Laura Vickers goes behind the scenes in The Society's warehouse to find out more about this crucial aspect of the business.
Being one of the most behind-the-scenes aspects of The Society, it's easy to underestimate the sheer scale of the warehouse operation, with several teams overseeing a wide range of tasks across a huge surface area. It wasn't just the size of the operation that left me in awe - but also the way each section manages to integrate its work seamlessly with the rest, and at an eye-watering pace.
The day starts early - most of the staff gets here before 8am - and there are three sets of orders to complete: The Society van orders are assembled in the morning, the Next Day deliveries are prepared at lunchtime and our 'Name-The-Day' carrier deliveries are processed in the afternoon.
But as well as getting orders out of the door, there's also plenty of stock arriving (around 7,500 cases on an average day), and this happens in the busy 'Goods In' yard.
I get here at 8am, and staff on forklifts are already finishing off unloading pallets of wine from a large curtain-sided lorry, but I'm told the 20ft shipping container from Australia backing into the yard will be a very different kettle of fish.
This delivery is what is called a 'handball' - no pallets, so every one of the 1,000 cases has to be unloaded manually. Warehouse co-ordinator Jon Beagle tells me it will take the lads over two hours to unload and sort through them all before whisking each of the 14 different wines off to their individual warehouse locations.
This is just one of five lorries due to arrive today and Jon explains the day's deliveries have to be planned meticulously to make sure the yard doesn't overfill
This is especially tricky at the moment. Thanks to members' continued strong support, The Society now receives a whopping one million cases into the warehouse every year, so a yard of this size doesn't quite cut it any more. Thankfully, the new Goods In yard being built as part of Warehouse 5 in 2016/17 is going to be over three times the size, and the team can't wait. 'Then we'll be able to grow even more!' warehouse manager Thom Cleary explains.
Once unloaded, the cases will end up in Warehouse 2 - the fast-pick warehouse - or the newer Warehouse 4.
This is where the team keeps the fastest selling wines, whether they're members' favourites, from current offers or seasonal options.
The staff use a fast and productive technique called 'summary picking', where instead of picking each member's order individually (which would mean visiting several warehouse locations across a wide area), they pick a selection of cases that are stored nearby to one another, which might all be for different members.
As the picker collects their batch of cases, they affix a sticky label giving the members' address details, as well as a barcode which will help the case find its way onto the correct Society van or courier (more on that later!).
This latest warehouse is quite a sight to behold: a huge, 20-metre high construction with 7,000 pallets of wines - around 280,000 cases in total - packed in from floor to ceiling. As I gape in wonder, I'm told this is nothing compared to the plans for Warehouse 5, which may have closer to 400,000 cases under its roof.
With big warehouses comes big technology to move the wines around. The orders in Warehouse 4 are picked using mighty VNA (Very Narrow Aisle) forklift trucks - they can whoosh their drivers right up to the top of the warehouse in just a few seconds - and new warehouse co-ordinator Carl Andrew shows me how they work. Taking a trip to the top shelves is so fast it almost feels like a rollercoaster ride (I don't know how the drivers get any work done), and although it's completely safe, the way the cabin sways when you're right at the top is a hair-raising experience even for the most experienced drivers.
'Taking a trip to the top shelves is so fast it almost feels like a rollercoaster ride'
The truth is, the trucks are fitted with the strictest safety mechanisms, with sensors in the floor controlling their speed and movement to prevent any collisions or mishaps. 'I wouldn't want to do it without them!' Carl says, although as a bit of an adrenaline junkie, he's disappointed that the trucks no longer come equipped with abseiling kits to help rescue drivers if they get stuck.
One in three cases ordered from The Society is one of its pre-mixed selections, with dozens on offer at any time (at the time of writing, there are 68), so the team responsible for assembling them has developed a fast-paced, highly organised system.
Co-ordinator Simon Nuttall explains: 'We have around 1,000 cases to make up each day, so we have developed a rhythm to keep things focused and moving steadily and accurately. It's almost like muscle memory.'
A tidy and systematic layout is also key to keeping on top of the orders - especially at Christmas, which sees up to 2,500 cases made every day - and the staff has worked hard to develop this over the years as things have got busier.
Despite a somewhat hectic working pace, it is a close-knit and jolly team. Eric Briggs has been here for five years, and says that after years of working in some of the world's biggest companies, The Wine Society is by far the best. 'It's one of those rare jobs where you genuinely look forward to coming in every day.'
'It's one of those rare jobs where you genuinely look forward to coming in every day.'
If you create your own mixed selection of wines, your case will be put together in the bottle-pick area, which is set up like a giant game of pass the parcel. The empty case starts at one corner, with a picking list placed inside it, and is gradually moved around the room, with different picking staff stationed at each section. They check the list, pick the required wines from their section, and then pass the case onto the next person, who does the same.
It's a matter of checking and double-checking to ensure accuracy, but team leader Sue Brennan has been here for 27 years, and pretty much knows where everything is with her eyes closed.
Under her careful eye, she and her team pick around 10,000 bottles per day - but at Christmas, this goes up to a massive 30,000!
Bottle pick is set up like a giant game of pass the parcel
This is the last stage of the journey for a case moving through the warehouse, and is where it will be loaded onto the correct van to reach its rightful recipient.
Every day, around 4,000 cases arrive here on a long conveyor belt, which splits off into several loading bays, one for each Society van depot (northern routes are collected on the right, southern ones on the left).
The aforementioned barcode on the label is scanned by a sensor at the start of the conveyor belt, and this automatically sends the case to its correct loading location. It's really very clever to watch - the cases seemingly change direction with a mind of their own - and this is just one of the new technologies installed in recent years.
In fact, throughout my visit, the word on everyone's lips is 'change' - not just the leaps and bounds made in recent years, but the even bigger developments to come.
'The Wine Society has an image of being quite traditional and having lots of history behind it, but behind the scenes we still have to be forward-thinking and modern,' Thom Cleary explains. 'We're constantly changing, introducing newer, better technologies and processes - it's how we keep growing without adding significant costs which would be a waste of members' money.'
'The Wine Society has an image of being quite traditional and having lots of history behind it, but behind the scenes we still have to be forward-thinking and modern,'
Sadly, this year will see head of operations Peter Styne retire after spending 16 years at the forefront of these developments - including being instrumental in the planning of Warehouse 5 - but he leaves behind him an operation that he has helped reach its most innovative time in its 50-year history.
Laura Vickers previously worked as a wine adviser in our Member Services team and is now a freelance writer and active blogger
> Read more Day in the Life of…..articles
> Find out more about the plans for a new warehouse in the Chairman's AGM speech