You've ordered your phone and you're waiting for delivery, but what's going on in the background? We've been behind the scenes to find out.
There’s nothing quite like that feeling of ordering a new phone. Whether you’ve just clicked the checkout button in the online store, or you’ve just completed an order over the phone, the anticipation of your phone’s arrival is always huge. But what happens behind the scenes once your order’s been placed? To find out, we’ve been to Vodafone’s state-of-the-art logistics centre – to bridge the gap between your order being placed and your new phone arriving.
The logistics centre has a lot to deal with, and there’s a lot to take in, so we caught up with Account Manager Robin Berry, our man on the inside, to try and understand the process. “The site dispatches around 2 million items per month,” he says. “We dispatch stock to all Vodafone’s consumer and business customers regardless of whether the order was placed over the phone, online or through a different channel.
“We send phones, devices, SIM cards and accessories and get them to our customers quickly. The logistics centre really is at the heart of the supply chain.”
“We also deliver stock and customer orders direct to Vodafone’s network of retail stores. We send out bulk orders and supply third party distributors and retailers too. We repair devices, bringing them back to life and send them back out to customers to use again. We even support pagers!”
Rise of the machines
That’s no mean feat. So how does the logistics team keep things under control? The answer’s simple: technology…
“We’re always looking for ways to deliver an even better customer experience,” says Robin. And to that end processes are constantly evolving.
“Our processes used to be manual. Products were stored in different locations and operatives would pick and pack orders by hand. But two years ago we introduced state of art technology to allow us to automate many of these manual tasks. This allows us to pick products faster and more accurately and it allows us to manage spikes in customer demand.”
We love trying to unravel the way we all think when it comes to phones and mobile habits – whether it’s the innate mental processes behind why we send a text instead of making a phone call, or the changing patterns in how we actually own our tech.
“We’ve got a normal daily volume to handle, but when a major new phone is launched – we’re likely to see a huge surge in customer orders, and we need to be able to handle that.”
But let’s take things back a step, and begin this journey at the start.
Step by step
“We get deliveries from different manufacturers and our suppliers every day. The first thing we do is take one item from each pallet and put it on a machine that weighs it and takes its dimensions. That’s really important,” Robin says, “because it allows our automated systems to kick in further down the line”
“Once weighed, we’ll put our deliveries into our bulk store. It’s a large area where we can store stock until it’s required.” And he’s not kidding, the bulk store is huge…
Whatever the phone, the ‘totes’ are the next step of the process – the phones go from the bulk store to a huge, imposing wall of red and blue boxes, all controlled and stacked by an enormous robotic arm.
“When we’re ready, we’ll take a pallet from the bulk store, individually scan every item and feed them into one of these ‘totes’. That then gets sent through a series of conveyors and cranes and gets fed into one of different locations in the wall. We know – because we weighed everything – exactly how many products need to go in each tote. If a tote gets scanned and there are suddenly extra or missing items in there – we’ll know straight away.”
Why red and blue? “It’s a visual indicator – the only difference is the size. Red totes are slightly shallower so they are easier to reach into if they are above waist height.”
Going tote to tote
The wall of totes is an intermediary step – it’s a place where your phone will stay, scanned and ready, only for a short time before making the rest of the journey. So what happens next?
“We have pick stations where one of the team will pick items from a blue or red tote into a green tote to match customer demand” says Robin. “Now things are automated, digital displays in front of each tote tells the team how many items need to be picked. The team member working here will scan each item before placing it into the green tote.”
“If he makes a mistake and scans too many items, or places too few into the tote, the weight checks kick in and stops the process in its tracks. These controls are sensitive down the weight of a SIM card, and that eliminates errors being made.”
At this stage, your phone, SIM Card or accessory is getting closer to you by the minute. Robin tells us the rest of the journey:
“The tote is now full of items, so what’s going to happen now? Well it could be destined for a Vodafone retail store. If so, the tote will be sealed and the paperwork placed inside and this will be despatched straight to a store. The next morning, when the store opens, all their new stock for the day will be in the green tote ready for them.”
Alternatively, the tote could be full of individual orders. “These are the type of orders that consumers typically make. In this case the phones are placed individually onto a conveyor, a machine prints the documentation and then they’re bagged and the address label is attached. Everything is scanned at every step of the way so we know where every order is at any time,” Robin explains.
“The bags are then pushed automatically into a box depending on the delivery type that the customer has selected. Up until 6pm, customers can order for next day delivery and our couriers’ last truck turns up just after 11pm. That means we have only a few hours to turn all those orders around.”
Now your phone’s in its packaging, it’s got the right address – either to a Vodafone store or your front door – and it’s back to the loading gates where it started it’s journey. Only now it’s leaving instead of arriving, and it’s headed for you.
There’s a lot more to the logistics centre’s day-to-day activity, including the story of what happens to your phone if you send it back for repair. Stay tuned to Vodafone Social to find out more.
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