, stocker or cashier. For the most part, prior knowledge of food items is unnecessary when applying for grocery store jobs. You will be trained as needed by the current staff, and learn through experience in most cases. You will go far if you abide by three key qualities: be happy, helpful, and hard-working.
- Develop a reputation as a dependable employee who follows directions. Whatever your position, dress neatly and take your job seriously. Don’t be late or fail to show up for work without notifying management ahead of time. Be willing to work nights, weekends, holidays, and extra shifts when you can. Never say anything negative about your job even if other employees are complaining, because people overhear things and it will reflect poorly on your company loyalty.
- Apply for promotions. Since grocery stores have relatively high turnover rates, you are likely to be promoted from within if you stay around and work hard. Show them that you are a quick learner, always ready to take on more responsibilities. Talk to your manager about opportunities to move into other departments.
- Apply for an assistant manager position in a department. You should be able to achieve this level through hard work. These positions are a training ground for higher management positions. If you don’t think a position will open up in a few years’ time, you may want to look at another location or a different grocery chain.
- Apply to become a department manager. As the head of the seafood, deli, meat or produce departments, you will have increased responsibility and salary. Many general managers come from these ranks.
- Look online for a local supermarket with a management track. Go to the store’s website and look under the “careers” tab. While this is not available in all grocery stores, some look to hire people with prior experience directly into assistant manager positions, with the possibility of becoming a department head within 18 months to 3 years.
- If you want to increase your chances of obtaining a manager position, you can earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in business administration. You may also be able to find a certificate program in management through a community college. Most grocery stores will be willing to adjust your hours around your school schedule, and if it’s a large chain they may even reimburse your tuition.
- Talk to your supervisors about your wish to move up the ranks. If you let them know that you are getting training in order to become a manager, they may look more favorably on you if there is a promotion available. Being familiar with the various departments in the store, getting good reviews, maintaining a friendly rapport with customers and co-workers, and your desire to fill the gap should make you the front runner.
- Look for a general manager position to become available. It may be in your own location or another location. Apply for the position with confidence and a strong resume featuring your experience, education, and commitment. Once you have your foot in the door, never stop learning how to be a better grocery manager.
This has been a simplified overview of jobs in the store itself. It doesn’t include related logistical functions like distribution and warehousing. But as you can see, there are many directions that your career may take if you’re serious about the grocery store business. For a more in-depth study of all the steps involved in operating a grocery store, along with charts showing the general flow of stock from suppliers, through the store, to local customers, see: A Complete Model of the Supermarket Business (PDF).