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

Hertfordshire Life - - HEMEL - WORDS: Louise McEvoy

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

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