Supermarket workers were praised for heroism, putting their lives on the line and working all night to keep shelves stocked during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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As the coronavirus pandemic brought the economy to its knees, Warren Smith knew he would have to act to keep his small business afloat. 

Chef’s Choice supplies soak tanks to the hospitality trade and commercial trade to remove baked on food and grease. With bars, restaurants and cafes forced to close, Smith began to wonder how he would ride out the impending recession.

“I needed a source of income to support the family. I’ve got mortgages, expenses.”

He called into the local Pak’nSave to check on a tank he leased to its bakery.

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The supermarket at Christchurch’s busy Northlands shopping centre.

The supermarket at Christchurch’s busy Northlands shopping centre.

“It was the start of the panic buying. The owner Brian Walker, he was busy filling shelves. “I said: ‘do you want a hand,’ he said he’d love a hand. So, I came back at 5pm, and worked ‘til about 3am.

“You’d wheel a pallet-load of flour down the aisle and within about two hours, it was all just gone.  There was so much rice and flour sold, mind blowing. 

You’d put the stock on the shelf and it'll just be gone, even busier than Christmas.

Warren Smith

For father-of-three Smith, 52, it was a return to a career he’d worked in for most of his life, before striking out on his own.

“My parents had Foursquare shops when we were knee high to a grasshopper, so it's sort of in the blood. I've done it all my life, on and off.

Warren Smith prepares the store to close.

Warren Smith prepares the store to close.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting back in because I haven't done it for ten-odd years. I suppose I'm grateful that I’ve got the job because of my business … and go that extra mile because I'm appreciative of being given the opportunity.”

Smith worked nightfill replenishing shelves, through the Covid-19 alert levels, and in level 2 took over duty manager shifts, starting in the afternoon.

“Hopefully, it's going to help me save some money - it’s changed my life and our social life a little bit.”

 The shift begins out the back of the shop, away from the customers and the neat rows of groceries. Earlier that morning a lorry from a Foodstuffs distribution centre has deposited around 70 huge pallets in the vast warehouse at the back of the store, in Christchurch’s Northlands shopping centre.

In the chilly air, he works fast to unwrap and break-down the pallets into smaller, more manageable loads. The goods are placed into trolleys, ready for staff to wheel out onto the shopfloor. The chain’s buyers not only send what’s necessary, but also cash in on cheap deals so excess stock is stored on towering shelves that line the walls. “You’ve just got to get in and do it,” Smith says. “You've got to get job satisfaction and enjoy what you do.”

At 5pm, the 15-18 nightfill staff arrive, change into their high-vis vests and gloves, and collect the trolleys. Before they push the carts through the enormous double doors, the vests must come off again. 

Agnes Balente, 42, has worked nightfill for almost a year. She’s quick and adept with her retractable box cutter, placing a box on the shelf and then slicing through the cardboard to open up the front.

Agnes Balente replenishes the shelves.

Agnes Balente replenishes the shelves.

Under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights, they pound the aisles, pausing occasionally to help a customer. They laugh and chat quietly, but unceasingly plug the empty gaps.

“We work so fast because by 3am we need to finish all. Pick the pallets, separate everything. … we have a lot of aisles and not too much workers. It's so heavy, it's so hard, but it's good.”

A former caregiver, Balente is used to physical work. Originally from the Philippines, she moved from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to follow her husband, Simeon, who landed a construction job. The night work allows her to care for their seven-year old son and avoid childcare costs. 

When she finishes at 3am, she makes the short drive through empty streets to Cranford. Balente prepares packed lunches for the family before falling into bed. At 8am she wakes to take her child to school, and then goes back to bed, sleeping until mid afternoon.

Balente works until 3am. 

Balente works until 3am. 

“I wake up at 2pm to prepare for my dinner for my husband, like that. It's everyday, routine. 

“We need to sacrifice for the future for my family, my family's need. We came here for job. I take care of [our son] in the day and then, the night, [it’s] my husband. So it's balance.”

She enjoys the time with her son. “We have a lot of fun together, sometimes we come here shopping, sometimes we play together, he teaches me how to play a game and what he’s doing in the school.”

She says she comes to work with a smile. “I like … the people around me … laughing and talking,  no disagree, no hurt feelings.

I love working here … I feel safe and comfortable, I don't know why. Maybe because of the people around me.

Agnes Balente

As the staff unpack, Smith makes frequent ‘rounds’ of the store, picking up stock abandoned by customers, returning trundlers from the carpark and straightening displays. Just before 11pm, the soothing in-store playlist cuts out.

“Attention customers, Northlands Pak’nSave will be closing in five minutes time. Please make your way to the checkout so we can serve you. Thank you for shopping at PaknSave Northlands and have a good night,” carries over the loudspeaker.

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The last checkout operator cashes up her till, and the final customer - a young man in a beanie buying snacks - slowly scans his purchases through the self-service machine. As he danders out, Smith locks the door behind him - and the nightfill “really get into it.”

When the store was open, the workers were surreptitious, quietly moving around customers. Now, there are trollies everywhere and the aisles are full of toilet rolls, sauce bottles and cartons of cereals. The tempo, and the chatter, increases. A tall forklift truck whizzes around the concrete floors, lifting excess boxes onto the top of the shelves.

“They put up top what doesn’t go out, any excess stock that’s left over,” Smith says. “There's not much because it's all done on sales, history, there’s a bit of science to it really. Then they go along and present, face the shop up to make it all nice and tidy for the next day's trade.”

Smith and his team must unpack and shelve 70 pallets of groceries.

Smith and his team must unpack and shelve 70 pallets of groceries.

As they work, the supermarket’s cleaners toil around them. The bakers arrive at 2am, followed by the butchers at 4am.

Smith says he doesn’t get tired. “It's all go, so it's just the buzz - there’s heaps of work to do. You just keep going and going.

“Sleeping was difficult [at first]. I go to bed at 7am and sleep till about 12 and get up and do stuff, go for a bike ride, a walk with the family...by the time the sports news was on the TV I'd be going to bed for a couple of hours sleep - so it's sort of a split shift of sleep.

They work around customers, and when the shop closes, cleaners.

They work around customers, and when the shop closes, cleaners.

“I really only sleep for about four hours a night anyway. But because it's physical work … your eyes are sort of starting to get a bit heavy.”

Before the pandemic, supermarket workers were invisible. Now they matter.

“I think it's put it on the map,” Smith says. “Before they were just supermarket workers. Whereas [now we are] providing an essential service, and people are going to be appreciative of the staff putting themselves at risk to serve the customers. 

“There's the police and the ambulance people, they’re all working nights … the supermarket workers were probably the lower sort of ones because they're just supermarket workers. But now, I think people have realised how important we are, and put a bit more value on the retail industry.”

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The pace of work increases when the store closes at 11pm. Smith closes down the meat fridges.

The pace of work increases when the store closes at 11pm. Smith closes down the meat fridges.

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: John Hartevelt

Executive Editor: Bernadette Courtney