The Sharp End: A taste of the goods life

Ever wondered who keeps your local shopkeeper stocked up? Dave Waller finds out.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Sweet retribution at the Sharp End this month. I simply professed that I didn't know how my daily Double Decker finds its way to the office vending machine. As a result, the team sent me to Coventry. More specifically, to the HQ of Palmer and Harvey - which proudly boasts it's the UK's largest delivered wholesaler.

Or, in the words of Julian Streeter, managing director of operations there, 'the biggest company you've never heard of'. That's a tough claim to verify, of course, as I've never heard of the competition either. Fuelling P&H's case is its fleet of 1,000 vehicles, which makes up to 10,000 drops a day - delivering baked beans and packets of Twiglets to the nation via a network of clients, including Tesco and Sainsbury, Esso garages, down to the smallest family store.

The Coventry HQ alone has quite a reach, I learn, as I stare at the computer screens in the upstairs office. Customers are marked by pink blobs and there's barely a patch of the midlands that hasn't been coloured. If the map showed the reach of all 13 distribution depots together, it'd look as if the entire UK had suddenly begun voting Barbie.

As you can imagine, this kind of operation is all about efficiency - planning supervisor Sally Somal boasts how she's an expert in squeezing every millilitre of capacity out of a 14,000-litre van. And while equal skill goes into tweaking routes to get the most efficiency, this isn't a case of pencilling orders on the back of a fag packet. Computers are king, from processing the orders, right down to what Julian describes as the 'special environment' of the transport office. For that, read a Portakabin of surly moustached men barking into phones, next to banks of computers tracking the lorries' GPS.

I don't stick around long enough to learn what makes transport such a 'special' place. Instead, I'm in the 163,000sq ft warehouse, a vast space alive with the incessant beeps of horns as armies of men whizz past in a fork-lift ballet. It's home to 8,000 product lines, everything from household bleach to boxes of chicken-flavoured crisps.

The vehicles here have all been given women's names, like Leona and Ruby. Apparently this encourages the team to have a better relationship with them, but it has the unintended consequence of making the whole place seem like an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

My chosen steed is a narrow-aisle truck called Adele. In control is a tattooed chap called Steve. Or, more accurately, the massive bank of IT wizardry behind Steve's head. The computer has worked out the most efficient route to all the pallets we need for each load. The results may look like one of those experiments where they feed cocaine to spiders, but there's order to this chaotic web. Steve sends us zipping backwards and soaring up, grabbing pallets of sweets off towering shelves. And then gliding back to earth like Mary Poppins.

I get to experience the flipside of this when I head to the tobacco section to pick up items by hand. The tobacco is locked away, caged off and on camera at all times - it's like Guantanamo Bay run by the anti-smoking lobby. But you can't be too careful: Julian tells me how they shift £650m of tobacco every year for Coventry alone. 'If you got hold of this you could walk round a pub flogging it easily,' says Julian. 'Each box of cigarettes is worth around £1,000, each load could be £10,000. You don't want to lose that,' he adds.

I'm handed a headset and sent down the long aisles with a chap called Harrison. Again the process is computerised, but this time two-way chat makes it more efficient. It takes an hour or so to train the computer to recognise your voice, but someone should have trained it to speak properly. The instructions bark out in an incomprehensible flood of numbers and phonetics and, to my bafflement, Harrison's off, chatting numbers off the ciggy box back to this abstract woman and stashing the chosen bounty into a clear plastic bag. I've still got absolutely no idea what the computer said.

Even when my ear does adjust to what she's on about, I feel like a digital version of Andy Capp being nagged by his wife. So this is what it's like to do a machine's bidding. How long before the robots take over and the orders evolve from crisps and confectionery to servicing them with spare microchips, capacitors and WD40?

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