“My name is Leonard,” a man named Leonard announced to a group of 28 visitors to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in southwest Phoenix last Thursday. “I’m going to be your tour ambassador today.”
The group would leave, Leonard promised, knowing how things they ordered from Amazon.com got to their house. “But first, I gotta see your driver’s license.”
After he looked at everyone’s photo IDs, Leonard ran through the ground rules. No photography, video, or audio recording were permitted, he explained. “I have to ask you to conceal your cellphones. There will be a lot of scenery going on during the tour. Please don’t touch any of it.”
One visitor showed up wearing open-toe sandals, carrying a purse. Both were against the Amazon rules. An employee named Robert brought the man a pair of sneakers and took his purse to a nearby locker.
During the tour it was important, Leonard said, that everyone stay about a foot and a half from any fulfillment machines, and not to talk to the people working, who he said were called associates. “Some of the associates will be on bicycles, so if you hear a ring-ring, step to the side so they can get by. You will see blue tape or green tape. Stay to the left of the green tape.”
“What side of the blue tape?” a woman with a nose ring asked Ruby, one of the assistant tour ambassadors, but Ruby didn’t hear.
Ruby and Leonard ushered the group into the Amazon warehouse. They were headed, Leonard said, to the welcome room. Everyone walked single file and was careful not to speak to any associates. A teenager visiting from New York glanced at a yellow bin resting on a shelf.
“Don’t even think about touching that,” the man she was with said, and they both laughed.
A woman from Paradise Valley pointed to a poster that listed Amazon associates celebrating August birthdays. “They have assigned times to eat birthday cake,” she whispered to her companion.
In the welcome room, everyone sat in folding chairs facing Leonard. “We are trying to cure the minimum wage crisis,” he said, “so we raised that minimum wage from $15 an hour to $19.50 an hour. You may have read that we don’t have restrooms. It’s simply not true. Actually, we have plenty.”
Leonard urged the visitors to use one of Amazon’s restrooms. The tour would take an hour, he said, and there would be no bathroom breaks. “So, go now, or forever hold your pee.” He waited for his laugh.
“I like to joke around,” he told the crowd.
The warehouse would be loud with noisy machines, Leonard explained, so everyone would need to wear headsets, and Leonard would speak to them via microphone. While the visitors adjusted their headsets, Leonard rattled off some numbers. “The warehouse is 22 million square feet. On Cyber Monday in 2010, we had 86 million orders. That’s 196 products a minute, and we sent them out to 185 countries around the world.”
Outside, Leonard stopped the group in front of a wall of cubbies jammed with stuff. “I know you look at this and think, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the most sloppiest people I’ve ever seen.’ But there’s 20 years of technology in this system here. We call this random stow. Instead of having aisles of just books and aisles of just baby products, we figured out it was faster to just put everything everywhere. Our pickers walk by and if they’re in this area, their scan gun will tell them to grab stuff in this area. We call that an optimized pick path.”
Leonard took the group to another row of shelves. “This is what we call our pick pod,” he said. “In this area alone, we have 14 million items. You could give 10 items to each resident of metro Phoenix and still have items left over.”
“I’d like an electric toothbrush,” a woman in a Rolling Stones T-shirt said to the man on her left. He pointed to his earphones. “What?” he hollered.
Upstairs, Leonard showed off the packaging department. “We have 13 miles of conveyors in this facility alone.
There are 13,000 tons of metal in this building. We could build the Eiffel Tower twice.”
“But who needs two Eiffel Towers?” a tall, skinny boy in cargo shorts asked a woman who had slipped her headphones off.
“Zachary, so help me God,” she replied.
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Leonard pointed to a row of totes spinning through a machine that looked like a tanning bed. It was recording, he said, what was in each tote and then sending that information to the packing department so that workers there would know what kind of box to use. “Wow,” Zachary said, mostly to himself. “That’s exciting.”
Ruby helped people line up to have their pictures taken holding an Amazon shipping box. “Hold it right side up,” Leonard called out, “or the Amazon smile will look like a frown.”
As the visitors filed out of the warehouse, an Amazon associate took their headsets and gave them a brown paper box. The boy named Zachary opened his. “Oh look,” his mother said. “It’s an Amazon water bottle.”
“I wanted an Eiffel Tower,” Zachary said.