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
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.
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.
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
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’).
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.
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.