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Seattle-based Amazon.com rapidly building capacity in South Sound

It’s shortly after 6 p.m. at Amazon.com’s Kent sorting center when a loud alarm sounds and a river of packages begins flowing through the vast, but unadorned building.

Amazon workers, or “associates” as the Seattle-based Internet giant prefers to call them, had been relaxing at tables, playing video games in the employee lounge or table tennis in the warehouse. Before the work resumes, they walk quickly following the “green road” defined by lines painted on the building’s concrete floor, and take their stations. That floor is laid out with crosswalks and stop signs to keep the pedestrians and the forklifts shuttling across the floor from colliding.

The flowing packages, all marked with distinctive Amazon logos and carefully addressed to customers throughout the Northwest, are part of a rising tide of purchases expected to flood Amazon’s distribution system this holiday season.

That buying frenzy will hit its peak next week, on Cyber Monday.

To prepare for that growing onslaught of business, Amazon is hiring 80,000 seasonal workers to help its 132,600 employees cope with demand. And in the South Sound, Amazon in recent years has created several mammoth fulfillment centers to process orders from this region, Lindsey said.

That story is being repeated nationwide. Amazon, whose first warehouse was founder Jeff Bezos’ Bellevue garage when the company was named Cadabra, has created dozens of huge fulfillment centers worldwide. Amazon has built two big fulfillment centers, one in Sumner and the other in DuPont. They joined an existing Amazon fulfillment center in Bellevue serving the Northwest region.

The one-million-square-foot DuPont operation opened in June. It still is working toward full capacity. The half-million-square-foot Sumner fulfillment center began operation in 2011. And in Kent adjacent to the sorting center, Amazon is building its fourth Puget Sound fulfillment center on a site that once was part of Boeing’s Kent Space Center. That two-block-long center will cover seven times as much space as the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.

The Kent sort center is a new addition to the inventory of Amazon’s South Sound infrastructure The 300,000-square-foot tilt-up concrete building opened for business in July.

The sort center is a new kind of operation for Amazon. The company sorts by ZIP code small and medium packages from its fulfillment centers destined to be delivered by the postal service. The Kent sort center is one of 15 such operations the company is targeted to have operating by year’s end, Lindsey noted.

HOW IT WORKS

Unlike the fulfillment centers, which stock millions of items that are picked from storage shelves and boxed for shipment, the sort center houses no stored merchandise. Trucks stuffed with packages filled and packed at the fulfillment centers arrive at the sort center 24 hours daily but with the largest volume of shipments appearing at the sort center portals between late afternoon and early morning.

At the sort centers, those boxes go on a conveyor belt to carry them across the warehouse to a two-story sorting chute. Mechanical arms sweep bunches of boxed orders into half-a-dozen metal chutes to Amazon workers who sort the avalanche of boxes by destination onto four conveyors below.

The mechanical arms keep the number of boxes and padded envelopes evenly spread among the chutes. The workers use long, extendable rake-like devices to pull any reluctant packages down toward the sorter.

Those conveyers carry the packages across the floor where they are further sorted onto additional conveyors that carry them in front of a dozen or so human sorters. Those sorters pull the boxes from the belt based on their destination post offices, stacking them on pallets destined for each post office in the region. Those pallets are wrapped in plastic to keep the boxes from tumbling off when they are moved by forklifts to a score of warehouse truck doors keyed to their ultimate geographic destinations.

Those trucks, loaded for post offices in specific areas, head to post offices throughout Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Arriving before dawn, postal workers distribute the boxes to specific mail routes for delivery.

LESSONS LEARNED

The sort centers employ a mix of high technology and human capabilities to accomplish their tasks The sorting is done by human eyes and hands. Electronic scanners strapped to the sorters lower arms capture the shipments’ unique codes and record their passage through the center to track their movement to their destinations.

Amazon hatched the sort center concept to improve customer service, Lindsey said.

Before Amazon created the sort centers, its Prime customers could enter their orders into Amazon’s system until 2:59 p.m. and be guaranteed delivery within two days. Now that deadline has been extended to 11:59 p.m., she said.

Under the sort center concept, Amazon has further control over the shipping process rather than relying on third parties such as the post office to do the work. During last year’s holiday season, a surge of late Internet orders to online providers such as Amazon jammed the shipping system as the postal service, United Parcel Service and FedEx struggled to handle the volume.

That resulted in some gifts not arriving until after the holidays.

This year, Amazon has set up sort centers nationwide, and expanded its seasonal worker hiring. The company’s plan to hire 80,000 seasonal workers this year compares with 70,000 last year, and 50,000 in 2012. The company has told Wall Street to expect revenues for the year in the range of $87 billion to $90 billion. That equates to a 16.8 percent to 20.8 percent growth over 2013.

The creation of the sort center concept also enables the Amazon-U.S. Postal Service alliance to deliver packages on Sunday.

In a further extension of the concept of controlling more of the package delivery system, Amazon has created its own delivery network in some large cities such as Seattle to deliver fresh foods from its warehouses to the consumers’ door bypassing the postal service, UPS and FedEx.

FAST GROWTH

Amazon’s high growth rate has made it one of the South Sound’s larger employers. The company employs 400 full-time workers at its DuPont fulfillment center, 300 workers full-time in Sumner, “several hundred” at the Kent sort center. Hundreds more workers are to be hired when the Kent fulfillment center opens next year, Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said.

The Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County noted that Amazon in the past three years has become the county’s 25th largest employer. The electronic retailer now employs more people in Pierce County than such longtime Pierce County employers as the University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran University, Columbia Bank and Toray Composites America.

Amazon won’t reveal the pay range of its warehouse workers in the Puget Sound area but representatives say that the company pays a full range of benefits to full-time workers whose pay “averages about 30 percent more” than typical workers in the retail industry.

Labor unions have made efforts to organize Amazon workers largely without success. Union-led protesters gathered outside Amazon’s headquarters two years ago to complain about working conditions at some fulfillment centers in the Midwest where they said workers were suffering from heat exhaustion. Amazon said it spent $52 million in 2012 adding air conditioning to distribution centers that previously had lacked it.

Though most temporary workers’ jobs end after the holidays, the company says it promotes many of those workers to full-time status based on their performance during the holiday rush. “We’ve made about 10,000 of our seasonal workers full-time already this year,” Lindsey said.

In Seattle, Amazon’s employment and development impact is even larger. There the company is building its new headquarters complex on a three-block parcel in the Denny Triangle. Three 37 and 38-story towers will surround a public park where the company plans to erect three, five-story steel and glass bubble-shaped buildings large enough to contain full-grown trees.

Amazon already occupies some 14 buildings in the Lake Union area. Eleven of those it bought from Paul Allen’s Vulcan development company for more than $1 billion. Amazon has paid Seattle extra funds for more frequent streetcar service to the area and has committed to building a bike track connecting its campus buildings. The company plans to heat its complex, which ultimately tops 5 million square feet, with waste heat from its data center.

Although the company won’t disclose its headquarters employment figures, experts say the campus now under construction could house some 12,000 workers.

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