Yves Smith’s takedown of Emma Roller’s piece on Amazon warehouse being the new factories made note of the fact that Amazon doesn’t strategize about where to store products in its vast facilities. Instead, the company just places items to be picked in a space that is available, scanning their identifying barcode and making note of the location in the electronic system that tells pickers where to get whatever items the folks at home have ordered. This so-called “chaotic storage” means that items that were one location might be placed another when they are restocked. I hadn’t known about the practice before this morning, and I found it somewhat surprising. Amazon is incredibly controlling over so many aspects of its business, from pricing and terms with vendors to the hours its employees work, so to just plop merchandise into vacant spots in their warehouses doesn’t seem in line with the rest of their strategy. Unless, that is, you consider it as a means of consolidating control over labor.
How does that happen? Essentially, by offloading the knowledge of where a product is located in the warehouse to an external system that directs pickers where to grab the items that go into their bins, Amazon is neutralizing the role of experience in pickers’ productivity. A picker who has been at it for years is no more productive than one who has done it for a week, since her familiarity with the layout of the warehouse is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how quickly she can walk from point A to B, as directed by the algorithm using the data scanned in when products reach the warehouse. (I assume that Amazon has done a lot of research on the “average” and “comfortable” traveling times for given distances, and that it gives its employees time targets for their picking rounds that are slightly more than slightly quicker than is comfortable.)
Chaotic storage also offers Amazon a lot of flexibility in terms of which products it can carry. Never having to plan for or accommodate a particular product in a particular place means that the company doesn’t break a sweat if a given item doesn’t come in from a supplier. Something else will be slotted in.
Other things spin off from this, too.