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Amazon's local distribution center busier than ever

With the holiday season, the Amazon distribution center in Scottsdale, Ariz. had the energy dial ratcheted up to 11.

From electronics to tools to clothes to actual books, people are racing around like well-trained bees, except in this hive, the honey is the products. Because Amazon generally deals in items light-weight enough to ship, its warehouse employees don't all need forklift certification, which is extremely rare for a business this size.

Instead, their employees must be experts in navigating the robust and complex inventory system that keeps track of where all the needles are located within that gigantic haystack. Golf balls may be located next to mp3 players, which might be just below kitchen knives. The animating principle behind the organization system for Amazon's distribution center -- or as Amazon refers to it, "fulfillment center" -- has nothing to do with the category or brand of item.

Rather, efficient use of space is the top priority. Items are placed where they best fit, like a giant game of retail Tetris. And since there's no OSHA forklift certification or other similar requirement for these employees, anybody who can learn to navigate the handheld digital devices that access the inventory location system can be part of the Amazon team.

When an order comes in, an employee is dispatched into the byzantine maze, and with the assistance of the handheld device, is able to navigate to the appropriate item. They then scan the item, place it in their basket and move on to the next item in the order. It could be said that in the Amazon distribution center, the employees are actually doing the shopping for you.

If the item is a gift, Amazon offers gift wrapping service. And, in a touch that may surprise many, they employ a staff of actual human beings to wrap the gifts, instead of an impersonal machine. Amazon is convinced that most people can tell the difference between a human wrapped and a machine wrapped gift, and that making sure that actual human beings are the ones doing the wrapping adds a personal touch that pays off in customer appreciation.

It's difficult to imagine the old days, when we used to order things from a catalog, where you'd select your items, fill out the form, mail it in with payment, and then wait, sometimes for months, for your item to arrive. Perhaps there is some nostalgia to be had from getting a new catalog in the mail and pawing through its glossy sheets, but surely the Amazon era is a better time to be a customer.

Almost anything you can imagine, from esoteric celestial navigation tools to forklift certification study guides, as long as it's shippable, is at your fingertips, and usually at lower prices than anywhere else. And instead of months, the wait is measured in days. For consumers, it truly is a brave new world.

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