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Working Lives

The Early Years

When Sainsbury’s opened their first shop in London, opening hours in the market streets were long. Colleagues would live on site, so there was someone ready to serve customers at almost any hour of the day or night.

Typical working day

In the late 19th Century, people would often work 80 to 100 hours a week, with a typical working day beginning at 7.30am with a uniform inspection. Trading ended at 9.15pm on weekdays and 10.45pm on Fridays.

Living In

Male staff and shop managers would ‘live in’, and housekeepers would cook meals, clean uniforms and bed linen, and help take care of younger colleagues. 

Early recruitment

Adverts would appeal for ‘Tall, well-educated youths’ and ‘keen young men’. Women - often widows or older women - would mainly work as cooks and housekeepers.

'A Career for Your Boys' recruitment booklet

 ‘'The accommodation at the Branches, although simply furnished, is light, airy and comfortable, and includes a library for the use of the staff"

Junior roles

Historically, the most junior role was that of egg boy. Huge crates of 360 eggs needed testing for freshness by candling, this involved holding a candle in front of an egg to see inside it.

Training school

Sainsbury’s was the first shopping chain to set up a training school, in 1915 in Blackfriars. It was first used to train female colleagues during wartime, giving them a fortnight of ‘off the job’ preparation. Later, it was used to train all young people, and was so successful that other retailers started advertising for ‘Sainsbury’s trained men’. 

Learning the skill

Following training, staff spent a day at a London branch before moving into their allocated branch.  Every department had its particular skill which took months of practice to learn and progress was recorded on an ‘experience card’.


Changes to trading hours

In 1950, the Shop Act reduced trading and working hours. Sunday trading stopped, and only one late opening was allowed each week, until 9pm.

Self-service jobs

For the first time there was a division between shop floor and backroom jobs, and people were employed specifically to package, weigh and price goods before they were brought out into the shop. On the shop floor, staff were employed as checkout operators and ‘gondola girls’. 

Apprenticeship scheme

In 1974, an apprenticeship scheme launched for our new in-store bakeries. Thirty-two years later, in 2006, the company pioneered a new, GNVQ-recognised bakery scheme to address the problem of falling numbers of trained bakers in the country.