ONE DAY AT AMAZON
In The Belly Of The Beautiful Beast
An Essay By Mills Snell
Around this time last year, I began noticing the annual deluge of radio and billboard seasonal hiring ads for our area Amazon fulfillment center. Curiosity got the best of me. I’ve been driving by this facility for a number of years and always wondered what actually happened inside. What was the journey like for the constant stream of packages arriving at my door? My wife begrudgingly, but graciously, entertained my curiosity and let me wander down the Amazon rabbit hole.
APPLICATIONS & INTERVIEWS
I applied online on a Monday, through a third-party staffing agency where I filled out all my personal information and then took an assessment that asked questions like:
If you saw someone stealing something, what would you do?
a) keep to yourself
b) talk to them directly
c) tell your supervisor
After completing the application, I was directed to visit one of their local staffing agency offices anytime during business hours. The following day I arrived at a sleepy, predominantly vacant shopping center and entered a single large room with several half-wall partitions. When I signed in, the person at the desk asked if I had applied online or not, and because I had, I was asked to take a seat and wait. Others came in and applied on desktop computers that were in the waiting area, which consisted of about 30 chairs steadily occupied by the rotation of applicants coming in and out. My name was called, my picture was taken, and then I was directed past about a dozen desks of staffing employees to a rear waiting area of about 20 chairs in front of a television. A group of us sat and watched an 8-minute video in repetition for about an hour and 15 minutes before I was called over for my interview. About 25-30% of the people that waited with me during this video loop got up and left, saying under their breath things like, “Man, forget this, I don’t have time for this!” I couldn’t help but think that this friction was a planned winnowing.
My interview consisted of a mouth swab for drug testing, picking a job task, day or night shift, signing up for an on-site orientation, and receiving my ADP card where my paycheck would automatically be sent. I chose the job of “Picker”, which was the only job available (the four main jobs at Amazon Fulfillment are Receive, Stow, Pick, and Pack). My orientation was scheduled for Thursday, and I was told that I would be paid for that time.
A staffing agency manager walked around trying to convince applicants to take the night shift for an extra $0.35 an hour. Day shift pay was $10.53 an hour. I stuck with the day shift.
On Thursday, I arrived at the fulfillment center for what amounted to a 3-hour safety seminar. My cohort that day was about 170 people, of which the gender majority was female with a wide dispersion of age ranges. We were instructed about general safety precautions, reaching items overhead, correct posture when lifting, and how important correct posture and kinesiology are when making repeated motions. A man in his 60’s sitting next to me let me know he was excited about this job and his prospects of getting to join Amazon full time, and that his previous job required him to start at 4:00 a.m., so he was excited about a 6:30 a.m. shift start.
A woman who identified herself as “Mama P,” an employee of the staffing agency, gave us lots of practical advice. We should show up early, because they assume not everyone is going to show up on the first day and only a limited number of people will be let in. She let us know that if we were caught with a cell phone, the police would be called and the phone would be searched for pictures -- and we would be terminated. Interestingly, you walk into the facility with just an ID badge, but you must walk out through metal detectors. Mama P also let us in on a secret about what the number one stolen item was in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Condoms.
SO IT BEGINS
My shift was on Saturday, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. 30 minutes for lunch, two 15-minute breaks. Apparently, if I was caught sitting other than those times, I would be fired.
I waited through a registration line of new hires, where my ID badge was handed to me (picture from the staffing agency office earlier that week). While we waited in a large cafeteria for everyone to be processed, I sat by a man in his 30’s who said he routinely picked up seasonal work at Amazon to supplement his primary income earned through selling items on Ebay. While waiting, we were notified that mandatory overtime was in effect, and 60 hours a week was required because it was peak season. Several groans came from the crowd, to which the staffing agency employee responded, “Hey! We are all here to make that money, right? Well these people are handing it out.”
We then moved to a large classroom where groups of five new employees were assigned to an ambassador that would help orient us. We were given a series of laminated information cards that clipped on to our ID badge necklace that contained maps of the facility, common codes for the scanners, etc. My ambassador had been with Amazon for about 6 months and she recently moved to this facility from a “non-sortable” facility in Spartanburg, SC. Non-sortable is anything that doesn’t fit in the yellow totes that are about 18x24 inches. There had to have been tens of thousands of these yellow totes in the fulfillment center. The sortable facility I worked in is one mile long, and contains three floors. There are apparently three Amazon facilities on this site: the one I worked in, one that prints books for Amazon’s publishing arm, and then another that I’m not sure about its specific use. My ambassador gave us a tour of the various areas in our facility and pointed out the different jobs before we were taught how to use the personal handheld scanners that Pickers use.
One of the most fascinating things about the facility was how seemingly unorganized it seemed. Vertical shelving held cardboard boxes with specific alphanumeric and color coded locations, but the contents of each of these bins seemed completely random. One box might contain: a pack of men’s vitamins, three different books, a Taylor Swift CD, a pair of jeans, a phone case, a travel size shampoo, and a pack of toothpicks with Italy flags on them. The genius of this system is that no single item is very far away. If all the ketchup is stored in the back corner, then it is inefficient to pick that item. The “Everything Store” has fulfillment centers everywhere that store all kinds of items everywhere.
Since Amazon knows the dimensions of each product, they know how many of these various items can fit in a bin. Stowers, one of the other 4 main jobs, are responsible for putting items into specific bins. Some bins had 50 or more different products, and they were often packed full, which led to a digging exercise to find the specific product that was to be picked.
Pickers don’t try to calculate the fastest route between different items on a list, but the scanners instruct each Picker towards a single location at a time. Here’s how it works: start your scanner, grab a rolling cart and yellow tote, and go to the specific bin location on your scanner. Scan the barcode on the bin, and the scanner specifies the item to be pulled from the bin. Scan the item, scan your yellow tote again to link the item with the tote, and then the next bin location is given and the process repeats.
I found it interesting that I wasn’t told the item to be picked until I scanned the bin. Sometimes I would scan 5 items before I was instructed to drop my tote on a conveyor belt, and sometimes I would place 30 items in the tote before I couldn’t fit anything else and would have to drop it on the conveyors. I’m not sure how these items were separated further down the line into customer specific lots.
First day Pickers were expected to work up to a rate of about 60 picks per hour, and I was able to get up to 120 picks per hour. This should paint a picture of how location-specific my picks were and how short of a distance I had to move between picks. I would frequently pick several items from the same row and section. I heard many people say that Pickers walked 13 miles on the average shift. I felt it.
Once we were trained on the scanner, our ambassador floated between our 5 new hires and helped us problem solve as we began getting to work on our own. I was a fully autonomous employee before lunch time. There were 170 people that started that day, and I would estimate over 2,200 employees in this one location. Fastenal vending machines were dispersed throughout the facility through which any employee could type in their code and freely receive work gloves, reflective vests, box openers, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, electrolyte packets for water, band aids, etc.
A post-lunch huddle was conducted in our area of the FC, where about 120 Pickers from our section gathered around a young man who looked to be in his early 20’s. He discussed productivity and some situation-specific items to be aware of. Two women carried on a conversation, but were quickly reprimanded by him. He wielded what seemed like incredible power and responsibility. He was respectful, but direct.
My entire afternoon was spent picking and was confined to a relatively small level of the facility on the third floor. It is difficult to express how incomprehensibly large this facility really is. The rows and stacks of vertical shelving run as far as can be seen in almost every direction, and the facility is three stories tall. Around 4:00 p.m., I received a text message alert on my scanner announcing a competitive “Power Hour,” during which the top two most productive Pickers would each receive a $10 pay bonus. I don’t know how many Pickers were working during that shift, but it was easily several hundred. Incentives are such an interesting thing.
SO IT ENDS
I left that shift feeling like I drank from a fire hydrant, struggling to take it all in. It was an operational wonder created by the wealthiest man in the world. I notified the third-party staffing agency that I wasn’t planning on returning to work, which I realized throughout my shift was a fairly normal occurrence. The staffing agency works off a points system, and at the end of peak season employees with a high enough point balance are eligible to be considered as an Amazon full-time hire. Points are lost at varying amounts for being late, failing to show up at all, failing to show up but giving notice, etc.
I left that shift with a profound appreciation for the package waiting for me at my front door. Our fulfillment center shipped 273,000 packages on my shift.
The next day I emailed Jeff Bezos to express my wonder for the system and my appreciation for the experience. The systemization of processes and tasks are inexplicably woven into the entire operation. As an investor focused on longevity and durability of competitive advantage I was awestruck by this 800-pound gorilla, and became a meaningful shareholder the following day.
I am a long time customer of Amazon and a Prime member for close to 10 years. In that time I have gotten married, had three children, and bought my first home. Amazon has been a constant resource throughout these disparate seasons and become indispensable in many ways.
I recently exited a company that I helped start several years ago, and found myself exploring some curious thoughts during my increase in marginal time. To that end, I heard local radio ads from a third party staffing company hiring for the CAE1 Fulfillment Center in West Columbia for peak season. I always wondered what the inside of a fulfillment center looked like (and where so many of my packages traveled through), so I applied for a job.
I was amazed by the application and onboarding process - from an HR, operations, and human behavioral psychology standpoint. The ability to corral and rally several hundred individuals and take completely untrained new hires and have them working with relative autonomy in a matter of hours was staggering to watch and participate in. I sat among my fellow orientation participants and heard them talk about their eagerness for advancement, their past jobs and the conditions of other workplaces, the way this job would help provide for a more meaningful holiday with their families, and their aspirations for being converted to a full time hire. It was a really amazing thing to observe and be immersed in. It provoked gratitude for the opportunities that I have been provided and endeavor to provide for my children.
The scale of the facility was incomprehensible, and the magnitude of the operation was absolutely fascinating to take in. I worked as a Picker and settled into a steady rhythm, beginning to race against my previous pace in an ever increasing manner.
I have a number of observations and questions that resulted from the experience but I left my first (and last) day as a fulfillment associate with a newfound appreciation for the process that I had taken for granted, the company as a whole, and for the economic benefit it provides my community. The next day I became an AMZN shareholder and look forward to continuing as a customer.
As trivial as it may sound, please know that you are welcome in Columbia, SC anytime.
I received the following reply from HR later the same day.
We are writing to confirm receipt of your e-mail below. Please be advised that we have shared your e-mail with the appropriate parties. We appreciate you taking the time to share your feedback.
Amazon Human Resources