Plenty of people may not have heard of the retail firm Shop Direct. Its roots go back to the distant heyday of catalogue shopping, and two giants of that era, Littlewoods and Great Universal Stores. Now it is the parent company behind the online fashion brand Very and the reinvented Littlewoods.com. All this may sound innocuous enough. But in two areas of Greater Manchester, Shop Direct is newly notorious.
Until now, what the modern corporate vernacular calls “fulfilment” – in other words, packing up people’s orders and seeing to returns – has been dealt with at three Shop Direct sites, in Chadderton and Shaw, near Oldham, and in Little Hulton, three miles south of Bolton. But the company now has plans to transfer all such tasks to a “fully automated”, 500,000 sq ft “distribution and returns centre” located in a logistics park in the east Midlands. The compulsory consultation period begins tomorrow, and the shopworkers’ union Usdaw and local politicians are up in arms: if it happens in full, the move will entail the loss of 1,177 full-time posts, and 815 roles currently performed by agency workers; on the new site there will only be jobs for about 500 people. At a time when apparently low unemployment figures blind people to the fragility and insecurity of so much work, the story is a compelling straw in the wind: probably the starkest example I have yet seen of this era of automation, and the disruption and pain it threatens.