The Sharp End: Dropping the shopping

MT regularly visits The Sharp End of the modern economy, doing the kind of jobs that the suits at HQ seldom get to sample. Here it's groceries to go, as Rhymer Rigby finds fulfilment in delivering online orders...

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

And so to that silver city on a shining plain, that perfect paean to the town planner's art, Milton Keynes. As well as being the butt of numerous roundabout jokes, MK is home to a large Sainsbury's supermarket and distribution hub for Sainsbury's Online. Its territory stretches westwards to Banbury and east to Bedford, and from Newport Pagnell south to Tring. This was my base for a day on the road as a multi-drop delivery driver serving the virtual shoppers of four counties.

Out back in the business end of the store, I was overtaken by a rush of nostalgia. For it was at 'a rival store' that your reporter toiled as a 17-year-old on Saturdays to fund his underage drinking. The back offices of supermarkets don't change much.

Back then there was no such thing as the web. So the online packing area was new, as was the digitisation of almost every part of the store. But as I donned my fleece (Sainsbury's signature orange) and a Dayglo vest, I felt the years fall away.

And so to work. Driver Chris Cutts and I start loading the van. We have nine deliveries on the morning shift, already bagged and in blue boxes and further subdivided into ambient temperature items and chilled produce. Some frozen goods have to be retrieved from a walk-in freezer. Our groceries on board, neatly arranged into individual deliveries, we head into MK.

It's a place like no other - a new town founded in 1967. The centre has more car parks than you can imagine, although they are softened somewhat by thousands of trees. The residential areas all look a bit like Brookside and the wide arterial roads ('boulevards') are so heavily landscaped that you don't feel like you're in a town at all. Guided by the dulcet tones of the 'third driver' - our Satnav - we arrive at our first port of call, a house in one of the ritzier neighbourhoods. We ring the doorbell and a man answers. Chris adopts the critical customer-facing role, greeting the punter and doing the paperwork while I lug the boxes over. We place the bags inside the front door and - as nowadays greenliness is next to godliness - take his old ones for recycling. Then we head off for more of the same.

As we cruise the Buckinghamshire boulevards and sweep into much-cloned closes, there's plenty of time to talk to Chris. He has, as they say in the movies, an interesting back story. He's in his fifties and has spent most of his life in sales and marketing, in sectors as varied as pharmaceuticals and interior design. When he was laid off from his last job, he says, 'I was over 50 and people start looking at you very differently'. But there was a mortgage to be paid, so he took a job with Sainsbury's.

Online delivery, he tells me, is the most physically demanding yet most satisfying job he has done. Indeed, these drivers lift more weight than any other workers in the course of their day (baggage-handlers are number two). Compared to his previous work, the pay isn't great, but nor is the stress. Multidrop drivers, of which these guys are a subset, rarely earn more than £20k.

We continue to drop shopping. Most deliveries are residential, but one - several hundredweight of chocolate - is to a BP office building. Perhaps Lord Browne has a sweet tooth. Three or four deliveries an hour is the norm, but Chris said it can be between one and five. Route length varies: ours is 46 miles, his next one over a hundred. The number of drops is dictated by Sainsbury's guarantee of one-hour delivery slots - if we're late, the customer will get a £10 voucher. We aren't late. Indeed, the whole thing goes so smoothly I could be in a Sainsbury's job ad. We run ahead of schedule and our customers are largely happy with substitutions - alternatives supplied when chosen items are not available - which are blue-bagged for easy identification. There are just two hiccups: an elderly couple who ordered dried figs got fresh ones, and a bottle of non-alcoholic wine breaks in transit; probably just as well, if the smell is anything to go by.

Chris and his customers get on famously, the relationships a model of chatty friendliness. He really knows them and they know him. Perhaps the delivery driver is the 21st-century equivalent of the local shopkeeper, a repository of gossip and chit-chat as well as a purveyor of groceries.

I discover that along with people skills and biceps, online delivery drivers also need a cast-iron bladder. I'd enjoyed one coffee too many before setting out and, after two hours on the road, had to make use of one of Milton Keynes' forested verges.

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