PHI|Lab Field Trip to Sainsbury’s Online Fulfilment Centre

For the start of 2020 we decided it would be good to get out of the office once in a while and go and see something interesting related to our work. For those of us who are geographers, the field-trip is an essential part of learning and a great way to bring to life thing you only read about in books or scientific papers or explore through data. The PHI|Lab field-trip was born!

An emerging area of work for us is exploring how digital technology is transforming how we access and consume food. Coincidentally, the father of our new PhD student Robert, helped start and run Tesco’s online delivery service nearly 25 years ago in the very early days of digital. He gave us an introduction to the manager of Sainsbury’s only ‘dark store’ in the UK and thus our second field-trip of the year was on!

The compound, in Bromley-By-Bow, London, is very large (and very secure) and super-interesting. There is a ‘dark store’ – essentially an area laid out like a traditional supermarket where staff ‘pickers’ take products off the shelf to fulfil orders – they pick c240-280 items an hour at peak times. There is also a fridge the size of a small warehouse where chilled foods are stored. The pickers wear wrist-mounted displays with a finger-tip barcode scanner and load items into barcoded ‘totes’ that are then transferred to an automated conveyor. The pickers only pick for their category (ie frozen) and so the barcoded totes are automatically combined in the conveyor system to make up a household’s order.

The order, combined on the conveyor as it goes, travels through the building to a loading dock where the totes are scanned and loaded into the back of a delivery van by the driver. The van can take around 70 totes (approx. 15 orders).

Most of the picking and loading happens at night as orders are usually placed in the later afternoon and evening for next day delivery, thus the store runs 24 hours a day. Interestingly the geographical footprint of the store varies over time. Postcodes can be added or dropped from the stores range – the slack being picked up from traditional superstores. The Bromley-By-Bow Online Fulfilment Centre has a fleet of 120 delivery vans (the average traditional store has about 5), and fulfils about 10,000 orders per week (and has the capacity for 20,000).

The Online Fulfilment Centre also hosts a number of laboratories for product testing, customer complaints, food fraud and the testing of cooking instructions!! It also has a bakery school that trains all of the companies store bakers.

It was a great team trip, followed by a coffee at Cody Dock ArtSpace a short walk away – but let’s hope Andrea and Alex can navigate a bit better next time …