What an Amazon Fulfillment Center Tour Reveals
SMF1, an Amazon fulfillment center on the edge of Sacramento, California, is a low, gray, utilitarian building. Amid the yellowing fields of the Central Valley, it resembles a cluster of Legos abandoned in an untended back yard. The facility is named for Sacramento’s SMF airport, which is just across the road; it employs around two thousand people, and its forbidding architecture inspires obedience. On a recent afternoon, seven women with tight faces and heavy eye makeup stood in its lobby, wearing the comfortable walking shoes that Amazon had requested. They tried to peer past six sets of full-height turnstiles, above which Amazon’s internal slogan—“Work hard. Have fun. Make history”—had been painted on the wall. Beyond the turnstiles were nine gray metal detectors, reserved for exiting employees, and a multicolored balloon arch. The climate was controlled. There was an oppressive mechanical hum. “This is already amazing,” a woman wearing pedal pushers said.
The ride-share driver who’d ferried me to SMF1 from the train station had been skeptical when I told him I was there to tour an Amazon fulfillment center. “What’s your objective?” he asked. “You looking for some twelve-year-old Asian kids who are sewing things with their teeth?” As we turned into the parking lot, past a sign that read “Hiring Event,” I saw myself through his eyes—a writer for an East Coast publication, wearing loafers and a weather-inappropriate cashmere sweater, on a field trip from San Francisco to observe the working class. I wasn’t delusional. I didn’t expect to witness labor abuses on a scheduled, public, corporate propaganda tour. (Amazon has been offering fulfillment-center tours since 2015, and the company has expanded them to twenty-two facilities across the country since January, as part of a larger public-relations response to criticism of its treatment of hourly workers.) But I did want a glimpse, however small, of an opaque, privately owned system that has become part of daily life for millions of people. I also wanted, despite the tour’s Potemkin-village potential, to see Amazon’s interpretation of its best self.
In the lobby, our guide, a young woman radiant with enthusiasm, distributed guest badges. (I took the regular tour available to the public and didn’t identify myself as a journalist.) Our group filed under the balloon arch. We passed a map of the world with a note beside it: “Where do you identify with? Place a star on the map to show us!” A sign declared the fulfillment center a “No Phone Zone.” A dry-erase board, labelled “Voice of the Company,” contained tidy corporate announcements and exhortations; on another, “Voice of the Associate,” someone had scrawled, “You guys are never open to negotiations.”
We entered a classroom, where headsets and receivers were distributed.
“Why do you do these tours?” one of the guests asked.
“To show what goes on behind closed doors,” our guide said. There wasn’t much to hide, she said, and flashed us a smile. “And to combat misinformation,” she added.
Our first stop was the robots. Single file, we marched up a stairwell, onto a vast and labyrinthine warehouse floor. (The fulfillment center has four levels; the top three overlook a shipping bay on the first.) Taped lines on the floor indicated where to walk, guiding us to the perimeter of a vast pen, within which the robots rolled like overfed Roombas. Our guide asked us not to touch the fence, and everyone gave it several feet of clearance. “Don’t worry,” she clarified. “It’s not electric or anything.” (An Amazon spokesperson later said that there would have been no reason to avoid the fence.) Meanwhile, in the pen, the robots changed direction with the sharp, angular precision of a Broadway ensemble. Each robot carried a tower of yellow, cubby-like bins, which Amazon calls “pods.” In the pods, I spotted a tub of Colonix powder, a large container of Ultimate Omega, a toner cartridge, Meow Mix, pineapple-print linens, a bag of plastic Easter eggs, Crest toothpaste, and several boxes stamped with the logo of InvoSpa, a maker of self-massage products. It was an Advent calendar of late-night, 1-Click decisions.
We watched as, prompted by listings on a screen, an order picker removed items from the pods, placing them into another set of bins, called totes. Every forty minutes, our guide explained, the screens prompted workers to take a “mind and body break”; the picker we were observing had selected a hamstring exercise.
We walked down to the packing area. It felt endless and oddly desolate, with many of its stations unmanned. A thin young man, dressed head to toe in black, lifted a single tub of Pure Protein 100% Whey Powder from a tote, put it into a box, taped it shut, and moved it to a conveyer belt. The tour clustered around him, as if at an aquarium, before moving to an elevated pathway above the shipping bay. One guest waved to a distant group of workers, like a boater signalling to strangers on shore, before we returned to our classroom. By way of concluding our tour, our guide said that if Amazon were exposing a secret it might be that the company is a little more efficient than it lets on.
Outside, the heat was thick and dense. A weather app confirmed animal intuition: it was ninety-six degrees. People stood around, looking a little dazed. “Every place, I was like, ‘Oh, I’d work here,’ ” one of the tight-faced women said. Her friend raised an eyebrow. People posed for photographs with SMF1 in the background and, in the unforgiving sun, trickled back to their cars.
There has never been a commercial experience quite like Amazon. The site, on which six-packs of bicycle shorts, pepper spray, Keurig pods, and prefab tiny homes coexist, doesn’t resemble a traditional marketplace so much as the Mall of America after a major earthquake. (As it happens, the Mall of America, in Minnesota, now houses a wall of Amazon Lockers—self-service pickup portals for items ordered on Amazon.) Amazon’s third-party seller program, which enables anyone to list, sell, and ship products using the company’s interface and infrastructure, further contributes to the sense that it is a lawless, consumerist Wild West. Knockoffs abound, as do deceptively or fraudulently labelled items: in his examination of Amazon for this magazine, published earlier this month, Charles Duhigg detailed the Sisyphean efforts undertaken by Birkenstock to remove its products from Amazon’s reseller platform for fear that its brand would be tainted by fakes. (Amazon frequently says that it prohibits counterfeits and invests “heavily” in detecting and removing them from its listings.) It appears that nonsensical, exorbitantly priced e-books in Amazon’s marketplace have been sold and purchased by money launderers (Amazon told the Guardian that it takes steps to stop fraud when the company discovers it); bot-generated listings tout shower curtains and phone cases that feature random stock photos. According to the firm TJI Research, Amazon itself offers at least seven hundred and eighty private-label or Amazon-exclusive brands, hawking everything from furniture to lingerie and baby wipes. Its fulfillment centers are nodes where unrelated objects, manufactured in places such as Dhaka, Sri City, and Shenzhen, come together—way stations, thoroughfares, culverts for a nebulous, undular mass of everything people could, and apparently do, want.
My own apartment has taken on qualities of a fulfillment center—it’s another node where objects of unknown provenance aggregate. In the mid-two-thousands, I worked at an independent bookstore, and for nearly a decade I boycotted Amazon. The site tells me that I caved on January 4, 2016, when I bought a Brother HL-L2380DW Wireless Monochrome Laser Printer. Since then, my boyfriend has used the phrase “Amazon culture” to refer to the various objects that I have summoned, often late at night, to our front door: a variety box of 1,120 self-adhesive googly eyes; an AmazonBasics paper shredder; an ESARORA Ice Roller for Face & Eye, Puffiness, Migraine, Pain Relief and Minor Injury, Skin Care Products (Blue); an Anwenk Electric Sweater Shaver Lint Shaver Lint Remover for Sweater Knitwear Carpet Blankets; a Topo Comfort Mat by Ergodriven Not-Flat Standing Desk Anti-Fatigue Mat with Calculated Terrain [Must-Have for Any Standing Desk] (Obsidian Black).
As a consumption diary, my order history is not flattering. Many of my purchases happened through curated, affiliate-linked roundups on recommendation sites, such as Wirecutter and the Strategist—“I’ll Talk to Anyone Who Will Listen About These Comfortable Boots”; “The 13 Products I Use for My Chronic Raccoon Eyes”; “The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies”—which offered me solutions to problems I didn’t know I had. Earlier this year, in an essay called “What Is Amazon?,” the tech C.E.O. Zack Kanter highlighted the company’s clever habit of encouraging partners or customers to do work that Amazon itself would prefer not to do, because of its “bureaucratic complexity.” Sites like the Strategist curate Amazon’s selection better than the company itself ever could; such search-engine-optimized aggregations of search-engine-optimized products serve as both a revenue channel for affiliate partners (influencers, bloggers, legacy magazines) and a service to Amazon. (The New Yorker derives some of its revenue from affiliate links to Amazon.) The arrangement makes for a fascinating business-school case study. My own narrative was simpler: I felt bad about myself, so I bought something.
I felt bad after visiting the fulfillment center, too. (“You sound like someone who has just seen an industrial chicken farm for the first time,” a friend said, when I recounted the trip.) I was mad about the perverse incentives of capitalism; disgusted by the extractive nature of the global supply chain; ashamed at myself for being so susceptible to marketing. I also felt awe at the scale and precision of Amazon’s logistics. From its strips of perfectly measured packing tape to the minute-long breaks it metes out to its workers, the company operates with unprecedented efficiency. It would be wonderful if Amazon didn’t fight worker efforts to unionize, or increased their hourly pay, or consumed less energy, or better moderated its marketplace. But that version of Amazon could only exist if the company revised its core values: speed, frugality, optimization, and an “obsession” with the customer. Reformers talk more and more about breaking up the big tech companies; some leftists muse about nationalization. Regulation may change Amazon. For now, it’s exactly what it wants to be.
In late September, a group emerged, Amazonians United, Sacramento, to protest the company’s internal policies. “We are an organization of Amazon workers in the Sacramento area that is working to protect our rights at work, improve our working conditions, and create a real voice for Amazon associates,” reads a post on the Amazonians United, Sacramento Facebook page. According to the Verge, the group coalesced after an employee at the DSM1 “delivery station” in West Sacramento took time off to mourn her mother-in-law and was promptly fired upon return, having overdrawn her leave balance by one hour, because her bereavement leave hadn’t started yet. (Amazon said it offers hourly workers three days of paid bereavement leave, but added that it does not comment on personnel matters.) Twenty-four hours after the group circulated and submitted a petition, the employee was rehired, with back pay. Recent reporting on Amazon’s fulfillment centers has yielded a spate of stories about overwork, physical exhaustion, subpar facilities, and “productivity” firings for employees unable to keep up with demanding quotas. In his article on Amazon, Duhigg quotes Safiyo Mohamed, who, while still in her twenties, tore an intervertebral disk in her back working as a sorter at a Minnesota fulfillment center. “Amazon doesn’t want humans, they want robots,” she told Duhigg.
The same critical pressures that led Amazon to offer its fulfillment-center tours have pushed the company into other public-relations efforts. In August, it received a wave of negative attention for the Twitter accounts it had created for its so-called “fulfillment center ambassadors”—accounts, with display names including the words “Amazon FC Ambassador” and the parcel emoji, which sometimes tweeted in response to criticism and against pro-union sentiment. (“Sweating while working is common at any job,” one ambassador tweeted. “So excited for Amazon family day at my site this weekend,” wrote another.) In response, a number of Twitter users—many of them journalists—jokingly changed their display names to include the words “FC Ambassador” and the parcel emoji, turning the corporate Twitter program into a meme. Their mockery spoke to the company’s reputation as a cold, functional, and impersonal juggernaut. Unlike many of the larger tech corporations, Amazon does not promote idealistic, utopian, or progressive narratives about community or connection; it strives, almost always, to present itself as a kind of infrastructure. Perhaps it was inevitable that its efforts to humanize itself would scan as stilted and generic—the AmazonBasics of public relations.
The unnerving truth is that facelessness and placenessness are part of the value Amazon offers. Amazon culture is anonymity culture: anonymous objects ordered through an anonymous interface from anonymous sellers, funnelled, sorted, shipped, and delivered by workers who are often unseen. Even the company’s brick-and-mortar Amazon Go markets, which sell prepared foods and snacks, are designed to minimize interpersonal interaction by eliminating things like visible food production and checkout registers. (In its advertising, Amazon describes these shops in terms of the software that runs them: “What if we could weave the most advanced machine learning, computer vision, and A.I. into the very fabric of a store?” a marketing video asks.) The Amazon shopping experience appeals, in part, because it strips away the emotional dimensions of consumerism, like shame, guilt, or impatience. And yet—while it can be a relief to use a digitally mediated portal to purchase items like Spanx, or postnatal perineal balm—this efficient blankness comes at some human cost. It’s in this sense that the fulfillment-center tours run counter to the company’s self-image. Amazon is actually a company full of people, with all their inefficiencies—their bodily needs, their grief, their camaraderie, boredom, humor, and despair. The anonymity to which Amazon shoppers are accustomed is palliative, illusory.
On a recent afternoon, working from home, I heard the doorbell ring. I raced down the stairs, opened the door, and peered outside. No one was there. A public bus exhaled at the end of the block; the street was quiet and still. I bent down and picked up the box. I had the distinct feeling that I could be anywhere.