A case over how to classify workers in Woolworths “dark stores” and ecommerce fulfilment centres is exposing some of the inner workings of the facilities, including the proportion of orders handled by automated systems.
Woolworths wants workers in its “eStores” and customer fulfilment centres (CFCs) to be classified as retail workers for pay and conditions purposes; unions argue the employees come under a different award. Coles has lent support to Woolworths, given it has similar e-fulfilment operations.
The classification arguments are being heard by the Fair Work Commission, with a new directions hearing set for next month.
But one of the more interesting aspects of the case from a technology perspective is a series of statements from key Woolworths ecommerce executives that provide detail on how that part of the business operates.
iTnews has been tracking the evolution of ecommerce and digital at Woolworths for a number of years.
Most recently, iTnews revealed key details about how Woolworths, through its WooliesX operation, scaled up ecommerce operations through the pandemic years, particularly that it wasn’t all as smooth sailing as its public statements seemed to suggest.
The Fair Work Commission filings [pdf] provide a different angle on the scaleup: showing how much load the automation systems in these facilities are handling, and where manual effort in the fulfilment process is still required.
Woolworths operates seven CFCs - essentially supermarkets that are not open to the public, known as ‘dark stores’ - and two “eStores”, where a normal supermarket and dark store are co-located but separate, such as on different floors of the building.
It also has some other ways of fulfilling online orders - such as quick turnaround orders under its Milkrun and Uber Eats services - but the CFCs and eStores are the ones it is seeking a ruling on.
As of February this year [pdf], the retailer had 4269 team members across the six CFCs, and 390 team members at its two eStores.
Order fulfilment in the CFCs is fairly contained: everything is under the one roof.
While it might take multiple people to assemble an order - alcohol, for example, is in an access-restricted zone that is managed by the Endeavour Group, which spun out from Woolworths - there is no need for staff to leave the CFC to find product.
The eStores - one in Carrum Downs in Victoria and another in Maroochydore in Queensland - operate differently.
eCom operation model lead Christopher Hall said that each eStore “incorporates a Woolworths supermarket and an eCom floor” - the former open to the public, the latter not.
Given the site structure, “online personal shoppers” - the name given to workers that pick online orders - assemble orders with products from both floors.
On the eCom floor itself, product picking is automated. Head of smart growth Thomas Leonard wrote that the automation is able to handle about 80 percent of items.
“In some metropolitan areas, where the order is sent to an eStore for picking and packing, the automation technology in the eStore receives a list of items to be picked and moves the items to be picked from storage via a conveyor belt to the relevant 'Goods To Person unit' in the eStore,” Leonard wrote.
“The items are then picked by team members into customer totes [crates] and transported to the delivery area in the eStore.
“This process is used for approximately 80 percent of items which are picked and packed in an eStore.
“The remaining 20 percent of items are picked and packed manually by online personal shoppers on the 'shop floor' of the eStore” - in other words, from the regular supermarket shelves.
Hall explains this in his own statement: “If a customer orders items that are not stored in the eCom floor, an online personal shopper travels from the eCom floor to the supermarket floor with a trolley, collects the item from a shelf in the supermarket, scans the item using a reader, places the item in a bag inside the trolley, travels back to the eCom floor with the trolley and then travels to the consolidation and merge area (for the items to be consolidated with other items picked and packed for the customer).”
Adding alcohol purchases to an order brings another layer of complexity.
This only applies in Victoria; Hall notes Queensland customers can’t order alcoholic items from Woolworths’ website or app.
The two Woolworths executives described two slightly different processes for how online orders of alcoholic products are fulfilled.
Hall said it is the Woolworths eStore employee that goes to a nearby BWS liquor store in the same shopping centre complex to get the products by hand.
“In such a case, an online personal shopper travels from the Carrum Downs eStore to the BWS store with a trolley, collects the item from the BWS store, scans the items using a reader, places the item in a bag inside the trolley, travels back to the Carrum Downs eStore with the trolley and then travels to the consolidation and merge area (for the items to be consolidated with other items picked and packed for the customer),” Hall wrote.
Leonard, meanwhile, wrote that a BWS employee picked the products and walked them over to the Woolworths eStore.
“The alcohol component of the order is sent electronically to a BWS store adjacent to, or near, the Woolworths store,” Leonard wrote.
“The alcohol component of the order is picked and packed by an employee of Endeavour and taken to the delivery area in the Woolworths store.
“The non-alcohol component of the order is picked and packed by a team member of Woolworths and taken to the delivery area in the Woolworths store.
“Both components of the order are consolidated in the delivery area in the Woolworths store before being delivered by a delivery driver.”