I hear the sounds of the Dark Store layered on top of the multi-lingual chatter. Clattering of glasses, clinging of spoons, rumbling of the kettle and humming of the microwave. Above the bread shelves, I hear music from a bluetooth speaker. Techno, pop, bollywood — the pickers (those who pick products from the vast aisles and pack them for deliveries) are the most likely to dance or sing along while working away in this room. Managers take phone call after phone call. Shift leaders call out to riders, often shouting their names, which sometimes turns into an argument.
I’m on my break watching this scene whilst sitting at the picker table which separates the riders from the aisles. We’re all playing a game of ‘Stoelendans’ or what I know as musical chairs. Plastic chairs are arranged in a circle. Once a rider takes an order and leaves, everyone moves up one chair in the circle. The further the circle moves, the closer you are to taking an order. If anyone disrupts this automated flow — for a toilet break or simple distraction — the shift leader shouts out “STOELENDANS!” to tell the riders to get back into order. We chant back “STOELENDANS” and order is restored. The hesitancy with musical chairs is less about being closer to taking an order and more about trying to avoid sitting next to the open door. It is cold in the Dark Store and there’s no central heating. I try to stay nearer the aisles or the kitchen to protect myself from the weather.
‘I need to meet the average goal: 8–12 seconds per product.’
My picker phone alerts me that my break has ended. Its distinct ring feels like a voice calling out my name, I turn my head toward it and my body jolts into action. My phone sounds an alarm when an order comes through and it’s loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s high pitched and only stops once accepted. It seems constant, incessant. I turn the volume down. To begin the pick, I quickly whip a paper bag into the air in front of me and place it in the trolley. In the rush, I give myself a few paper cuts on my hands and face. The rush still continues, and I feel the trolley wheels moving smoothly against the concrete. I speed through the aisles scanning items. I need to meet the average goal: 8–12 seconds per product.
The product doesn’t scan so the phone beeps. We’ve run out of Doritos! I shout for the inventory manager. He’s busy but lucky for me he comes running to help. Has someone looked in the backstore? Have you tried this shelf yet? How many do we need again? The order is finally complete. To mark this achievement I write down the customer’s name on the hostile paper bag — pushing the dry felt tip into the paper, hoping to scratch enough ink to make the name visible. I hand the bag over and start the next pick.