From Writer to Picker – 15th June 2016

Just for a change, I thought I’d write a blog about something completely different: my work experience as an online shopper at Sainsbury’s which is unlike any other job I have ever known.

People wonder why I did this job for as long as I did but I’m not complaining – after a lifetime of high stress jobs in marketing, graphic design and publishing, it was good to get back to the grass roots of a working community. Being in a proper work place was refreshing; a sense of camaraderie that we were all in the same boat! The reason I did it in the first place was to earn some extra cash as a Christmas Temp but in March 2015, I was offered permanent contract.

Online shopping

The Positives:

People in the job came from all walks of life; from 18 year old school leavers to folk who were nearer retirement age and interestingly enough, lots came from ‘high’ professions. Among my colleagues were senior accountants, nurses, designers and computer programmers. So the barriers of age, sex, class and education didn’t exist here. It was the closest I have ever come to a truly egalitarian society.

The work is repetitive but by no means dull. Online shopping is massive and has been on the rise for the last decade – so the job was in effect ‘shopping’ for other people. I didn’t mind. I actually quite like food shopping anyway, so it didn’t feel like work to begin with. You get to see all the new brands and the choice of products is staggering.

Another aspect of ‘online shopping’ I couldn’t help doing was picturing each customer as I shopped.

  • Small single items such as sardines, prunes and custard suggested an elderly customer.
  • Bigger shops with plenty of lunchbox snacks, crisps and sweets suggested a busy parent with kids.
  • Healthy customers who choose organic products and lots of veggies.
  • The ‘not so health conscious’ who pack their order with biscuits and crisps (with few veggies)
  • I had the ‘budget shoppers,’ who chose ‘value’ products (easy to spot since the packaging was orange)
  • and my favourites, were the discerning customers who like ‘taste the difference’ items (just as easy to spot since the packaging is purple) and prefer no substitutes.

So after having completing 8-24 ambient shops and 4-12 chilled shops, I had gist of the people I might have shopped for, even though I never met them face to face.

The Negatives

It’s a good thing to be an early riser since a job as an online shopper at Sainsbury’s requires getting up at the crack of dawn! It was a wrench to start work at 5am (and many  started at 4am!) The majority of shoppers (i.e. those who do their own) prefer us off the shop floor before the store gets busy. No-one appreciates big trolleys clogging up the aisles, though at Christmas, it wasn’t always possible. Large orders meant people like me having to stay late while a stampede of early birds came in at 6am to get their Christmas shop over with! Needless to say, we got in each others’ way.

I can’t deny the hours were unsociable. I thought it was awesome to finish at 9:00 in the morning and have the rest of my day. But it did leave me with a dragging tiredness, leading sluggish brain syndrome! As a writer, a bit of a problem, creative flow severely hampered.

stephanieLastly, the work was intense, fast and physical. My best picking speed was 130 items per hour yet there were times it fell below that and however fast you went, they always cranked up the pressure to go faster. But that’s the modern work place. The reason I had to leave was an acute tendonitis in my thumb joint and severe wrist pains from lifting heavy items and handling the totes when they were loaded with shopping. Milk for example, weighs a ton, especially when customers want 5 x 6 pint flagons of the stuff!


I’m pleased I stuck this out for as long as I did. I met some great people and the work, whilst hard, was absorbing – in fact, the time flew by. I got quite used to it eventually, as well as the early start not to mention little nest egg in my bank.

Now I’ve finished, I’ve have fewer aches and pains and it’s good to have my ‘writing time’ back – with Book 4 ‘Retribution’ to finish, I am on a mission to complete the series now.

Who knows, my next book might be set in the future where online shopping will play a major part, so maybe this experience will come in useful one day!

About Helen J. Christmas

I am an English author and have written a series of novels, titled 'Same Face Different Place. Beginnings is a gangland thriller set in the criminal underworld of 1970s London. The second Book 'Visions' is a psychological thriller, set in Kent; a mystery that ensnares the owners of an historic, English Country House. Book 3 Pleasures contains suspense, thrills and YA romance, set in a backdrop of organised crime and at the advent of the British rave culture. There are 2 final books in the series, Retribution (Phase One) and Retribution (End Game) where the saga reaches its dramatic conclusion.
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