Most retailers do most of their sales in the fourth quarter around Christmas. Amazon was no different.
This creates a bit of a problem. For physical retailers, parking lots are full, checkout lines grow, and stores become crowded. For online retailers, traffic on the website spikes, databases are strained, customer service overwhelmed, and the warehouses buried.
The warehouse is a particularly interesting story. The huge influx of orders meant a huge outflow of shipments. It's a nice problem to have, but someone has to pick those books and pack them in boxes so they get out the door.
Someone was us. For much of November and December, everyone at Amazon who wasn't holding the wheels on the website was either answering customer service or packing books at the warehouse. Everyone means everyone. Jeff Bezos, the CTO, software engineers, web devs, marketing guys, editors, everyone.
It may sound like a burden, but it was actually quite interesting. Working in the warehouse means learning everyone about how a book gets from a virtual order in a database to a physical package on your doorstep.
In those days, Amazon only had one warehouse, a scrappy, cluttered building in the industrial neighborhood of south Seattle. By today's standards, the building was tiny. Amazon's largest distribution center can hold 13 football fields now; that first warehouse might have been satiated with just one or two.
I spent many days shuffling through the warehouse. I pulled incoming books off the truck and placed them on the shelves. I picked books for orders; my favorite was always singletons, one pick and you're done. I packed orders into boxes, making sure to slap the mailing label onto my shirt before closing the box so it didn't get lost. The only thing I didn't do was gift wrapping. A gorilla had more talent with wrapping paper than I.
I touched thousands of shipments on their way out the door. Who knows, that book you ordered one Christmas may have been shipped by me. Or, perhaps, by Jeff Bezos.
Packing books in the warehouse continued for many years, at first out of necessity, then just to give us stuffy people in corporate HQ a clue about life on the front lines. I might have complained at the time, but those days in the warehouse were a remarkable experience.