Meet a picker who really does pick the pickled peppers
At 7:30 a.m., hours before the door opens for customers, only the sounds of rattling carts and bar code scanning can be heard in the empty aisles of the massive discount store. It was the pickers — employees who shop for online customers — starting their day at the Homeplus Kintex branch in Goyang, Gyeonggi, on May 15.
Due to the recent coronavirus outbreak, more people are ordering online, and the role of pickers has become more important than ever. Online sales for Homeplus increased by 54 percent in the February-April period compared to the same period last year, with fresh food sales up 66 percent. Homeplus online sales of fresh food was more than double sales of processed food, accounting for about 43 percent of total online sales last year.
The JoongAng Ilbo visited the retail chain in Goyang on May 15 to observe and report on the daily routine of Kang Eun-ja, a 53-year-old picker, who has been working at Homeplus for 11 years.
Arriving to work at 7 a.m., Kang starts her day by printing out orders that were made online until 6 a.m. She organizes the printed orders and delivers them to the bakery, fishmonger, butcher and prepared food section for products that require packaging before being put into the cart.
▶7:30 a.m. = After a brief meeting with the team members, Kang goes onto the sales floor to pick the ordered items. In her hand she holds a new picking device, NPD in the trade, a gun-type device that informs pickers of the location of the products ordered by customers and provides freshness check guidelines. The picker attaches the printed order to the cart and scans with the NPD, with the NPD guiding the picker to the right spot.
While Kang was going down the shopping list, the NPD beeped a warning tone when she scanned a tube of gochujang chili paste. This is because there are different products with similar name tags on the same shelf. Her pick was finally approved by the device after choosing the Deliciously Spicy Taeyangcho Gold Gochujang over Spicy Taeyangcho Gold Gochujang made of Korean rice with the NPD.
"Since the machine filters the products, there is little chance of choosing the wrong product,” Kang said.
▶8 a.m. = Kang explains the picking order: First, pick up processed foods, then fresh food and finally frozen food. Once all the processed food is picked, she changes the color of the tray on the cart from blue to sky blue. She explained that the color helps the delivery worker sort out items that should be stored in refrigerators. The blue trays, which are for processed food, are loaded by the delivery worker before sky blue trays, which should go into the refrigerators.
Kang was especially careful with checking for the longest shelf life while picking fresh food. Kang also checked the floor while choosing eggs. "If an egg breaks, the floor gets wet. I'm checking to see if there are any broken eggs,” she said.
▶8:20 a.m. = The regular cart is used to pick frozen food. It’s the same cart used by customers in the store but is covered with insulating material. Frozen food goes straight to the freezer as soon as the item is picked up.
▶9:30 a.m. = "Everything all set?" Kang asks as she comes back to where she printed out the order lists. In other words, the starting point of picking is the final stop. After picking up the items and putting them in the refrigerator, the job for a picker is done, leaving the next step to the delivery worker.
▶10 a.m. = "I couldn’t find a pumpkin on the shelf. Could you please check if one is in the store?" an employee says to Kang. The last step is checking for missing items once again that pickers couldn’t find on the shelves and removing them from the order list if they can’t be located. After checking out and passing the receipt to the delivery worker, sweat was dripping down Kang's face, after a two and a half hours of work.
But this was just the end of the first round of picking. The second round of picking begins without a break at 10 a.m. In the office where the second round of orders is printed, an employee from another department is waiting to assist the pickers. After finishing the third round at 4:30 p.m., the picking day comes to an end.
In the past, pickers were picked upon. When Homeplus started the industry's first online business and fresh food delivery service in 2002, pickers were treated as a swarm of locusts by other employees, saying that the pickers would empty out the shelves making them do extra work to reorganize the shelves.
But the status of the pickers has improved as online orders have increased significantly recently amid the coronavirus outbreak. Now other employees say "pickers are the best customers who pick the best products." Companies are upgrading systems to increase the efficiency of pickers' work.
"Recently, the deputy manager helped in the picking process,” Kang said.
About 1,700 pickers work at 127 Homeplus branches nationwide. Each picker is assigned an average of 30 to 40 shopping lists a day, which includes about 5,000 items. Recently, when the coronavirus led to a surge in panic buying, one picker picked 10,000 items in a single day.
The position of pickers has improved significantly at other large retailers. At Lotte Mart, the number of pickers rose from 699 in January to 755 in May. They are not only in large discount stores such as Homeplus, Lotte Mart and Emart, but also in most retail stores that receive online orders.
"When I was picking vegetables a few days ago, an old man said, 'I was reluctant to make online orders because I was scared that one would pick any product and deliver it, but I didn't know pickers were choosing the product this carefully.' It's most rewarding when we hear something like that,” Kang said.
BY CHU IN-YOUNG [email@example.com]