- Shoprite’s mega warehouses at Cilmor, easily visible from Cape Town’s R300 freeway, may not look like much from the outside.
- But from the inside this massive building takes on new significance.
- Every single product sitting on shelves in Shoprite, Checkers, Usave or OK - between Port Nolloth, Cape Town, and Plettenberg Bay - passes through one of the warehouse’s 133 truck-sized doors.
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Shoprite’s mega warehouses at Cilmor, easily visible from Cape Town’s R300 freeway, may not look like much from the outside.
But from the inside this massive building takes on new significance. Every single product sitting on shelves in Shoprite, Checkers, Usave or OK - between Port Nolloth, Cape Town, and Plettenberg Bay - passes through one of the warehouse’s 133 truck-sized doors.
Distribution centres like these are also one of the key reasons that South Africa’s biggest retailer is able to keep prices comparatively low, and deliver fresh goods to some of the country’s smallest towns several hundred kilometres away.
Shoprite’s biggest distribution centre - and the biggest on the African continent under one roof - is in Centurion. But Cilmor is the newest and most technologically advanced - and the scale is still impossible to comprehend.
Cilmor sits on a vast stretch of land - and the warehouses dwarf the arriving trucks.
It was once a farm on the outskirts of the city - and the land used by the distribution centre is now the equivalent of roughly 50 rugby pitches.
The centre receives products from 600 suppliers of varying sizes - every day, dozens of trucks, from large multi-nationals and small regional suppliers, pass through the same booms.
The centre handles everything - from ripening bananas, cut flowers, freshly-baked cakes, and toothpaste, to instant coffee and potatoes. As long as it’s destined for stores in the Western or Northern Cape, the product’s distribution lifecycle starts here.
It’s only when you see one of the distribution centre’s 350 full size trucks alongside the buildings that you can appreciate the scale of the structures - against the building, the trucks and trailers look more like children’s toys.
The dry goods warehouse is the biggest building on the premises - it has a floorspace of nearly 10 rugby fields, with 80,000 pallet positions for 16,000 products.
When you step inside the dry goods distribution centre you can begin to appreciate how big this building really is. A human of average height is lower than the first shelf of pallets - which rises at least six levels higher.
And just one of these Christmas buckets, distributed by Shoprite for NGO Project Raven, can feed a family of four for five days - and they stack more than 24 high in the warehouse.
Full sized bags of sugar, maize and flower also look like miniatures when stacked to the ceiling.
The warehouse operates in near total silence, thanks to voice-enabled technology fed to staff through ear pieces, and fully electric forklifts
There are dozens of forklifts at Cilmor, which whir quietly around the floor like ice skaters in a carefully choreographed performance.
The batteries for these electric vehicles are charged in the main warehouse. Each one of these giant black boxes is a charged - or charging - forklift battery ready to go.
In total, there are 140 different machines used in the day-to-day operations at this distribution centre.
There’s also futuristic machinery in the dry goods centre. This splits up huge pallets of products and repackages them in smaller quantities for stores that can’t handle as much stock.
Each one of the 133 doors is big enough to fit the back of a giant 18-wheeler truck. The trucks back up into the doors, and make for quick and easy loading and offloading of goods.
Shoprite uses advanced software for route planning and scheduling that automatically ensures the correct goods go to the correct trucks.
By directing staff to load goods into specific trucks, in a specific order, they’re able to ensure that trucks are full and packed in the order of delivery.
Once they leave the plant, the trucks are also guided and tracked - to ensure they use the most efficient routes.
Across the large lot is a return centre, where used crates and boxes go after being used in the delivery process.
Shoprite recycles every used box using a machine that pushes out massive snakes of compacted cardboard. It’s then Tetrised into the back of a truck and shipped to recycling centres - some of which are abroad.
There’s also a machine that automatically washes used crates. Effectively it now takes about five people to wash and stack 2,580 crates an hour.
Our last stop was the ‘smaller’ cold storage room - and on the way there we walked past 17 trucks receiving or despatching goods.
Many of the trucks in this department are fitted with solar panels - so that drivers can switch off the engines while loading, and not worry about the temperature of the cold storage dropping.
The cold storage unit is essentially a giant walk-in fridge and freezer - with varying temperatures according to what’s being stored. In total, the cold storage areas cover 30,000m2. This includes a new section for the supermarket chain’s FreshMark range.
The “warmest” section houses items like bananas, and there are ripening rooms where they wait until ready to be driven to stores at the perfect time.
Other rooms operate at sub-zero temperatures, and just a few minutes inside one of them without adequate clothing would be enough to cause hypothermia.
There’s also a giant “Chocolate Box”, which is always kept at 16°C, where they store temperature-sensitive confectionary items.
In spite of the massive scale, there were some reminders throughout about how the end users of these products are often just one or two individuals.
This crate, for example, was destined for Shoprite Bishop Lavis, and had just a few cakes and cookies.
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