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Step Right In: A Tour of an Amazon Fulfillment Center

With typically careful packaging, Amazon opens its doors to the public.
(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

Here are a few things we know about Amazon’s warehouses. We know there are a lot of them—approximately 100 around the world. We know they move a lot of product: The company earned $74.4 billion in net sales last year, and while its octopus-like forays into TV production, Web service infrastructure, and streaming media distribution are a subject of wary fascination, the bulk of Amazon’s business is still bulky—involving things that need to be lifted, put into boxes, and shipped.

We know Amazon’s warehouses have been known to overheat: One facility in Pennsylvania stationed ambulances in the summer as indoor temperatures cracked 100 degrees. We know workers have died in them: In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined several Amazon subcontractors (but not Amazon itself ) after a temporary worker named Ronald Smith “was caught in between a conveyor system and crushed while performing sorting operations” at a New Jersey facility. Another employee at a Pennsylvania Amazon warehouse was killed in June, crushed by toppled shelves.

We also know that Amazon is a bit of a brick wall when it comes to public scrutiny. Which is why it was surprising when the company recently announced that it was opening up a few of its warehouses, or “fulfillment centers,” to regular public tours.

I signed up promptly, and on a warm July morning found myself waiting in the lobby of PHX6, an Amazon warehouse located in the anonymous industrial flatlands of western Phoenix. The facility, which opened in 2010, comprises 1.2 million square feet of floor space. Despite some challenges locating the main entrance of such a gobsmackingly huge edifice, the 20 or so members of the public who assembled in the lobby looked a bit like people in possession of a Golden Ticket.

In the enormity of the warehouse, it's hard to catch sight of any workers, let alone clusters of them, spitballing ideas about how to make a better Amazon.

It’s not clear what exactly possessed Amazon to open its doors—or what specifically it hopes to achieve by doing so—but for nearly as long as there have been factories, companies have found it worth their trouble to offer factory tours. The H. J. Heinz Company was one of the first industrial enterprises to do so, in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s, hoping to allay public suspicion of mass food processing, then a relatively novel concept. “There were very specific things that the public would get to see,” says Allison C. Marsh, a historian at the University of South Carolina who studies factory tours. “It was specifically marketed to show how clean their kitchen was, how they were using fresh ingredients.” Similarly, Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened the doors of its Chicago warehouse in the early 1900s to demystify the hidden world of catalog retail.

Amazon’s effort, for its part, seems aimed at influencing perceptions of what it’s like to work there. The rhetoric of the tour addresses us not as possible customers or critics, but as potential hires. After we pass a few banks of beige employee lockers and the security desk, we’re herded into a small classroom to watch a video highlighting the company’s robust seasonal hiring and its track record of employing military veterans. The video closes not with a pitch for Amazon Prime or the Kindle Fire, but with the URL for the fulfillment center’s careers website. Our tour guide, Lisa, tells us that this is her own first week leading the tour—information she delivers with the same tone of gratitude and excitement that suffuses the video we just watched.

The members of my tour group, however, seem less like warehouse-job seekers than like, well, tourists. Among the curious is Alan Metzger, a retired engineer who came with his wife and daughter and spent much of the tour in a wheelchair. He’s mainly interested in witnessing the facility’s logistics. “I wanted to follow an order being filled from start to finish,” he says. (Lisa says that tours at PHX6, which are held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month—barring holidays—are booked solid through October 2015.)

Once the tour gets under way, we see a good chunk of PHX6’s eastern half, albeit mostly from a distance. Amid the hum of miles of conveyor belts and blasting air conditioners—we need headsets to hear Lisa—we’re guided up to the second floor, where, after passing a machine busily sealing padded envelopes, we reach a marvelous vista. Below are what look like acres of loading docks, piled high with boxes and crates roughly ordered from large (mattresses? wide-screen TVs?) to small. It’s the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with better lighting.

Deliveries to PHX6 are separated into smaller and smaller receptacles, the tiniest of which are school-locker-size cubbies containing random assortments of consumer goods: Hello Kitty toys, Civil War collectibles, books. Curiously, the workers who are meant to gather all this stuff up—guided by handheld devices that chart the optimal route between one customer’s beard trimmer and the next customer’s yoga mat—are all but invisible. A bulletin board promotes kai-zen, a Japanese management buzzword for low-level employee teams that brainstorm workflow improvements. But in the enormity of the warehouse, it’s hard to catch sight of any workers at all, let alone clusters of them, spitballing ideas about how to make a better Amazon.

Five different employees join Lisa on the tour. At one point, one of them steps forward to show us how quickly a seasoned fulfillment center worker can assemble a cardboard box: She unfolds one and seals its top and bottom in under two seconds. We applaud. One of the tour group members is invited to give it a whirl himself; he takes forever, by comparison.

We get another opportunity to play Amazon employee on the other side of the loading docks, where deliveries are ready to go onto trucks. A table is stacked with empty Amazon packing boxes; beside it is a faux delivery truck, maybe five feet by three, ready to be filled. Lisa encourages us to each take a box and together see if we can Tetris the truck full. It’s a cornball task, but nearly all of us do our bit.

How much of PHX6’s 1.2 million square feet—and by extension, how much of Amazon—did we see? Quite a bit in terms of sheer acreage, though after 45 minutes it feels like very little. After Lisa takes a few moments to tell us about the charitable work that PHX6 takes part in, we’re guided back to the front doors, where we’re offered a few inexpensive parting gifts. One of them, tauntingly, is a pair of binoculars.

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