Inside Job: Behind the scenes at Epermarket

Doing your shopping for you at the internet supermarket

In a non-descript building beyond Hongqiao Airport, a metal door slides slowly open with a hiss. A man dressed in a large army-style overcoat and fake fur-lined hat emerges through a row of plastic flaps covered in ice and looks around. He shakes himself down, then strides on purposefully to carry out his mission.

It feels a bit like the start of a sci-fi film starring Lei Feng, but it turns out this is just the entrance to the frozen goods section – kept at a frosty -18°C – at online grocery store Epermarket’s 4,000sqm warehouse.
The man is holding a cut of meat rather than an alien ray-gun, but the Lei Feng part of the image isn’t quite as misplaced: he is here to serve the people – the hungry people of Shanghai, that is. It’s his job – and today, my job – to basically do your shopping for you, pushing a large trolley around the warehouse and tracking down the imported chocolate, organic vegetables and copious amounts of alcohol that you’ve clicked through at epermarket.com.

When a customer’s order comes in, each item has a code that points to its exact position in the cavernous warehouse. I usually have a pretty good sense of direction, but it’s a skill that is immediately rendered impotent whenever I enter a supermarket, am trying to escape IKEA or find myself in Pudong. So while Epermarket’s team efficiently flit from shelf to shelf stocking up their trollies, I wander around looking lost as I try to track down the precise variety of energy bar on the order sheet.

20170807125421369

In the area of the warehouse that stocks household goods, dry foods and drinks, this is merely frustrating. When it’s happening in the fresh fruit, milk and eggs area – which is refrigerated – it gets a little more painful, like when you hold on to an iced drink for too long. And when it gets to the frozen section, which I decide to enter without a coat and hat… well, let’s just say that temperatures of -18°C tend to focus the mind.

I’ve elected to enter the walk-in freezer sans the Lei Feng/bao’an look because of machismo, but also because I’m only going after one frozen item for this order. Nevertheless, even when I track down the item I still have to spend time checking not just the name and product type, but also the expiry date to ensure it arrives to the customer fresh.

As you’d expect, this is the kind of thing that Epermarket takes very seriously. Earlier, I’d sat in on a meeting of the sourcing and quality control teams. In addition to identifying new and seasonal products to stock for the weeks ahead, the meeting also covered customer complaints and how these had been resolved.

20170807124912398

Often, these complaints were the fault of the original producer – a packet of fish fingers contained only 9 breaded bits of fish, rather than the stated 12; the thickness on a cut of steak was nothing like the product photo. Nevertheless, Epermarket swiftly replaced or refunded the items and warned the supplier about the issue. In one case, a customer complained that their sparkling water wasn’t sparkling enough, which prompted the Epermarket team to order the same product from a number of rival stores to compare fizziness.

And it’s not just complaints that spark such studies. Epermarket’s offices come equipped with a full kitchen so that they can periodically test products, especially new items they’re looking to stock. Today they’re taste testing organic tomatoes and imported Italian pasta, and in the name of fearless investigative journalism I selflessly volunteer my services.

On behalf of science (sort of), I stuff my face with incredibly tasty Xinjiang tomatoes and a few helpings of cheese and truffle-filled Nonna Isabella ravioli. There’s a scoresheet covering the packaging, look, taste and flavour of each item, with each category broken down into sub-headings (e.g. ‘colour’, ‘cleanliness’, ‘appetising’ and ‘corresponds to the title of the dish’ under ‘look’).

20170807125042864

After reviewing the tomatoes and pasta, I’m about to enquire as to whether they have any craft beers or ice cream that needs testing when I’m told it’s time for me to head to the warehouse.

Navigating the warehouse to collect all the items I need takes a little longer than it ought to, but once I have everything and have checked their sell by dates, I’m ready for the next level of the Epermarket computer game that’s playing in my head: the packaging area. After a brief OJ moment where I struggle to get my hands into the packing gloves provided, I check every product again, carefully bag them all up and prepare them for delivery.

Ordinarily, this is where I’d leave this order and start on a new one, but for the purposes of this column I get to join one of Epermarket’s drivers, Mr Jin, in delivering the goods. Mr Jin drives quickly but smoothly, knows all the best short-cuts and can tell you which roads have fewer traffic lights on. By the end of our drive I find myself wishing he’d start a training course for Shanghai taxi drivers.

201708071253078

20170807125515655

It’s one of those delightful Shanghai days when the humidity is set at what meteorologists term ‘sweaty AF’, and even with the help of a trolley, having hauled the goods upstairs to the customer’s apartment and placed everything on their kitchen table, I think back to the -18°C room with something approaching affection and am tempted to return. But it’s the end of my shift, and clicking a few buttons on Epermarket for an order of chilled beers and ice cream on the way home seems like an infinitely better option.

More Inside Jobs

Comments