The Sharp End: Depository of dreams

A day's shift at a fulfilment house rekindles childhood yearnings in Dave Waller.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm holding a letter from Peter. He has written to Andrex, requesting two cuddly puppies. The previous letter was from Deirdre. She wanted a bean puppy. I feel like I've landed an admin role with Father Christmas and everyone has been brainwashed by loo roll ads. Welcome to marketing fulfilment.

Ignorant of what this mysterious industry involves, I was glad to get the low-down from Stewart Oxley, sales director of Granby Marketing Services, as he drove us up a miserable M65 to the company HQ in Blackburn. 'What we do, son,' an industry veteran once told him, 'is open envelopes and pack boxes.' Straight-talking is clearly alive and well up north.

Granby is handling an Andrex puppy promotion: Peter and Deirdre are just two of the people who have collected tokens from packs of bog roll to get discounts on cuddly toys. Granby had shifted 1.4 million bean puppies in an earlier campaign.

I'm in a tiny office at the back of Granby's warehouse, wondering what to do. Peter has filled out his form correctly but forgotten to include his tokens. I'm unsympathetic. He has signed his own cheque, so has clearly been deemed responsible enough to handle a bank account, and a pen. He should have remembered the tokens. Marie, my kindly mentor, puts a note on his application to send out a response, perhaps stating something like: 'Time to up your game, Peter.'

My role with these 'apps' is to check that form and cheque are filled out correctly and tokens are all in place, ready for inputting to the computer. I put Peter's to one side. The next envelope contains a handwritten letter: 'I've been collecting Andrex puppy tokens, but I've lost my application form... '

Despair for our species, rising sharply, is cut short by nostalgia. I suddenly recall childhood trips to Tesco, selecting that week's cereal based on the freebies, and staring in awe at the wall of Star Wars figures. Collect enough tokens and you could send off for a free one. I remember my agonised 28-day wait for the weird pilot with the big pale head and fish lips to drop through the letterbox.

Visiting Granby is like reaching the end of the yellow brick road and seeing the little wooden desk from which such magic is dispensed. Above my head is a printed menu for the local Dinky Diner: chips and gravy, £1. Once I've checked through the applications - all seven of them - Marie hands me over to Eva, a friendly young Pole, to input the data onto the system, create a pick list for the stock and print the labels. Like Marie, she's an eager teacher, showing me in excruciating detail every step of the process, from changing filenames to pressing enter.

They must think I'm Granby's newest recruit. Their boss, Steve Bentley, explains that marketing fulfilment demands people take such pride in the work. It may be unchallenging, but it needs to be done with care and precision. That's why he avoids agencies. As well as 90 full-timers, he keeps a database of 300 temps and runs checks to help his firm 'avoid the dross'. Although new staff get just above minimum wage, Steve tells me that after training, the average wage goes up to £9 an hour.

If Granby is doing its job properly, the customers should think they're dealing directly with the client, whether they are responding to a Sainsbury's 'Active Kids' promotion or on the phone to Virgin Rail for a West Coast Main Line offer.

This is all a long way from Granby's post-war beginnings. Two brothers had established Granby Tailors, but suffered a drop in demand for its suits as the nation stopped shopping. Its warehouses sat empty, until Kellogg's arrived in the UK and needed somewhere to store its cereals. Granby obliged, and was soon distributing its trial packs around the country.

I follow Eva into the warehouse, where two youths at a big table are rolling Indiana Jones posters into cardboard tubes. I spot a Huggies Baby Beginnings Basket, a common feature of maternity wards, and find it hard to imagine the first-time parents who'd want this stuff: 'Right, I've got a kid, what do I need? A teddy, some talc, and a couple of nappies... ' But Granby's job is just to assemble the packs and dispatch them.

Time to wrap up the Andrex orders: I go to the boxes, dig out a dog and shove it into a plastic bag covered in paw prints, then whack a label on. I'm glad I don't have to do this 1.4 million times. I drop Deirdre's package in the postbag, and realise she'll soon be one happy puppy. But poor Peter will be sick as a dog.

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