Laithwaites Gloucester Distribution Centre – June 17 Visit

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.

Gantry v4

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.

Trolley

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.

Wall of Boxes v1

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.

Forklift

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.

Shrinkwrapped Cases

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.

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To ‘Premier’ or not to ‘Premiere’

As a quick primer to start, just in case wider readers are unaware, Laithwaites are one of the UK’s leading online and mail order wine merchants.  Over time they have expanded to include a growing number of retail outlets, as well as being the hidden face behind other mail order wine clubs (for example, ‘The Sunday Times’ newspaper offering).  If you google ‘Laithwaites Premier’ you will pull back a handful of results, mainly for their Premier Cru Brut Champagne, but if you add the ‘e’ and search for ‘Laithwaites Premiere’, you will pull back different results altogether.

Taking a step back, I’ll allow my story to unfold. Whilst using cashback site Quidco for a general Laithwaites purchase, I was browsing user feedback comments and happened to notice someone mention that, when twinned with the Laithwaites Premiere service, buying wine became even better value. I was comfortable with the idea of using a cashback site – an easy way to get anywhere between 5-10% of the (pre-VAT) order amount back to your account, simply by making the purchase through their web portal. When buying (for example) a £100 case of 12 bottles of wine, it is virtually the equivalent of getting one bottle entirely for free, which for me has quickly become a no-brainer. What I wasn’t aware of, however, was what Laithwaites Premiere was, and I’d been an active customer of theirs for several years. Premiere means ‘the first instance’ and Premier equates to ‘first in importance’ or a luxury top level tier. Was this a one-off service that I’d missed, or a premium service that I didn’t qualify for?

           Laith Prem Pic

Even when you google the name correctly, you will literally find only a couple of web pages for this un-advertised service, but it gives you a flavour of the top level detail. For a one-off payment of £40 per year, Laithwaites will add two bottles to each 12-bottle order you make – one red, and one white. What is impressive is that this includes the 12-bottle cases that you buy as part of your mail order wine plans (one case per quarter – surely the entry level point of being a mail order customer) and so that already gets you 8 additional bottles per year. Based on the £40 charge, this equates to just £5 per bottle, which is a fair bargain as it is. Buy any other cases throughout the year, and the price per bottle dilutes even further.

I contacted Laithwaites to ask why the service wasn’t advertised as it seemed to offer very good value to anything over and above the most dormant of their base. It puzzled me that they are very quick to publicise bolt-on offers to reduce delivery charges (pay a one-off cost and then all further deliveries are free), but not this offer. The response that I received detailed that Premiere wasn’t a hidden proposition, but was only offered to customers at certain times in the year.   This seems odd as I have bought from them for years and make a beeline for this sort of offer. I would have surely noticed it (as I did when spotting the comment on Quidco) and to this day, the links seem buried on their website and I can only easily retrieve them via google.

On to the wines themselves, the site describes them as being to the value of £15 – joint value, not per bottle (I was initially very excited!), and the plan is described as being all about the discovery of new wines that you may have not tried before. Here’s what I have received:

May 2015

Le XV du Président 2014, Cotes Catalanes IGP, France – £8.99 LINK

Elqui River Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Chile – £8.99 LINK

June 2015

Santa Julia Malbec 2014, Mendoza, Argentina – £8.99 LINK

Lime Leaf Verdejo 2014, Vino Blanco, Spain – £7.99 LINK

July 2015

Picco Attila 2013, Venezie IGP, Italy – £8.99 LINK

McPherson ‘The Full Fifteen’ Chardonnay 2014, SE Australia – £8.99 LINK

I won’t go in to my tasting notes for each of these wines, but safe to say the price-point is circa £8.99 and these are solid entry (or slightly above) level wines all garnering 3 or 4 star ratings (out of 5) from customers. They also cover a multitude of regions, both new and old world, and an array of grape varieties, with no duplication over the last quarter. The plan delivers exactly what it claims in that these are well made wines, not quite in the customer favourites camp yet, but ones you may wish to try in order to get them there.

In summary, I certainly think the plan is well worth a punt. Just today I purchased a case of customer favourites red wines and their premium reserve counterparts. These 12 bottles came with a free bottle of Opi Malbec from Argentina (which serendipitously happens to be one of my go-to bottles from Laithwaites) added free on a deal as I purchased prior to the 5th August. When added with the 2 Premiere bottles and subtracting the Quidco cashback, this comes to an amazing £6 per bottle – awesome value for tried and trusted reds, and even better than general supermarket value.

Hence, I’m spreading the word. Give ‘Laithwaites Premiere’ a google.

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