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.