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Cheap Gas, Cheap Gifts

Monday, 30 Nov 2009 | 9:30 AM ET

Today I am at a ginormous 600,000 square foot facility in Phoenix, where Amazon.com packages up small items for shipping.

Yesterday we spent time at an even larger facility here where they pack up the big things, like an 82" home theater system. They use 500 miles of packaging tape in this building every day. Ok, that's what they told me, I have not been able to verify.

As I walked down the aisles of merchandise being gathered by "pickers", I was reminded of the final scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", when the Ark of the Covenant is tucked away deep in the bowels of some government basement. My version of the ark: the Zhu Zhu Pet. I found the last one in here, and they only let me touch it because the box is damaged, so it's not going anywhere.

Nothing about the way these shelves are stocked makes sense. You have protein powder next to computer modems next to diapers next to tea. "We call it random stow," says Paul Ryder, Amazon's VP of consumer electronics (by the way, security checks everyone's bag on the way out to make sure you haven't walked off with an iPod). "Random stow" means that whenever new merchandise comes in, workers put it anywhere on the shelf where they can find a spot. The computer tracks it all. Like chaos theory, it works. Since toys or books are scattered throughout the vast facility, pickers usually don't have to walk that far to get what they need to fill orders. If all the toys were at one end, books at another, you'd spend a lot of time traveling unnecessarily.

That's the theory at least.

Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition
Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition

Nearly one in three of us are expected to shop online today. This after the National Retail Federation says 23 million more of us shopped over the Black Friday weekend than a year ago-a total of 195 million Americans. However, individually, we spent less. I wonder, though, if that necessarily means we bought fewer items. With so many things on sale, it would be difficult to spend more than a year ago, even if you bought more gifts.

And cheap gifts aren't the only reason Americans are out and about.

Inside AMZN's Cyber Monday
A look at how online retailer Amazon is expected to do this Monday, with CNBC's Jane Wells.

This holiday, my family took a road trip to San Francisco.

With gas under $3 a gallon, we were not alone. The hotels we stayed at were packed. Getting a place to sit at the breakfast buffet was harder than crashing a White House dinner party. Along the way we saw crowded parking lots at big box stores and malls, and let's not even talk about the gridlock around the premium outlet malls. The manager of one national chain store joked to me that people come in on Black Friday to buy essentials like toilet paper and complain with surprise, "Why are all these people here?"

Cheap gas, cheap gifts. Those of us blessed with jobs have much to be merry about.

Was it crowded where you were at this weekend? Let me know on the comments below.

I wonder if Amazon security will check my bag for that Zhu Zhu Pet.

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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