New York • With five days until Christmas, someone in New York urgently needed 10 rolls of wrapping paper. Another person needed a bag of potatoes and aluminum foil baking pans. And someone needed six rolls of Scotch tape, 100 blank envelopes, and 240 dog poop bags — in different colors.
Even after online shipping deadlines have passed, holiday procrastinators in more than 30 cities who have already paid for Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime membership can order this weekend to get gifts, food or decorations in two hours — or even one, for an extra fee. The minimum order is $30.
There’s no shortage of late shoppers. More people are waiting until the last minute to shop, according to research by GlobalData Retail, which found that fewer shoppers had finished buying gifts for adults in the last week before Christmas this year than in the previous two years. Prime Now delivers all year long, but the holiday season is the busiest. Amazon.com Inc. says Dec. 23 last year was the biggest day for Prime Now in its three-year history, although it wouldn’t provide numbers.
Its workers will be delivering until 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
How does it happen? Unlike at the enormous warehouses that ship and box orders from Amazon.com’s main site, there are no robots or conveyor belts. Instead, workers at a Prime Now facility grab a cart and pull items from shelves quickly. The selection is smaller at Prime Now, with tens of thousands of items available, compared to the hundreds of millions of items on Amazon.com.
Here’s a look inside the maze of the three-story Prime Now facility across the street from the Empire State Building.
Labyrinth of Goods
At first glance, the shelves can look like a disorganized mess of mismatched goods.
That’s because when inventory comes in, items of all kinds are stocked on shelves that are broken into squares and rectangles with bright yellow dividers. One cubby, for example, had Calvin Klein boxers, a Rubik’s Cube, Viva paper towels and Amazon’s voice-activated device Echo Dot.
The system saves workers from spending a lot of time storing and organizing items. Amazon’s technology knows exactly where every item sits, and tells the dozens of workers who collect items where to find them in the aisles.
“It’s beautiful chaos,” says Stephenie Landry, Prime Now’s vice president.
When a shopper places an order through the Prime Now app or site, it is sent to a hand-held scanner that the workers in the facility hold.
The employee, pushing a multi-level cart, gets to work. Because Amazon’s technology knows the size and weight of each item, the scanner will tell a worker how many bags will be needed. Brown paper bags, rather than boxes, are how Prime Now items get delivered.
The scanner also shows the worker the fastest way to navigate the aisles of goods. Speed is critical — Amazon representatives asked an AP reporter and photographer to stand out of the way so as not to slow down the cart-pushing workers.
Protecting the Potato Chip
But there’s method in it. The aisles are arranged so that heavy items are placed in bags first. Delicate items, such as potato chips, sliced bread and tortillas, are in the last aisle before the order is sent out for delivery so they’re not crushed by cans of tomato sauce or bottles of sparkling water.
Time to Take Off
When the picker finishes up the orders, sticky labels with the customer’s name and address are printed out from a machine and stuck on the bags.
The brown paper bags are sealed and then placed on tall racks to be delivered by someone else. The delivery person either drives, walks, bikes or takes mass transit to get the order out, depending on the city.
Besides the U.S. locations, Prime Now operates in some international cities, such as London, Milan and Tokyo. New York was the first city to get the service in 2014, says Landry, and a way to test if the concept could work elsewhere.
“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” she says.