I recently attended a 3-day training at a fulfillment center owned by a certain company. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a fulfillment center is a truncated euphemism for “an unbelievably large warehouse of every conceivable thing ever manufactured and from which this stuff is sent when you buy it online.” If you ever bought anything online, it comes from an FC. My experience took place at a warehouse gigundous enough to fit my entire town and to employ 7,000 people during “peak” (a.k.a. “Christmas”).
We got to participate in every step of the process, starting with in-taking stuff from manufacturers; prepping stuff (like glassware that needs bubble-wrapping or sex toys that need black-bagging); stowing stuff on random shelves; picking stuff off the shelves when someone buys it; boxing stuff for shipping, and finally packing the boxes into a semi-trailer to ship to you as soon as possible because the buyers can’t live without it.
Until seeing this operation, I had no idea what took place before and after one clicks the Buy button. It’s ingenious, complex, impressive, and disturbing all at once.
Consider that one person’s business started out by mailing books from a garage to people who risked buying them through some newfangled thing called the Worldwide Web, then advanced to selling—worldwide—every type of item ever made. That calibre of vision and risk-taking is foreign to me, which is one reason I’m not a billionaire.
“Honey, I think I’m going to buy books from a book store then resell them to complete strangers through this new computer system whosit. We’ll probably lose lots of money, but someday I might hit on something big.”
Whatever your opinion of such distributors of stuff, how we got to this state of doing business deserves a few gold stars for ingenuity. And none of it would be possible without the barcode, another clever concept.
The FC is organized into sections for each of the major functions of inbound (what the stuff is called when the sellers send it to the FC for distribution) and outbound (what the stuff is called as soon as you buy it). Miles of conveyor systems route totes of stuff throughout each of the stages of the bringing-stuff-to-you lifecycle. Picture tens of thousands of cloned recycle bins full of stuff scooting throughout the FC, up and down ramps, gliding through cyclone slides and through shoots, all being carried to exactly where the stuff needs to go. Every item is scanned; every tote is scanned; every storage space is scanned; every packed box is scanned; even employees are scanned. The computer system knows where every single item is at every moment and the times it entered and exited the FC (and of course, who is selling it and who is buying it).
The most amazing thing about online shopping is that when you order stuff, it actually makes it to your doorstep within a week or sooner. How does an FC intake tens of thousands of items a week, catalogue them, store them on random shelves, remove them from the shelves, pack them, and ship them to you so quickly? Answer: algorithms. I won’t pretend to understand the math, but basically they’re numerical formulas that are the foundation of how we live now. You can’t swing a hand-held scanner without hitting something influenced by an algorithm.
Algorithms are why stuff is randomly stowed on FC shelves instead of neatly organized by category and type, which is how I would do it (and another reason I’m not a billionaire). Look in a storage bin and you’ll find a sex toy, box of Cherios, baby diapers, a wrench set, a “Full Metal Jacket” DVD, a few cellphone covers, a pair of gloves, some vitamins, and a rawhide dog bone. Algorithms tell us that it’s faster to grab items when they’re all mixed up rather than stored with like items—random stowing reduces walk time when it comes to picking the stuff for shipping.
A few disturbing things come to mind about this process, including that dildos mingle with baby’s first picture book. More critical, how fulfilled are we by all this stuff? Online shopping has cluttered our lives with the unused and unnecessary, increasing anxiety, depression, and in some cases, obesity. Yes, online shopping has also improved lives by bringing things to people who might not otherwise have access to, say, educational materials, healing medicinal concoctions, warm gloves, or tools that allow them to start businesses. Stuff can make us happy to a degree, but it can also feed our false beliefs of inadequacy or distract us from letting go of that other kind of stuff—emotional baggage.
The Personal Fulfillment Center
When our lives are filled with stuff, we forget to live. Scientific evidence shows that improving our physical and emotional well-being is as simple as connecting with people, animals, and nature in some positive way. It’s free and it doesn’t require stuff.
This has got me thinking about another kind of fulfillment center, one that’s inside each of us. Call it what you like; for me it’s the soul. It’s ingenious but not complex; impressive but not disturbing. It doesn’t use barcodes or algorithms, but it does require vision and risk-taking. Imagine what a fulfilling life means for you and trust you have the power to create it. Click the Buy button, and the only charge you’ll incur for instant delivery is the courage it requires to start living your fulfilling life.