The pandemic, and let’s face it, 2020 in general, were a total car crash for a lot of people’s jobs, businesses, and general sanity. However, not all sectors suffered during the COVID-19 crisis.
The whole thing may have been a natural disaster, but it really wouldn’t be natural if some industries didn’t experience an uptick in a downturn, and one of the primary areas we saw growth was in warehousing and distribution.
Many shoppers intend to shun stores after the pandemic
Many of us got locked down during the crisis at various times, and we had to change our shopping habits. Perhaps the best news for warehouse workers is that it’s not looking likely consumers will revert back to bricks-and-mortar retailers after the crisis blows over – if indeed at all.
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There have been countless surveys carried out since March 2020, and they pretty much all say the same thing – that shoppers don’t intend to get back to buying in stores when restrictions end. Publicis Sapient recently published research that suggests nearly three-quarters of US consumers have upped their online shopping during the past few months, and very nearly half those surveyed stated they’re going to carry on doing so in the future.
Bricks-and-mortar versus the digital shelf
The stark contrast in the fortunes of online and main street retailers is perhaps best illustrated by the 2020 financial results of Shopify and Walmart. Shopify, the Canada-based global eCommerce giant, recently announced some pretty impressive figures from Q4 2020, with revenue up 94% year-on-year.
Shopify passed the $5 billion mark over the holiday season, and income for the whole of 2020 was up 86% on its total from 2019. Shopify didn’t rest on its laurels during 2020 or throughout the pandemic. In Q2, the company extended its free trial period from two weeks to three months. Buy-online-pickup-kerbside was introduced, and the online retailer also offered local delivery.
Walmart shareholders aren’t going to be too worried, but the company’s fortunes do say a lot about how things changed during last year. The traditionally big-box retailer is viewed as a slow and steady bet. It’s not exactly innovative, but it gets the job done eventually and with few frills.
Walmart’s Q4 figures were underwhelming, and that’s how Wall Street saw things too upon the announcement, with a dramatic drop in share price during pre-market trading. While Walmart boasts nearly 5,000 locations around the country, it does have an eCommerce presence, but it lacks the cutting edge of Shopify and achieved less than 70% in Q4 – when it probably should have launched initiatives to cash in on the holiday period.
Who was hiring during 2020?
What all that online shopping means is that eCommerce companies like Shopify and Amazon and the distribution and warehousing industries are hiring – and hiring big. By October of last year, Amazon had taken on an extra 400,000 staff to cope with the shift to online shopping during coronavirus measures. The recruitment drive pushed the company’s workforce above one million for the first time.
In warehousing, it was a similar story. While the pandemic saw employment levels in the US dropped by almost 11 million heading into October, there were still 1.25 million working in warehouses, up 46,000 when compared to just eight months before. However, it wasn’t all rosy for the industry, and COVID-19 has raised some serious health and safety concerns among workers.
Warehouse staff safety issues during COVID-19
The pandemic hasn’t just brought a boom to warehousing; it’s also heralded a fair amount of unrest. That’s primarily stemmed from a fear of infection among staff, and stories have emerged about worker fears being ignored. Allegedly, that even led to retaliation by bosses when staff complained and asked for better measures against infection.
Stafford Sterner is the President of SJF Material Handling Inc, based in Winsted, Minnesota. He says that in the forty years he’s been in the business, COVID-19 has presented one of the biggest safety crises for logistics and warehousing companies. “The pandemic has created some truly unique challenges for warehousing, and it’s something nobody has had to deal with before, so it hasn’t been that easy to react and adapt quickly. At SJF, we’re committed to safe handling practices, and all the operations out there in this sector are used to that – it’s a big part of the job. COVID-19 has certainly brought several new issues, and it’s important workplaces are redesigned to provide sufficient protection for staff. It’s become as vital as any other safety practices we implement.”
For frontline industries like warehousing, the challenges posed by COVID-19 will continue for a while yet. With vaccinations well underway, this vital sector will hope for some semblance of normality – although it doesn’t look like the workload will ease up any time soon.