TL;DR – We got a Bee to spill the beans.
The rain was torrential, and it sure didn’t help that I stepped out of my Uber into a puddle just as I alighted at Coronation Plaza to meet honestbee shopper extraordinaire, Karen. We made an appointment to meet at 11am so I could shadow her while she went about her shopping duties. “So lucky,” I thought to myself as I made my way to NTUC FairPrice, “getting paid to shop – now there’s a job I don’t mind at all!” My thoughts were cut short when I bumped into Karen, identified by her yellow honestbee tag, already hard at work picking out cuts of meat, eyes glued to her honestbee app.
We exchanged quick introductions while she apologetically told me that she had a big order to fill and didn’t have much time to talk to me yet. I leaned over and tried to catch a glimpse of the orders she had to fill – it amounted to over 50 items and she had 45mins to pick them all up, contact customers in case items are out of stock, pay and have them bagged for delivery. All at once, the thoughts of honestbee shoppers leisurely dallying in the aisle were chased out of my mind while Karen zooms past me with her trolley, disappearing to the next aisle.
I followed her, squeezing in-between more shoppers and trolleys to catch up. “Tiring hor?” I joked and then tried to pry “how far in advance do they tell you the orders?” I recoiled in mock horror as she answered that it can be anywhere from an hour at best to just about when the shift starts. She sensed my disbelief at the short notice and quipped that while it is a tough job, especially not knowing what to expect at the start of every shift, but to her it’s addictive and she loves a challenge.
“It’s addictive – I love a challenge”
Karen, in her late 30s, has such a dynamic personality – a mum of 3-year-old twins whose husband has long overseas work stints, she decided to become a Bee to keep herself active while earning some side income while her children are at childcare. It’s clear she takes pride in her work and is good at what she does – adeptly rattling off alternative options to customers over the phone when the products they want are out of stock and giving suggestions based off of her experience. Although she has only been a Bee since last year, she has already climbed the “Bee ranks” which comes with bigger orders and the ability to earn more.
In between checking off items on her order list at record speed and scurrying to the different aisles, she gave me some details on how this all works. Every Wednesday, all Bees will log onto their mobile app and “snatch” or “grab” shifts depending on locations and timings for the next week. At every shift, there might be 1-2 orders of anywhere from 20 to 60 items that the Bee would have to fulfil, earning $0.20 on every line item (i.e. it’s $0.20 even if you have to pick up ten bottles of 1.5L Coke). I cheekily ask if she can use her own credit card to pay for the purchases so that she can “earn miles or link points” but sadly realised that there was a “tab” that was already set up at the cashier so all the payment is sorted out backend between honestbee and respective merchants.
After a few hours of trolley-chasing, we were finally done with the morning shift and got to catch a breather over a quick lunch at a nearby cafe. While I thought we’d have a full hour to rest and recharge, Karen showed me her next order and again, it was a big one, meaning she’d have to cut short her lunch to familiarise herself with the products she needed to pick out. As she tucked in to a piping hot plate of eggy seafood hor fun goodness, I took the chance to ask some rapid fire questions that I didn’t get the opportunity to while she was busy:
First up, do you really call or refer to each other as Bees?
Karen: *chuckles* yes, we actually do!
What traits do you think bees need to have?
Karen: Alertness (to grab the right items), street smartness (to be able to handle the customer and offer alternatives) and being a team player.
Are there certain types of profiles that Bees tend to fit into?
Karen: The two most prominent profiles would be housewives and tertiary students. For housewives, many have children in school or grown up children so they have some time on their hands. Another smaller group are people who are in-between jobs and do this in the interim.
How about buyers? Are there typical profiles of buyers?
Karen: Of course it depends on location but I do see that a lot of the buyers tend to be more affluent and less price sensitive. Neighbourhood areas also tend to have smaller orders. There are also corporate orders. (I imagine rows of multi coloured jelly beans and every imaginable cereal ala Google office but Karen tells me it’s mostly boring snacks and biscuits).
We paused after we got sidetracked on the topic of snacks (oooops) and got drinks to quench our thirst before I broached another topic.
With the “gig economy” and “freelancing” becoming more mainstream, do you have any thoughts on it?
Karen: Most of my friends still have full time jobs but I do think if they lose their jobs, this would be an option they consider. A lot of the bees come and go as well so freelancing offers a lot of flexibility.
Versus a full time job, how does freelancing match up?
Karen: Heh… difficult question! A full time job comes with its own perks and benefits which I miss, so sometimes I do feel like I lose out on a lot. But at the same time, holding a full time job also has its restrictions like timing and therefore doesn’t offer the flexibility I need. Freelancing also allows me to plan my own time.
What are the pitfalls freelancers face?
Karen: No stability for one, there is no guaranteed or fixed source of income. There are also no benefits like what you would get with a full time job. For instance, many companies would not pay Workmen’s Compensation so if you get an injury in the course of work, the company would not be held liable and you would have to pay your own medical fees.
On the topic of women and freelancing – do you think these freelancing stints are viable – especially for women?
Karen: If it’s for side income and for killing time for example, then yes! But if you’re talking about livelihood, it’ll be hard to support an entire family. While freelancing offers flexibility, there is no guarantee of income nor does it really offer career advancement or progression in some senses.
With the last 10 minutes before she had to jump right back to work, I interjected to fill her in about a Returners Programme from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) that targets women who would like to return back to work and helps them do this through organising networking sessions, job matching and job trials so that workers and employers can assess the fit.
Karen: Actually, I think I’ve read about it before and I was considering going for it but I know I won’t be able to commit to a job with office hours and so I hesitated. But if time commitment wasn’t an issue, it’s a good initiative to put employers and women who want to return to the workforce in direct contact.
When I was trying to re-join the workforce, having a gap in my resume affected how employers viewed me. Even recruiters would often over-look or filter out my resume so I wouldn’t even get the chance to convince employers that I could do the job. At least with this programme, the employers already come with an open mind-set with the understanding of your situation.
With this, I thanked Karen for her open and honest sharing as we hurriedly made our way back for her next shift. Talking to Karen was refreshing in so many ways, it opened up my mind to the possibility of considering being a freelancer in the future and all the pitfalls and challenges that it comes with it. I was given a glimpse into her struggles as a mother looking for viable working options and the unfair discrimination she faces from closed-minded employers and recruiters. Yet, she trudges through, appreciating every honestbee shift that comes her way and completing her job with much enthusiasm and a positive mindset.
I have learnt much from her richness in spirit.