Monday, January 30, 2006

Early Amazon: Xmas at the warehouse

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.


jeff.dalton said...

Wow. Cool stuff. It's really cool to see that kind of teamwork in the company.

Real leadership means being the first to get down in the mud when things get rough. Sounds like Jeff Bezos exhibited some good leadership qualities in that respect. I can't imagine a lot of CEOs doing the same. Neat.

I know Walmart was lookinag at using RFID for inventory tracking in the warehouse. Do you think we'll ever see the same at Amazon? Is it necessary/worthwhile?

What about factory automation? I picture a ford-like assembly of robots packing books into boxes.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, John. Glad you're enjoying the articles.

I don't know about RFID, but Amazon's later warehouses (such as Fernley, Nevada, opened in 2000, I believe) were mostly heavily automated.

All of these stories are about the 1997-1998 period, the earliest years I was there.

If you're interested in more, these Time Magazine articles have some nice details:

I love this tidbit from 1994-1995:

His "company" was headquartered in a modest two-bedroom home that Jeff and MacKenzie rented in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb. They converted the garage into a work space and brought in three Sun workstations. Extension cords snaked from every available outlet in the house to the garage, and a black hole gaped through the ceiling--this was where a potbellied stove had been ripped out to make more room.

On July 16, 1995, opened its site to the world.

zippy said...

When Amazon acquired Alexa Internet, us Alexans came up to Amazon for one of the big all-hands meetings. We also got a tour of the Seattle warehouse. It's too bad they closed this warehouse down -- it seemed to embody a lot of the spirit of the early company.


Trout said...

True story:

Christmas '97, I was a temp in the Seattle warehouse, on the "singles" packing line (where single books were packed and shipped). A fellow coworker who shall remain nameless was a notorious cad and would hit on absolutely any female but especially the corporate folks who came to help for the holidays.

So one hectic afternoon I'm watching this guy make a particularly awkward pass at a very nice woman who was pretty much heads-down, focusing on getting stuff done in true Amazon spirit. She eventually finishes her cart and goes somewhere else, presumably to escape the guy's creepiness.

About a minute later our boss came up and asked him if he'd enjoyed talking to Jeff Bezos's wife.

Anonymous said...

he's making it sound like it was a great fun experience. working in the amazon warehouse isn't fun. they usually require employees to work at least 50 hours a week and up to 60 hours a week. the warehouse workers get little respect or appreciation. amazon has the strictest policies that i've ever seen on their employees. they work standing up through 10 hour a day shifts on hard warehouse floors. when you enter or exit the building you're treated like a prisoner and you have to go through a metal detector and you may be physically searched. when you see how much money the company is making off of you, you'll feel like you're being cheated in pay. it didn't feel like a professional work environment. it felt like being back in high school where people started forming cliques. the job sucks.