“THIS is the christmas flowers poland Operations Room,” said Sarah Shaughnessy as she proudly opened the door to a zone full of busy people at the South Midlands Mail Centre in Northampton.
I thought she was joking at first, but no, there was the sign on the door indicating that the festive period means serious business for the Royal Mail-run site.
The Chron had been allowed into this huge new centre at Swan Valley to see how Royal Mail staff cope with the workload at what is always their busiest time of year.
Peering over a balcony, I watched as workers in the 10,000 square metre warehouse busily operated long machines and even hand-sorted certain mail to ensure that second and first class letters and parcels made it to their final destinations.
The mail going through this centre is all collected from Northampton, Coventry and Milton Keynes mail boxes before being sorted by the South Midlands staff and sent back out to delivery centres.
December is Royal Mail’s busiest time of year and, during this christmas flowers poland blogs period, it is expected that the Northampton centre alone will handle and sort 84.5 million items, helped by an extra intake of 750 staff.
The centre operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to cope with its massive workload throughout the year.
Sarah, the early shift manager, dazzled me with an impressive array of statistics.
Pointing to a sorting machine for large letters she told me that this machine alone dealt with 22,000 items an hour. A separate, smaller letter sorting machine could handle up to about 42,000 letters an hour and 1.55 million a day.
With the rise in internet shopping, packets are a big business for Royal Mail and each year sees an increase of about eight per cent in the parcels handled by the South Midlands Mail Centre.
Sarah said: “I think packet volumes are up year on year. A lot of companies are having sales online and if things are on sale people will order them.”
This year, the busiest day for posting is expected to be December 12 when the estimated number of Christmas cards to be posted and sorted in this area is predicted to be 1.5 million.
Sarah said; “This is a popular posting day because that is the last weekend before posting dates. People write their cards at the weekend, so that Monday becomes the busiest day.
“It is very hard but, to be perfectly honest, we are on track and are in a very good position to keep up with that. Last year we were hindered by the weather.
“It is also very important to keep morale up, we are very busy but it is good to keep the staff motivated through the busiest three or four weeks and we usually have a few events going on like fancy dress and charity collections.
“We are looking to collect for an elderly person’s group, bring them in and give them a day here and we want to get a school in to sing carols too. We are also collecting for an animal welfare charity.”
And, with a total of 902 staff working at the centre during the Christmas season, there are plenty of people to motivate.
Planning for staffing as well as possible bad weather during the festive season starts as early as July each year.
Due to the snowy pre-Christmas weather conditions last year, mail managers also had to play a hands-on role, delivering some of the post themselves.
Sarah said: “Last year the weather got so bad we had managers out on Christmas Eve delivering parcels. One manager said he went to the front door of one home and the whole family was in the house waiting for half their Christmas presents to arrive. That comes out in the Christmas planning meetings too, the contingency plans which have to be put in place.”
Due to the volume of work, the centre also helps with the 32-way hand-sorting of foreign mail to help streamline the work of the Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre.
Sarah explained: “They go to Poland, France, America and all over, we break it down for them because of the huge volumes.”
Although there was once a time when mail would simply have been sorted through the power of human sight, machines now contain automatic readers capable of identifying even very individual handwriting.
Automated machines have a rejection rate of about one per cent, which means letters will be “rejected” if they are inappropriately addressed, for example, they may not include a postcode.
Sarah said that sometimes Christmas cards end up in the mail simply addressed “Mum and Dad”, as these may have been accidentally posted.
All mail which is impossible to post then gets sent to a centre in Belfast where efforts are made to return the letters, parcels or cards back to their senders.
But staff will work hard to try to identify even obscure addresses so that cards and parcels can make it through to their intended destinations.
One popular address which can be hard for the machines to identify is Santa’s house, which receives about 75,000 letters just from Northampton, Coventry and Milton Keynes postcodes each year.
Sarah said: “They do go to Santa and, when posted with a first class stamp, they do get a response.”
The correct address for writing letters to Santa is: Santa, Reindeerland, SAN TA.