5. Balancing Acts

Today, I’m helping to restock the shelves. It isn’t in my job description or pay grade, but we’re expected to take on different tasks around the Dark Store when needed. It’s called adaptability and flexibility, apparently. Whether this is reciprocated from the company is another question, however. I relish the opportunity to stay indoors, but I’m not very strong. Carrying crates of beer, boxes of cat litter, baskets of vegetables, litres of Coca-Cola above my head becomes quite tiring.

To be useful, I start climbing the shelves like a nimble monkey, balancing my toes to see what lies on the top. Impressed with my own agility, I find this rewarding even though I know it’s dangerous — a crate of bananas could drop on me at any moment. But what am I supposed to do when the ladders they provide only reach the fourth shelf? Restocking used to be a game — a test of how we can use our bodies to navigate the space with very little tools and training. We throw lighter boxes to the top of the shelf, hoping that they balance on their own without bringing anything down with them. I squeeze items into tight spaces and make guesses as to what is in the unlabelled boxes.

‘When the deliveries for stock come in, I not only see the enormity of the quantities of food and drink, but I feel them too’

Heaving mountains of Hertog Jan beer from the back store to the aisles, I gain a sense of the vastness of, well, everything. The shelves are filled up. Boxes stacked on top of each other. Items are wedged in between. The aisles are long and winding. Sometimes I find myself thinking, how many onions can one Dark Store sell? When the deliveries for stock come in, I not only see the enormity of the quantities of food and drink, but I feel them too. The stock fills the main space, stacked on tall trolleys and cocooned in plastic wrap. We go on scanning, carrying, stocking, lifting each box or item. It takes hours to electronically process (or what they call ‘inbound’) all the items. In fact, it takes hours to mentally process not only all the items, but my tiny body in this vast space.

While the picking and riding continues in the same space, we must keep track of numbers and quantities (How many? Which shelf number? Which shelf letter? Have you already inbounded this?), communicate with new workers who help with carrying, translate between Dutch and English, and keep an eye on the space to ensure we don’t disrupt the usual workflow. I enter a state of sheer concentration for this, keeping track of the practical tasks and the micro-interactions required. Who can I trust to carry this? Did they really understand what I said or shall I repeat it? They’ve moved the wrong product.

Over time this task becomes less chaotic. I’ve figured out ways to manage the stress and limit confusion. It comes down to using less people to be more effective. No one can take a break when we’re inbounding new stock — it would cause too much chaos. Sometimes we wait hours before we can stop, even for a toilet break.

At the end of the day, the inventory management does a ‘fresh check’ to organise items according to their ‘sell by date’. Despite still being edible, most flash delivery companies don’t allow their workers to take any outbound stock (much like supermarkets) for fear that workers will steal or purposefully damage items to take them home. Maybe a free loaf of bread or a few cans of beer could compensate for all the restocking I did today. But that’s not part of my contract.

A project by affect lab. 2022