Online supermarkets that deliver produce to customers via the web are growing in popularity. With no high-street stores, retailers like Ocado rely on a web-based interface that’s directly linked to a huge automated warehouse.
This allows customers to select their groceries remotely from their computer, or through their smartphone with a special app. Delivery is then scheduled for home transit.
The heart of Ocado’s operation is its central distribution warehouse, an automated hub of activity that revolves around a state-of-the-art, ten-mile-long conveyor belt system. The robotic conveyor belt is controlled by a central software-guidance system that directs colour-coded crates through the depot’s aisles. Each container is fitted by the system with three open plastic bags and is routed to pass selected produce, according to their barcodes. The system also determines packing patterns – with heavier goods packed at the bottom of bags – as well as the order in which crates should be loaded into transit vans, dependent on delivery time.
Transit to a customer’s home is handled by a series of custom-built Mercedes-Benz vans, each with air conditioning to help maintain produce freshness during transit. Routes are co-ordinated from Ocado’s communications hub, where computer software liaises with GPS satellites to plan an optimal delivery path according to local traffic conditions and distance to target. If a delivery is located at an elongated distance from the central warehouse, orders are carried to smaller, local hubs, then passed over to region-specific vehicles for final delivery.
1. User interface – Storefronts are web interfaces, directly accessible by personal computers and smartphones. They allow customers to search textually and visually for products, as well as book a delivery slot. Sites often include video recipes, product bundles and price comparison stats.
2. Produce – Online supermarkets source produce directly from individual companies, as well as brand ranges from notable high-street shops. This produce then arrives in bulk to a central pick and packing warehouse.
3. Warehouse – The centre of operations is the distribution warehouse, usually a semi-automated conveyor belt system that sorts orders. The system software is linked to the user interface, receiving orders from customers for picking as well as updating stock levels.
4. Shipping – Product shipping is usually handled by air conditioned vans to ensure that groceries remain fresh during transit. Vans proceed from the warehouse directly to a user’s home or, if distance is lengthy, to a local distribution hub for secondary onward transit.
5. Communication – Van transit is conducted via GPS link to a communications hub, where routes are planned and updated remotely, taking advantage of traffic updates and accident reports. This allows for specific time slots to be granted.