More than 100 firefighters tackled a blaze at the online retailer’s hi-tech site in south east London on Friday. It is the second significant blaze to hit the company after a £110m warehouse in Hampshire was destroyed in 2019.
Online supermarket Ocado has cancelled some customer orders and warned of ongoing disruption after a fire caused by a collision between robots closed its largest distribution warehouse.
The blaze on Friday afternoon at the Thamesside facility in Erith, south east London, happened when three robotic vehicles used in the company’s state-of-the-art grocery picking system collided, causing a “deep-seated” fire tackled by some 100 firefighters as the giant building was evacuated. No-one was injured.
Ocado insisted that the fire had affected less than one per cent of the “grid” used by its automated vehicles and said it expected operations at the site to begin again within a week. But the blaze had an immediate knock-on effect, with customers being warned to expect deliveries to be cancelled and Ocado’s website refusing to take any bookings beyond the next week.
Customers took to Twitter to express their bemusement with orders being cancelled as far away as Hampshire and others saying they had switched to a different retailer to avoid missing their delivery. One customer complained that his order on Saturday had been cancelled yet Ocado deliveries were made to two of his neighbours.
The online supermarket, which has become a hit with investors after benefiting hugely from the shift to online shopping during the pandemic and increasing its customers by more than a fifth during the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, apologised for the upheaval.
In a statement, the company said that apart from a residual smell of smoke, the warehouse was largely undamaged. It added: “While we expect some disruption to operations, we are working to restore normal service as soon as possible. We expect the facility to begin operating within the coming week and thank customers whose orders are affected for their patience.”
The fire is the second significant blaze caused by an incident linked to its grocery-carrying robots to affect the retailer. In February 2019, a new warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, was destroyed in a fire that burned for four days and cost Ocado some £110m.
A subsequent investigation into the fire found that it had been caused by an electrical fault in a battery charging unit which resulted in a plastic lid on one of the automated vehicles catching light. A report found that the blaze was able to spread because a detection system failed and staff turned off sprinklers for a brief period before realising the fire was taking hold and calling 999.
Ocado said the Erith fire had been successfully contained by deploying all suitable measures. Some 15 fire engines were called to the warehouse with firefighters remaining in place until the early hours of Saturday to ensure any hot spots had been dampened down.
When asked about the number of customers affected by cancellations or when it was likely to re-open orders for the coming weeks, the supermarket said it had nothing to add to its existing statement.
The company last year recorded a 35 per cent leap in revenues to £2.2bn, with underlying profits of £73m. In its most recent earnings statement earlier this month it said it was continuing to run at a net loss as it invests heavily to meet booming demand. The company has scored a significant success by selling its hi-tech warehouse system abroad to other retailers.