The distribution facilities of the UK’s leading mail-order wine merchant Laithwaites are in Gloucester (UK) and I popped along to see how they’ve evolved in the decade since the custom-built facility opened for business in 2007.
Replacing the older Theale based warehouse the new site clocks in at 178,000 square foot – just larger than two football pitches. Once there in person it certainly felt larger with the hangar-like facilities easily feeling they could house several full sized aircraft.
Full production runs to over 40,000 cases a week, increasing to over 60,000 at peak performance (October-December). As I visited there was £15m of wine spread out before me (rising to £70m including the customer storage deposits in their climate cooled facilities).
Being ahead of the game in logistics can sometimes automatically equate to being ‘state-of-the-art’ but, as I was to learn, that is only 50% of the situation. What initially appeared as a fairly manual enterprise was actually a well-honed machine and, impressively, part-designed by the staff.
I donned my high visibility jacket and headed out to the recurring hum of machinery.
The full roster of warehouse staff runs to 120 but a core staff of 22 ‘pickers’ collect each bottle of wine ordered. In peak season when the business does a good slice of the year’s trade there will be over 40 of them, half provided by an agency, half being directly employed. Having lunch in their canteen was a truly multi-cultural experience with various different languages on display.
Working a 12 hour shift of four days on-four days off, the team are responsible for picking up to 30 cases of wine per hour from a total list of some 2,500 products. After some detailed research it’s no wonder the management team felt it was impossible for mechanics to replace the talent.
Their ‘assistant’ for the trip is a metal trolley capable of holding 10 cases of wine at any one time, but it still requires a human hand to pick up each individual bottle and build each wine box and the cardboard separators from scratch (proudly, almost all from recycled card).
Each picker is equipped with a headset capable of responding to their direct commands. A full suite of training housed in a bespoke training area allows potential crew members to re-enact the 10-case trolley packing conditions experienced on the floor to see if they can handle the bottle juggling to come. They also get to record the 23 prompts which the central headset system will understand, interact with, and update from.
As they spend more and more time picking the wines the picker can customise the system, speeding up the delivery, pitch and even the sex of their picking partner. Being new to the system I literally couldn’t understand a single word of the prompts a seasoned picker chose until it was slowed down to (what I considered) a reasonable speed. It became clear that these are very well trained and attentive people.
With the constant pressure of new orders and the fact that they are picking 10 different cases of wine at any one time, it’s inevitable that errors might creep in. Placing popular and regularly purchased bottles close together for speed aids in aiming for a fail rate of just 1 in 1000 bottles but the warehouse has led the way in letting staff be the keeper of their own destiny and they run a well-publicised and incentivised suggestions scheme.
Two examples highlighted to me were very simple processes for the company to install and showed that the very best suggestions can often come from the front line. The first contained a simple mesh that split the front 5 packing cases from the back 5 which stopped hands slipping through and giving the first layer of the wrong case the wrong bottle.
The second innovation was the addition of numbered tags above each pallet of wine, crucially only visible when in front of the pallet itself. If the picker quoted the wrong confirmation number their interactive headset received an error message letting them know that they were not in the right place.
Once full peak-time requirements begin to bite, the warehouse will be a 24 hour a day operation and accuracy will need to be a fundamental, almost automatic reaction.
Staff are augmented by a brand new fleet of 8 forklift trucks that can access the 16,500 pallets stored 14 metres high in the narrow aisle racking. Subconsciously guided by aligning magnets buried in the warehouse floor to stop them veering in to the wine laden racks, they even have blue lights projected in front to avoid potential aisle collisions.
For every part of the process that seems manually driven, robots appear at the end building the pallets delivered to the 3rd party couriers for distribution. Capable of handling 1,100 cases at any one time, one final puff of lasering smoke brands the cardboard boxes with their wine club identity (the facility handles both Laithwaites and Sunday Times Wine Club customers), and they are efficiently shrink-wrapped ready for delivery.
Even though everything is centrally pulled together by a simple barcode, it was a truly wonderful experience to see wines picked from one side of the warehouse being married with the right remittance slip and address label on the other side. I will never look at buying online wine in the same way again.