When minimalism met consumerism: my visit to an amazon fulfillment centre

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How does it feel when (as a minimalist) you get a behind-the-scenes look at the self-styled ‘earth’s most customer-centric company’?

Today, with my husband, Andrew, I visited an Amazon fulfillment centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire. Here’s my account of our visit.

Retail that makes Costco look like a corner shop

The Rugeley site is 1 of 13 in the UK (and there are around 100 such sites worldwide). Anyone can book to visit and I’d recommend it if you’re a school teacher or Business student studying Operations Management. It’s an interesting experience, made enjoyable by the pleasant drive through the pretty city of Litchfield with its medieval cathedral (the only one in England with three spires).

To give you an idea of the scope and scale of the Rugeley operation, at its busiest, during a recent Amazon prime promotion, this site managed one order every 8 seconds. Here, we could witness shopping on a vast scale that makes a Costco warehouse look like a corner shop.

All the twos

This place alone, situated at the foot of gigantic cooling towers from a nearby power station, has 20 million product lines and 2,000 staff. Further, the fulfillment of customer orders persists 22 hours in every day.

Lots of little things

Our friendly and informative guide, Jo, told us that the Rugeley site didn’t handle everything Amazon sold, but focussed on the smaller items. We witnessed this from the many thousands of products we passed, as we were invited to undertake a walk-through of the various parts of the Centre.

Goods in

The first part of our tour was the ‘inbound’ section. That is, all the items coming into the fulfillment centre, ready to be sold, were there.

The random nature of the items on the shelves was a key talking point. In terms of the where these items are stored on the racks, there is no ‘right place’ as there would be in a library. Rather, the randomisation of items makes them more distinctive on the shelf. That means they are easier to pick, reducing errors and maximising the use of the available space.

A barcode-driven business

A barcode-driven business, this is an empire built on the ability to scan and store information. Once a member of the inbound team has found a suitable location for a new item, the product is placed on the shelf with its location recorded by the scanning of the product barcode and shelf label. Clever!

Row upon row of plastic and cardboard

What struck me at this point was the sheer number of items we could see that were essentially plastic encased in cardboard. There was everything imaginable from slug pellets to whey powder and coffee makers to drinking cups. But does anyone actually need any of this stuff? Even our guide talked about ‘buying tat’ and tat* is what this is.

[*If you’re unfamiliar with this slang word, ‘tat’ means ‘tasteless or shoddy items’]

Here’s where I was able to appreciate the scale of the operation, but – inside – I just felt dismayed.

What are we actually paying for?

As consumers, what are we actually paying for when we buy such products? Surely, the human and environmental cost of producing these items is even more vast than the warehouse from which it is despatched?

Statista.com says that, in 2016, Amazon’s fulfillment expenses amounted to 17.6 billion U.S. dollars, up from 13.4 billion U.S. dollars in the year before.

So, when we spend our hard-earned cash to buy online, we are paying for so much more than the product itself.

In the ‘goods out’ part of the tour, it was possible to see how the products that are picked come together. From the initial random dispersement of the items stored, here’s where items are gradually brought together into one order for packaging and despatch.

Here, I could see what we actually pay for when we place an online order.

We’re paying for the shipment from the manufacturer to the fulfillment centre (never mind the wages of the employees who craft the products from the raw materials the manufacturer buys). We’re buying the packing paper crumpled into the Amazon delivery box, as well as the proprietary box in which the products come. We’re purchasing the internal packaging that surrounds the product (polystyrene, bubble wrap, tissue paper). We’re funding the tape used to seal the box. And so it goes on. Oh, and I almost forgot. We’re buying whatever is inside that box, whose actual value can only be pennies at the most.

Grotesque parcels?

I asked a question: how it was possible to receive an item in a box that was clearly too large for the product? For exampe, we once received a selfie-stick in an enormous Amazon box that was so large we thought it was a mistake.

Amazon calls these mis-matched packages ‘grotesque parcels’ but I can’t help feeling there’s something grotesque about the whole thing.

Doing good?

Yes, these types of businesses provide employment to those who work in their fulfillment centre, as well as workers throughout the supply chain. Yes, sites like Rugeley support local charities. Yes, the company is supportive of educational programmes that means they offer to pay 95% of the fees of a college course to employees who want to reach their goals. That’s all great.

Good may be being done, but at what cost?

Slow shopping

So, as I reflect on today’s experience, it makes me even more determined to be mindful as I purchase what I need. I’ve written about slow shopping before, but now I value it even more than ever.

I suppose what struck me most was how this highly sophisticated and complex operation had been established to provide consumers with products no-one truly requires.

Delivering what exactly?

Today, we witnessed just a small part of Jeff Bezos’ mighty empire. Yes, it was an impressive operation, but it didn’t make my heart sing. If you look at the Amazon logo, you’ll see a smile from the A to the Z. Rather than delivering happiness, I suggest they’re delivering tat that none of us actually need.

I’ll think twice before I click that button next time.

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