Amazon Fulfillment Center

An employee stowed merchandise at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester earlier this year.

CHESTER

Last week, the world’s most valuable brand suffered a safety setback that made consumers cringe.

In an exposé titled “Amazon Has Ceded Control of Its Site. The Result: Thousands of Banned, Unsafe or Mislabeled Products,” The Wall Street Journal uncovered more than 4,000 items that contained deceptive labeling, were deemed unsafe by federal agencies or were banned by federal regulators. A good portion of these items were toys and medicine.

“In practice, Amazon has increasingly evolved like a flea market,” the Journal wrote. “It exercises limited oversight over items listed by millions of third-party sellers, many of them anonymous, many in China, some offering scant information.”

Sure, Amazon could do better. But our behavior as shoppers drives the success of the one-stop, low-priced, fast-delivery mindset. It’s a world we created and a public tour of the Chester fulfillment center last week revealed some issues that might be our responsibility, not the company’s.

About 20 guests gathered in a waiting room, eager to, as Amazon puts it, “see the magic” of how everything gets done so quickly. Two tour guides wearing electric blue construction-style vests with neon trim emerged — appropriate garb for the heavy machinery ahead. They greeted everyone and set the ground rules for the one-hour journey. No bags. No photos or videos. Leave weapons in your cars.

Each attendee received a set of headphones and ear covers to listen to remarks from the tour guide and shield our senses from the steady hum of machines filling thousands of orders in the 1.2 million-square-foot space.

“Any sellers in the room?” asked the lead guide, knowing more than half the products are from third-party sellers. No hands went up.

“I buy,” replied one of the guests.

That sentiment starts Amazon’s shopping approach — a pivot from “this is what we have” to “what would you like?” The company builds out processes starting with the customer. Amazon Prime Now provides anything you want with free two-hour delivery. Amazon 4-star shops carry products you think are awesome.

A security guard opened the door and we started following a track of green tape along the floor, signaling safe walking lanes. The lead guide asked that we stay at least an arm’s length from any active machinery shuttling items along. Yellow “totes” holding packages constantly moved along conveyor belts resembling roller coaster tracks.

The Amazon fulfillment center looked nothing like a Walmart, where Aisle 6 might have cereal, or Aisle 16 might offer soft drinks. It’s also different from a Macy’s, where shoes, clothes and household items sit in set departments.

Amazon uses a system called “random stow,” where items are unloaded into pods with one letter and three numbers, similar to an apartment address. To the naked eye, it actually looked a lot like a flea market or a series of vertical yard sales, without much rhyme or reason.

But for employees and the company’s bottom line, the system is highly efficient. Robots help human stowers place the items in strategic pods. The pickers select items from these shelves for customers, finding their precise location through hand-held scanners. They “serpentine” through the space, filling orders with greater speed than if every book were in one corner and every blanket in another.

The picker then places the items in yellow totes that look like Sterilite storage bins. The lead guide said 40,000 of these can be in the building at any time — when lined up, that’s the length of 630 basketball courts from end to end. It has to be “the right thing, at the right time, in the right condition,” the guide added.

Amazon’s major promise is a response to society’s instantaneous needs, wants and desires. Its delivery of customized life right to our door is a monumental task. On Prime Day last July, customers bought 175 million items. Fixing 4,000 or so perilous products seems small in comparison.

What’s more concerning than Amazon’s provision of illicit toys or medicines is us, the customers, ceding control of our lives. Jeff Bezos didn’t invent the concept of getting goods delivered in one or two hours. We used to do the job ourselves, in a store, with our own two feet.

We — and Amazon — need to exercise more oversight. Products should be rigorously tested and vetted, in person and online.

Chris Gentilviso

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