SANTA'S GIANT HELPER
With double the workload in the run up to Christmas, Amazon’s giant Hemel Hempstead fulfilment centre runs on hundreds of workers, high-technology and the odd pop star
et’s be honest. The festive spirit can easily wane when faced with shops jam-packed with people clutching Christmas lists and jostling to get to the shelves, only to find an empty space where this year’s much-soughtafter gift should be.
The desperation is often palpable. But there is another way and one that has rocketed in popularity in recent years. Relaxing on the sofa with your feet up, perhaps even with a tipple and a mince pie, these days many of us make those allimportant purchases with a few clicks online.
Founded in 1994 by US entrepreneur Jeff Bezos in his garage in Washington, internet retail giant Amazon today aims to have everything you could possibly want this Christmas.
The global company has 17 ‘fulfilment’ centres in the UK, including one in Hemel Hempstead which opened in 2012. It’s a monster – 450,000 sq ft – the size of five football pitches. Inside are seemingly endless rows of shelving housing millions of products, with employees, known as ‘pickers’, pushing carts miles up and down the aisles each shift. The quantities are huge, on a normal day several items a second leave the building, at Christmas the workload doubles. About half of Amazon’s more than 250 million items for sale is stock from its own inventory; the other half is from third party sellers.
What is immediately striking and at first completely baffling is that the products are not organised by category, but are seemingly randomly stowed – you’ll find books next to juicers and cuddly toys alongside watering cans.
There is one simple rule – if there is space and it is safe to do so, anything can be stowed anywhere, resulting in the same item at several different locations across the building. It may seem entirely bonkers, but there is method in the madness. Just imagine trying to find a particular HDMI cable among shelves full of similar ones. But if that item is on its own, in between say a particular football
and board game, then it’s easily scooped up.
Trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack is assisted by technology, which guides and monitors pickers and means they are not required to memorise where things are.
So what happens after you’ve spotted what your niece is desperately after on the Amazon website and placed an order? It appears on an employee’s handheld scanner, which provides them with the most suitable ‘pick path’ through the ‘pick tower’ – optimised to reduce how far the picker has to walk.
Once a product is found for shipment, it is placed in a yellow box and on to a conveyor belt, where it is sent to the pack lines. You may think your order is all done by the same picker, but it’s highly unlikely. Again, it’s all down to tech.
The operation is heavily dependant on algorithms, right down to picking the correct cardboard packaging (from 26 sizes at the Hemel site) for posting, to minimise wastage.
Roy Perticcuci, vice-president of European customer fulfilment, says the company is working to reduce waste further. ‘We’re working on the packaging,’ he says, admitting, ‘A customer sent me a picture once of a woman curled up inside a box – the box had been for an umbrella.’
After an item has been boxed, a taping machine will dispense the exact amount of tape needed, and a barcode is applied. Next, a conveyor belt takes the parcel down to the SLAM line (scan, label, application, manifest), where it is scanned, weighed and measured before the customer address and postage details are added.
The system knows what time the parcel has to leave the centre to get to the customer on time, and if there is a discrepancy with the parcel, for example if it weighs too much, it will be
‘You spend all year preparing for it, with the objective that we do an extraordinary thing over Christmas’
sent down a chute to be doublechecked it is the right item.
David Tindal, site leader at the Hemel site, says the technology to deal with the vast number of orders each day is remarkable.
‘The system is very automated, so yes things do go wrong, but I think what’s amazing is how unusual that is and, if there is an issue, how quickly you get things fixed.’
And when it comes to Christmas, there is little room for error as the volume of orders doubles. ‘It’s a bit like a being a sportsman,’ explains David, who has worked for Amazon for three years. ‘You spend all your time preparing for the big competition. I think that’s how it feels in peak at Amazon – you spend all year preparing for it, with the objective that we do an extraordinary thing over Christmas, and it works like a well-oiled machine.’
And the machine runs down to the wire, with deliveries made right up to Christmas Eve. ‘If we promise you an order before Christmas, even if you have ordered it on December 23, we will do absolutely everything to make sure it gets delivered on the 24th,’ says David.
With parallels to children’s film Arthur Christmas, which sees heaven and earth moved to deliver a present to a child missed by Santa, David recalls, ‘There are a couple of Amazon stories where a single Christmas delivery has missed the truck and we will just pop it round to someone’s house because we think it could be children opening presents for Christmas,
and if they haven’t got the present they were looking for it has a huge impact. You do feel a bit like Santa.’
Amazon will double its workforce at the Hemel centre by hiring 1,000 seasonal workers to help pick, pack and ship customers’ festive orders. And Amazon likes to keep them motivated. There are activities planned for every day from Black Friday – this year on November 23 – right through to Christmas Eve. In the past these have ranged from a musical talent show, flash mob and DJ set, to a Deal or No Deal game for high-performing employees. St Albans-based British country duo The Shires and popstar Olly Murs have also been surprise performers at the centre in the run up to Christmas.
David recalls one particular festive activity prompted much confusion among employees or ‘associates’ as the company likes to call them. ‘Amazon is really interesting, as we have people working here from all over the world,’ he says. ‘We were offering mulled wine – nonalcoholic as we were working – and gingerbread biscuits, but a lot of the associates had not seen gingerbread and mulled wine, so we had to explain why it’s a tradition for us.’
This year a fancy dress Christmas lunch will see the leadership team serve employees and clear up after them. ‘It’s always a really good atmosphere. We have a work hard, play hard ethos,’ says David.
It’s a world away from Santa’s workshop and the image of the traditional Christmas high street. But as our shopping habits increasingly go digital and the attraction of online Black Friday and other preJanuary sales pull our Christmas shopping into November, it looks like Santa’s giant helper may only get bigger.
MAIN & INSET:The site is the size of five football pitches. Pickers use handheld devices to find the shortest route through the miles of 'pick towers'LEFT:Picked items are placed in yellow boxes which are ferried by conveyor belt to the SLAM line
ABOVE:Olly Murs performed for the Hemel workers in 2014