The Everything Warehouse

When Bezos pushed the company into toy distribution before it was ready, a pallet of Pokémon Jigglypuffs was lost in an overwhelmed warehouse. When they found the toys, the employees formed a conga line to celebrate. Sometimes, Bezos’s transformation of Amazon and its warehouse system reads like a triumph of calculating reason and force of will. At other times, it reads like the dream of a man who is still a boy.

“It’s harder to be kind than clever.”

The Everything Warehouse

In The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, author Brad Stone claims that although Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ultimately supported the book, “he judged that it was ‘too early’ for a reflective look at Amazon.” By some measures, Bezos is right: Amazon is less than 20 years old, but its history contains so many rapid changes that books published about it never manage to be quite current. The Everything Store, for instance, was released soon after Bezos purchased the Washington Post, but before Amazon it hired the US Postal Service to deliver its packages on Sunday, and before Bezos announced on 60 Minutes, that Amazon is exploring the use of drone technology to assist its deliveries. The book also predates the highly publicized deaths of two workers at Amazon facilities in Nevada and New Jersey, as well as an ongoing strike by warehouse workers in Germany. But Stone has reported on Amazon since the late 1990s for Newsweek, the New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek; he knows the company. The Everything Store is a thorough and readable portrait both of Amazon and its founder.

Jeff Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgenson in 1964 to teenage parents Jackie (née Gise) and Ted Jorgenson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early on, he was raised by his mother with the help of her parents. When Jeff was four years old, his mother divorced Jorgenson and married Miguel Bezos. She and her parents cut off contact between young Jeff and his biological father—Jorgenson had been negligent—and Miguel adopted Jeff, who would develop into a precocious and ambitious child in Jorgenson’s absence. As a young child, Bezos was featured in a book about gifted and talented students in Texas, and one of his elementary school teachers said that “there is probably no limit to what he can do, given a little guidance.” Bezos continued to excel academically, later becoming valedictorian of his high school in Florida and winning the state’s prestigious Silver Knight award for high school seniors.  At Princeton, he studied computers, graduating in 1986. As Bezos brought his ambition into the work world he also carried with him a self-conscious appreciation for its public display. When he was working at the Wall Street quantitative hedge fund D. E. Shaw in the early 1990s, Bezos “kept a rolled-up sleeping bag in his office in case he needed to bunk down for the night”—the sleeping bag serving, one colleague surmises, “as much a prop as it was actually useful.”

Bezos’s time on Wall Street left its mark. He flourished in the company’s exacting and unabashedly elitist culture, and discovered a mentor in the hedge fund’s founder, David Shaw. While at D. E. Shaw, Bezos began to conduct job interviews using questions that searched for reasoning skills rather than an actual answer (“How many gas stations are in the United States?”). And it was at the hedge fund that Bezos first imagined “the everything store,” a new online mass retailer that would take advantage of the powerful growth of the emergent World Wide Web. When Bezos told Shaw he was leaving the hedge fund to build an online bookstore, Shaw threatened that D. E. Shaw might compete with Bezos’s project in the future. Undeterred, Bezos moved forward and created the online retailer anyway, wagering that he would be successful with or without Shaw’s support. One of the original URLs registered by Bezos for Amazon was Relentless.com.

As the company’s virtual storefront evolved, Amazon transformed from a text-heavy interface into a more streamlined site, complete with 1-click shopping, the Marketplace, Super Saver Shipping, Amazon Prime, and the intricate “rankings” and “favorites” systems. Stone explains the sometimes troubled evolution of all of these features, but it is clear that Bezos’s company was always attempting to harness technology toward the immediate fulfillment of its customers’ material desires. Bezos, who grew up reciting lines from Star Trek, at one point considered calling the company MakeItSo.com, after the iconic command of his hero Captain Jean Luc Picard. Bezos’s ambition for Amazon has always had the speculative quality of science fiction, and many of the company’s most successful innovations have made retail shopping faster, more efficient, and cheaper than has ever been possible before. As the company has grown, this goal has come to depend increasingly on Amazon’s warehouses, and these spaces—called “fulfillment centers” in company jargon—have become the crux of Amazon’s attempts to impose the virtual world’s efficiency on its material products.

This wasn’t always the plan. Bezos’s first idea was to keep physical facilities and overhead at a minimum, by ordering books directly from distributors before shipping them out. The first incarnation of Amazon.com was located in the garage of Bezos’s Bellevue, Washington, home, and had no inventory. Even after it secured its first warehouse space in 1995—a two-hundred-square-foot windowless basement in downtown Seattle—it held only an “odd assortment of books,” which were packed, at first, on the floor, a slow and awkward process that only improved after an employee suggested tables. But the later expansion and redesign of Amazon’s warehouse operations turned the industrial spaces into streamlined operations with an efficiency that seemed almost aesthetic. Jimmy Wright, a former Walmart executive, was brought in to develop Amazon’s distribution network in the late 1990s, and the changes he made radically altered the company. “This is beautiful, Jimmy,” Stone quotes Bezos as having said when he saw Wright’s blueprints for the expanded warehouses. In Stone’s words, Wright transformed the warehouses into “real-life versions of an M. C. Escher drawing, automating them to the rafters, with blinking lights on aisles and shelves to guide human workers to the right products, and conveyor belts that ran into and out of massive machines.”

Even with the new improvements, the warehouses could not keep pace with Bezos’s ambition. Wright, who had been working at a distance from Amazon’s headquarters, resigned in 1999 when his frequent absences came under scrutiny. But it also was the case that the Walmart-style processes brought in by Wright were not a good fit for the online retailer. As Amazon expanded into other retail sectors, it became harder to ignore the limits of its warehouse and shipping system. Giant sorting machines malfunctioned, causing orders to go missing. At one point during the 1999 holiday season, a pallet of goods was lost—it was retrieved only after workers searched with binoculars in the McDonough, Georgia, facility for three days.

After Wright left the company, the final transformation of the warehouse system came when the Amazon hired to Jeff Wilke, a mathematically gifted former manufacturing executive, to take over as the new head of operations. Wilke said that Amazon’s facilities were “‘a lot closer to manufacturing and assembly than . . . to retail,’” and hired scientists and engineers to streamline logistics at the fulfillment centers. The new process was highly reliant on software, with algorithms dictating how individual workers moved goods between shelves and packing stations. What emerged were places such as Phoenix 3, an Arizona fulfillment center that Stone calls “a 605,000-square-foot temple to the twin gods of efficiency and selection.” The present-day warehouse stocks Star Wars action figures, sleeping bags, and bagel chips, as well as Xbox video games, and sex toys—shelved in a mix determined most efficient by computer calculations, and ready to be shipped out in packaging stamped with the Amazon arrow, barbed but curved like a smile.

Over the course of Amazon’s drive for dominance and efficiency in retail, Bezos has remained closely connected to his company’s daily operations. Complaints from customers can evoke the dreaded question-mark email from Bezos, a single punctuation mark circulated throughout the company that trips an internal review. When Stone recounts the process by which the company decided whether to outsource the distribution process, we see Bezos in a fulfillment center “with his sleeves rolled up, climbing around the conveyors.”

But for all the discipline he imposes on his warehouses and workers, Bezos himself remains deeply fallible, undeniably human. Stone’s account shows him screaming at his employees, and proposing a misguided delivery system—never implemented—in which college students would have dispensed Amazon products from their apartments via bicycle. His famous interviewing method is reliably uncomfortable: “So why are manhole covers round?” Bezos asks a Harvard Business School student. The answer given—”They’re round because it makes them easier to roll into place?”—isn’t correct, Bezos says, “but it is not a bad guess.”

As a child, Bezos was cautioned by his grandfather that “it’s harder to be kind than clever.” But the company’s history shows how hard it is to be clever, too, and how even the most efficiently run businesses can be tripped up by ambition. As Amazon grew, it experienced both significant missteps and minor, embarrassing failures. When Bezos pushed the company into toy distribution before it was ready, a pallet of Pokémon Jigglypuffs was lost in an overwhelmed warehouse. When they found the toys, the employees formed a conga line to celebrate. Sometimes, Bezos’s transformation of Amazon and its warehouse system reads like a triumph of calculating reason and force of will. At other times, it reads like the dream of a man who is still a boy.

As the warehouse system became a more precise instrument of Amazon’s goals, it has shed most of its early quirks. Early accounts of the company give us colorful tales about warehouse workers—one skipped around a fulfillment center “belting out Russian arias”—or the executives, paper-pushers and other administrative employees who were brought into the warehouses from Amazon’s offices to help fill orders during the holiday rush. More recently, there are news reports covering how, in 2011, the company hired a private ambulance company to be on hand as workers collapsed at inadequately air-conditioned facilities in Pennsylvania, and how, in 2013, fulfillment center workers in Germany launched the first-ever series of strikes against the company. Now, when employees play in the redesigned Amazon warehouses, it signals not that they’re having fun at their jobs, but that they’ve had enough of them. One temporary worker built a fort for himself in a pile of pallets, outfitting the space with food, a bed, and various Amazon goods. When another employee rode a conveyor belt through a fulfillment center, it was because he was getting ready to quit. Near the end of the book, Stone explains that Amazon has recently acquired Kiva Systems, a Boston company building mobile robots, so one day the fulfillment centers may be free of human workers altogether.

If Amazon’s process of mechanization sounds like a familiar story in the manufacturing world, then so too does the transformation of the company warehouses from unwieldy representations of Bezos’s imagination, to mere tools of his ambition. In the final section, Stone narrates how for years Amazon leveraged warehouse jobs with state authorities, so that it could continue to avoid collecting sales tax. In Stone’s account, one employee compared participation in Amazon’s cut-rate third-party retailing to heroin addiction. But the business model fosters dependency in more ways than one.

It can be difficult to break through the carefully edited image of the company that Bezos releases to the public: ultimately, The Everything Store offers more of an energetic chase after its subject than a satisfying final pronouncement. Still, Stone’s clear-eyed account of the megacompany’s rise helps us imagine where Amazon is heading, and consider at what cost it might get there. Bezos has been investing in 3-D printing technology, and Stone speculates that Amazon someday might become a true manufacturer. That transformation would fulfill a goal from Amazon’s early years: originally, Bezos had wanted the warehouses to stock one of every object ever made. At the time, that proposal was laughed off as impractical by his business associates. But throughout Bezos’s career, his demand has been quite literally to hold everything he wants in his grasp. As Amazon rapidly moves towards a monolithic dominance of retail, he offers his customers the same fantasy of access to it all: the grab at an ideal world.

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