December 7, 2012 6:49 pm

Fulfil me up

A fulfilment centre is the must-have retail accessory. So long dreary warehouse and distribution depot, hello dreamweaving fulfilment centre
illustration of a fulfilment centre©Lucas Varela

The girl’s birthday is looming and, like many parents, we are sourcing her presents from online retailers. See what I just did there – the crafty use of “sourcing”. I could have said “buying”, a word which would have entirely encapsulated the transaction.

But instead I chose sourcing with all its exciting connotations of visiting Colombian coffee growers and ethically purchasing only the most fairly traded products. I’m not entirely sure how this applies to a scooter, but we have sourced it from the finest websites on the net.

Naturally, I expect this approach to be followed by the vendors, and the good news is that it turns out that my suppliers are actually ahead of me in the linguistic gymnastics. For it transpires that my purchases, be they groceries or games, are handled by a “fulfilment” centre. A fulfilment centre is the must-have retail accessory for any company of scale. So long dreary warehouse and distribution depot, hello dreamweaving fulfilment centre. This is a marvellous idea.

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Robert Shrimsley

A warehouse conjures up notions of bored and brain-dead workers mindlessly hefting packages off and on conveyor belts, utterly unconcerned about the states in which they reach the recipient, if they reach them at all. By contrast, a fulfilment centre; well, this is the stuff of wonder. It is a magical castle staffed entirely by elves singing merry songs as they dispatch happiness to the millions. I imagine Amazon’s fulfilment centre, in particular, is like this, although I hear that the brightest elves are all siphoned off to work in the tax-minimisation department – or the stash-building centre to use its full title. What a shame that Roald Dahl completed his best work before this term came into common parlance. Charlie and the Chocolate Fulfilment Centre would surely have been a much bigger hit and one that far more readily suggested rivers of cocoa.

Only a few months ago I was entirely ignorant of the new name for warehouse and distribution depots; now the term appears ubiquitous. There is something rather depressing in the idea that fulfilment lies with purchasing, but you can see how retailers might wish to encourage the notion. They are certainly fulfilled by the transaction.

At the root of this name is probably some cunning management theory designed to move “employee mindsets” away from process and towards outcome, to instil a customer-facing ethos into even this most mundane activity. It may be a lot to hope for that low-paid factory staff will follow you on this journey. Are warehouse staff sent for retraining where they are taught to whistle a happy tune or envisage the gasps of joy as the celery sticks arrive as promised?

However, in my less curmudgeonly moments I have to confess that I see the concept; it is not entirely ridiculous to focus your thinking on outcomes rather than inputs. So I’ve resolved to attempt this at home to see if it gets results. The kitchen has been renamed the nourishment hub in the hope that this might lead to more healthy eating. Sadly, the mere act of renaming has not, I have to admit, led to a significant reduction in sweets, cakes and biscuits which the kids now store in a sub-domain known as the cupboard of happiness. But we have got a new fibrepod – or cereal rack as we might once have called it – so progress is definitely being made. The bathroom is now the freshness and wellbeing suite, while the lounge has become the relaxation and reinvigoration room (except when the spawn are in control, when it reverts to being a TV room – television being an end in itself for them).

I was wondering about referring to the bedroom as the fulfilment centre, but feel that this is aiming a little too low. After all, one does not feel a glow of delight just because the groceries have arrived on time. I considered joy space, but my wife advises that some expectation management is important to avoid disappointed customers and calls to the complaints hotline. I’m sure with an active customer-retention programme, we could navigate this issue. It is important to aim high and build motivation. We need to keep faith with our strategic goals.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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