Heading online to do some last-minute Christmas shopping is not without risk. But that’s just what millions of Brits are doing this week – and they will be hoping their presents arrive in time for the big day.
Some of the responsibility for that will fall to Royal Mail – with the postal service under huge pressure to perform better than it did last Christmas when strikes caused chaos.
At the heart of Royal Mail’s operations are its two parcel super hubs, huge warehouses in the Midlands and the North West that will between them process 2m parcels a day over the festive period.
I visited the 53-acre hub in Daventry that opened in June for a behind-the-scenes look on its busiest day of the year, December 11.
The first thing I notice is the size. The hub is as big as 30 football pitches and you could fit 14 jumbo jets in the warehouse.
Cavernous: Royal Mail’s super hub in Daventry, Northamptonshire, is as big as 30 football pitches and could fit 14 jumbo jets
It employs 700 permanent workers but bosses doubled staffing numbers to 1,400 for the festive season.
The atmosphere inside is calmer than I expected at such a busy time of year.
Tensions run higher as the day goes on and strict deadlines approach, such as the postal train that departs every evening.
Lorries arrive loaded up with parcels which are unloaded on huge trolleys.
I see shipments from Footasylum and Dr Martens arrive – shoes must be a popular gift this year.
The trolleys are fed to huge robots, which tip the parcels into the sorting machine.
Rumbling above my head is a vast conveyor belt carrying a steady stream of brown boxes higher and higher into the building.
They are then automatically sorted by destination. The sorter takes 0.2 seconds to scan a barcode and does three at a time.
The equipment can even decipher written addresses within six seconds. It runs for 21 hours a day, with three hours scheduled for essential maintenance. Everything about the super hub is designed to speed up the delivery of parcels.
Royal Mail chose the Northamptonshire location for its transport links and proximity to online retailers. Major clients such as Boohoo are on the same industrial park, meaning the parcel gets to Royal Mail in record time when a customer makes an order.
Royal Mail’s chief customer officer Nick Landon
And making deliveries faster is central to Royal Mail’s business plan as consumers have become more demanding.
We expect to tap a button and receive our goods within hours.
Royal Mail has also faced increased competition from rivals such as delivery firms Evri and Yodel, and, of course, Amazon.
‘This is one of my best sales tools,’ Royal Mail’s chief customer officer Nick Landon, says of the hub.
But the shift has led to criticism that it is prioritising parcels while important letters such as NHS appointments are left languishing in sorting offices.
The postal service denies there is any central policy that places more importance on parcel deliveries.
The company is responding to the increase in parcels by investing in these hubs – and it is hoping to open at least two more over the next few years.
Royal Mail has a team of data scientists who try and predict what we are going to buy at different times of year.
A decade ago, the most popular time for online shopping was during lunch breaks, but that has shifted to between 9pm and 10pm.
The biggest sector is clothing, and the biggest group of shoppers are women in their late teens and early 20s.
‘They tend to order on the basis of what they’ve watched on TV that night or what they’ve gone out and seen their friends wearing, and that can prompt some late-night ordering for delivery the next day,’ says Landon.
Royal Mail looked to competitors like Amazon for inspiration when designing the superhubs, as well as less likely places.
Much of the equipment is made by the same companies that supply airports with logistics.
The requirements for sending post and luggage are much the same: parcels and suitcases both have to end up at the correct destination.
Upstairs in the control room, workers watch a wall of screens showing brightly coloured diagrams that look a bit like a London Underground map.
Each illustration is a layer of the vast conveyor belt system I saw downstairs and will flag up issues such as a stuck parcel, so they can be fixed as quickly as possible.
The machines process so many parcels a minute that a short delay can have huge consequences for deliveries.
And the last thing Royal Mail needs is another Christmas of disappointments.
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