E161: What I Learned While Working at an Amazon FBA Warehouse
Hey, it’s Dave filling in for Mike. In today’s podcast, I’m going to talk about my stint at Amazon last year.
In January 2017, I got hired as a picker at one of their oversize FBA warehouses in Vancouver. I worked for 8 hours and was paid CA$13.75 an hour. I had originally intended to work there for two weeks but had to cut it short to a few days.
Still, it was more than enough time to have a good idea of what goes on inside these warehouses and what it's like to work there.
Here are 5 important takeaways from my time there.
1. Different sized items are sent to different warehouses.
Amazon has warehouses specifically for storing standard items and oversize items. If you’re importing products from a Chinese manufacturer, it’s best to ship only one-size items at a time. This prevents them from getting sent to different warehouses.
2. Amazon sells a lot of diapers and TVs.
There was a staggering amount of TV sets and Pampers boxes at the warehouse I worked in.
3. Amazon has the ability to handle any item you can throw at it.
Don’t worry about shipping your oversize products through Amazon. They’ll find a way to pack and ship to your customer securely.
4. There is no conspiracy to lose your stuff.
Amazon doesn’t intentionally lose your orders. It's more likely that the warehouse it’s shipped from doesn’t have a reliable way of organizing all the products going in and out. At our warehouse, the apparent lack of this system caused an item or two getting misplaced ever so often.
5. Peak fees are a result of peak rates.
Amazon often has a harder time getting people to work in their warehouses during busy seasons like Christmas. So, they lure prospective employees with higher rates. This added expense is passed on to business owners, which explains why shipping fees are steeper at certain times of the year.
For a more detailed chronicle of “Dave the Amazon Warehouse Picker”, check out my blog post here.
Thanks for listening to this episode! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. Happy selling!
Full Audio Transcript
Dave: Hey guys. Welcome to this episode of The EcomCrew Podcast. It's me, Dave Bryant doing this episode solo today. Mike is off summer in San Diego buying chips and salsa, and booze for a pool party he's had planned the last year or so at what we jokingly refer to as the Jackness estate in San Diego. Mike invites a whole bunch of entrepreneurs and other business people up to his house basically for a night of partying and other shenanigans.
So I suspect Mike may not be in any condition to record podcasts for the next few days. So you may even get one or two more episodes from me solo, but we'll see what kind of condition Mike is in after the weekend. So this episode is a little bit overdue. In this episode I'm going to talk about what I learned working at an Amazon FBA warehouse for five days. So, last year in 2017, after I sold my previous business, I got a job working at an Amazon FBA warehouse for five days taking all of your guys’ items and shipping them out.
Actually, I wasn't shipping them out. I was strictly picking them, and I'll get into kind of the finer details of what actually happens at an Amazon FBA warehouse and why I wasn't actually shipping any products as this podcast goes on. So, to give a little bit of background on how I got this job, one night, it was a rainy night in Vancouver in December, I went out to have some ramen at one of my favorite Japanese restaurants here in Vancouver, and I was reading the newspaper just flipping through it. And all of a sudden I see an ad for Amazon FBA warehouse hiring now $14 an hour.
And this immediately caught my eye, $14 an hour, hey, I'm not going to turn that down, money is money. But I didn't really do it for the money. What I did for was to get a behind the scenes working at an Amazon FBA warehouse. And I've always wanted to go on a tour of an Amazon FBA warehouse. Believe it or not, you can actually do a planned tour from Amazon at one of their warehouses. They do them, I think twice a year at a couple of different locations through the US, out of the Phoenix location and I think the South Carolina location. If you sign up, you can actually get a tour from Amazon of their warehouse.
The problem is number one, those tours fill up extremely quickly. And number two is that you know that you're only seeing the kind of sugar coated Amazon version of their warehouse. You're not really seeing how an Amazon warehouse works and the minute details of it. So I see this ad, I decided to apply at once. Now this again, this was almost over a year ago, and I can't remember quite the process for submitting my resume. I think it was just through an online form and I don't think I actually even needed a resume. I simply submitted my name and a couple of examples of my work history.
So, I submitted all this information online and Amazon for their warehouse workers does not actually hire directly. They use a hiring agency, and in Vancouver, they use a company called SM jobs. So, I actually went through the hiring agency and after I submitted all my information, within 24 hours, I had a phone call saying, hey Dave, thanks for your application. Would you like to come in for an interview? And so pretty quickly I was in for an interview. And the way this interview worked was I went down to the Amazon FBA warehouse here in Vancouver, huge facility. I believe it's their biggest warehouse actually in North America.
I went down there and the hiring agency had a big portable lined up in front of the FBA warehouse. And inside were about 20 or 30 other people applying to work at this warehouse. Now, Amazon tends to pay pretty well for the type of work that they're doing. And this subsequently attracted quite a few applicants. And the applicants were made up largely of two groups. The first group were students working or not working, the students studying at the local university, Simon Fraser University. And the other group were actually refugees who had recently arrived from Syria and Iraq and other war torn areas throughout the Middle East.
So it's kind of funny. It was a huge dichotomy of these new refugees and to be students, more or less just looking to get some extra money on the side to pay for the beer money I guess. And then, of course, there was me there in the middle. So, the interview process was pretty straightforward. I think it really it took about five or 10 minutes with the interviewer. And essentially, as long as you didn’t have a criminal history, you had a work permit; you were pretty much guaranteed a job. So, the interviewer told me, thanks, Dave. We're actually; we're not going to hire you for two or three weeks here. But as soon as we call you, we hope that you can start immediately.
So, after two or three weeks, I got the phone call from Amazon and this was January 2017, and I got the job starting as a picker at an Amazon FBA warehouse. So, first day going in there, I hadn’t actually been in the warehouse at this point. I'd only been to their hiring agency’s portable building on the site. So, getting into the Amazon warehouse is like going through airport security, it is absolutely insane how much security they have. So, they have this one huge gate that you can only go in, you can't go out of going through it.
There was a metal detector that you have to go through. And then there's another security screening process where you have to give any cell phones, any keys, basically anything in your pocket so you have to hand them over to security and they put them in a locker for you. And the logic is that Amazon number one, they don't want you taking your phone in there, not only because it's going to be a disruption to you while you work, but they don't really want you taking any photography.
There's some sensitive information in there especially relaying the products I believe which Amazon wants to protect their clients interests, of the sellers interest. They don't want workers in there taking pictures of everybody's products and all their labeling and this and that. So Amazon is really strict in not allowing photography in the Amazon FBA warehouse. So, when I got there the first day was your typical orientation that you do with any company.
It was a full eight hour day and Amazon went over their usual safety precautions, different parts about the job, the different jobs available at Amazon, some of the history of Amazon, your usual stuff. The thing that kind of surprised me though was I expected to go into this orientation and see a huge massive picture of Jeff Bezos kind of like you would see in North Korea with a picture of Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong Il sitting above everybody's fireplace mantel. But surprisingly through the entire eight hours of this indoctrination of Amazon philosophy and culture, I’d never once seen any mention of Jeff Bezos.
And I think that's a little bit of a slip up from Amazon. I think he's such a critical part of the company. It would be like going to work at Apple and not seeing Steve Jobs mentioned. So, I'm not sure why they never mentioned anything more about Jeff Bezos, and for that matter, really anything about the roots of Amazon, how it got started and this and that. It really felt like almost in an indoctrination of going and working at any warehouse, even one of the 3PLs that I use down in Washington State, they didn't really feel all that different. It just felt like I was going to work at a warehouse.
I think they could have instilled a little bit more of the kind of Amazon brand on me. But that's neither here nor there, who knows maybe Amazon listens to this podcast at one point and adds that to their hiring routine, but we'll see. So anyways, after a day of just training and safety procedure rundowns, the next day I started pretty much from the get go at my job at an Amazon FBA warehouse. So, Amazon at their warehouse have three or four different positions. They have the first one is picker. So, these pickers go through all the Amazon warehouse and pick all the different items that customers order.
The second item or the second position is a packer. So, when I bring this garlic press to the packer, that Packer puts out the garlic press into one of the Amazon shipping boxes, puts all the labels onto it, and it's all ready basically to be shipped to the customer. And the third people are the, I guess you call them the inbound and the outbound team. So, that third team, the inbound and outbound team, they take that package, the assessment package from that shipper and they move it onto the truck. And that same inbound and outbound team, they are the people who would receive items off the truck.
So for example, if you're sending items into FBA, that inbound outbound team will unload that truck and then put them onto the different racks. So, Amazon assigned me the job of a picker. And that's kind of typical when they hire. Most new hires are hired as pickers because this is a really mindless job. So, what Amazon does is it gives you this big machine; it looks like a oversize Zack Morris cell phone. And this [inaudible 00:08:54] basically shows you exactly in the warehouse where the items are that you need to pick.
And an Amazon FBA warehouse especially this one that I worked out in Vancouver, it was their oversize warehouse. And also another thing I should mention about Amazon warehouses, Amazon warehouses are divided into two types of warehouses. They have their oversize warehouses where all the oversize items go to and they have their standard size items where all the standard size items go to. And if you think about it, this makes sense because oversize items have much different handling requirements than standard size items. They have different storage requirements. You can't store obviously a bunch of car tires in some pick bins stack10 I.
So, the storage requirements for oversize items versus standard size items are very different. So Amazon splits these warehouses into two. And in Vancouver, these warehouses are separated by about 15 kilometers. And I've kind of noticed this as my selling career goes on that this is pretty typical throughout most cities in America. So if for example, in Phoenix, they have an oversize warehouse and if you actually Google the address, it's about 10 or 15 miles away from their oversize warehouse. So, most cities tend to have two warehouses, one for standard size, one for oversized. Sorry for that boring kind of rundown of warehouse operations of Amazon. But it's an important fact to know.
So, I'm working here at an Amazon oversize warehouse and I was assigned to pick 50 items per hour. That was kind of my quota. So every hour, I had to pick 50 items. And you can do the math. That works out to just over a minute per item. Now, the thing is though, you get this list basically given on your electronic device showing you the items that you need to pick and there could be massive distances in between these items. So, I believe Amazon their figure that they mentioned was the average warehouse picker locks anywhere between seven and 10 kilometers a day or more. And definitely that was my experience. It was a lot of walking.
So, often I would pick one item, it'd be something as simple as a kid’s bathtub and I pick that item and the next item would pop up that I need to pick. For example, this one might be a bed mattress, and that would be probably five to 600 meters at the other end of the warehouse. And then the next item I would pick would be another 600 meters in the other direction. There seemed to be no logic for how they assigned items for you to pick as a picker. So anyways, I had a quota of picking 50 items per day.
At their oversize warehouses, that quarter was actually pretty easy. You may have heard some stories about how Amazon works their employees to the grave, and they have these unreasonable quotas that every employee missed at hereby, and this and that. For oversize that's not really the case. It's 50 items per hour is pretty reasonable. I think the average listener listening right now could do that. No problem. It doesn't matter how out of shape you are, you could do that now.
Now the standard size item warehouses I've heard that it's more like four to 500 items an hour. So, perhaps, maybe they are working people to the bone a little bit harder in those other warehouses. But for me, fortunately it wasn't too bad. Like I mentioned, I’m picking 50 items a day. I was grouped with a group of other new employees. And it was really funny, my group of other new employees that I was with. So a lot of people were returning Amazon employees. Amazon lays off a lot of people during their downtime.
So Amazon hires a lot of people during Christmas, and then fires and pretty much right after during Prime Day, which coincidentally is happening pretty soon, Amazon hires a lot more people. And there's kind of the cyclical process with Amazon where they basically the best people stay on 24 seven, and the worst people they get laid off. And those laid off people, as long as their quotas weren't too low and they weren't picking too few of items, they'll get rehired once the busy season picks up.
So the group of five people I was with, about half of them were returning Amazon employees and the other half were just people wanting to make some quick money. So, a little note on that in terms of the money thing with Amazon, so when I started working, I was what, I believe 13.75 per hour. And that's not bad considering that this is an average warehouse job 13.75 is pretty good money. And keep in mind the minimum wage here in Vancouver is $10. So 13.75, yeah, it's high but it's not, I guess that much higher than the minimum wage, but it's still a pretty good wage.
So that's one of the ways that Amazon has to attract people. People don't want to work at warehouses, especially in a city like Vancouver. It's hard to attract warehouse workers. So Amazon has to overpay. Now the other thing is with Amazon warehouses is like I mentioned during the busy season, Amazon really struggles to get enough people into their warehouses working. So what Amazon has to do is every employee especially during Christmas, I believe, from basically Black Friday till Christmas, every employee has to work 60 hours per week. You have no say in that matter.
So, you can imagine, that's a long work schedule and also keep in mind that that means for 20 hours per week, Amazon is paying time and a half for those overtime hours. So, they’re paying $20 an hour for a warehouse picker to pick your items and ship them, and pack them. It's astounding. Again, I think that's part of the reason why Amazon struggles to make a lot of money as a public company is the fact that they have an employee problem. And I think this is going to be a big problem for them going forward.
They can't get enough people, subsequently they have to overcharge — not overcharge, over pay these people and eventually, this is going to become a breaking point thing where Amazon grows so big and they have to just pay everybody $100,000 to be a warehouse worker, or I don't know what else they do. That's pretty much their only option, or they have to throttle their growth. So, that's one of the things I think on the horizon could be an issue for Amazon.
So I'm working with four or five other people who got hired at the same time as me, but I have one really memorable co worker and his name was Derek. And Derek had worked basically a warehouse job to warehouse job. A couple of months previous he worked as a luggage loader at Air Canada. The month previous he worked at another warehouse, and this month he was working at an Amazon FBA warehouse. And one day me and Derek are having lunch at the Amazon lunch room, Derek says to me, hey dude, I don't even really pick packages. Every day I take this big German Shepherd Dog bed and I go, and I nap for two hours.
And because the Amazon FBA warehouses are so big, what Derek was able to do was he found somebody’s dog bed that they'd shipped into Amazon, some poor, innocent private label seller and Derek took that dog bed out of the package, and he put it in this really dark back corner of the Amazon FBA warehouse. And because these warehouses are so massive, there is literally parts of the warehouse that no man has ever stepped on. Derek was able to find a corner in that warehouse where he could literally nap on somebody's dog bed, and never ever be seen by anybody else.
Of course the it's only worked for so long because eventually Eric's hiring manager would come over to him and say, hey Derek, why did you only pick so many packages? He fell well short. And Derek for the first few days could kind of play dumb and say, oh, sorry. It's really hard. I got lost. Eventually this would catch up to him and he'd been laid off, and I never actually seen how long Derek made it. I would guess he probably made it maybe three or four days after I did before he's finally let go. But for those few days that he worked there, he got a pretty good paycheck for really just napping all day on somebody's dog bed.
So I continue working on Amazon for the next three days. Every day at Amazon begins the same way. You begin with a short little warm up with everybody else in the building. You get up there and Amazon does a little pep rally, shake out your fingers, shake out your legs, shake out your toes and just get warmed up before your long day of picking items from the Amazon FBA warehouse. And the days are absolutely grueling. It's not so much that it's really hard work; it's just that you're on your own pretty much that entire eight to 10 hours that you're working. You don't really — you see a lot of people but you can't really have time to talk with them because you have your quota that you need to meet.
So you're pretty much on your own the entire time. You don't have a cell phone, you take a little break from here to there to check your text messages, check the news, check hockey scores. So you're on your own, just walking around for eight hours. I really felt like a robot just walking around picking items, putting them on my trolley, taking them to the pickers — oh not the pickers, to the packers and its continued back and forth all day. That was a funny thing with Amazon. You've probably heard Amazon talking about drones and all the robots they have working in their warehouses.
There are no robots working in Amazon warehouses, at least from what I see. The only robots they have working there are people like me who are walking through the warehouse, picking all these items. There was such little automation. It was absolutely mind blowing that this hugely sophisticated company really did not have a high degree of automation in their warehouse. And I do think that was probably partially to do with the fact that I was in the oversized warehouse. So, these are all items which are kind of regular in their packaging dimensions. And you can't really have a robot picking up a bathtub one day and a computer printer the next, and who knows what the next moment.
So, that's probably part of the reason why I didn't see any robots flying around and picking items. But it still surprised me how little automation there really was at the warehouse. So after three days, I actually I had a goal of working on Amazon for two weeks. But what happened after three days, my daughter got sick, I realized we were either going to have to bring in a nanny at $25 an hour to look after my daughter, and I’m basically going to be paying $10 an hour to work at this warehouse, or I can just quit right now, fall short of my two week goal and look after my daughter for the next couple of days.
That's what I did. I called into my hiring manager; I said, hey, thanks for having me. I just don't think it's going to work out and See you on Seller Central. That's kind of a joke of course because the funny thing was nobody really knew about how all these Amazon products worked and how 40% of all these products were coming from entrepreneurs like me running their own little businesses. So, most people just thought Amazon was one giant company. It wasn't really a selling platform. So I educated a few of my other colleagues about this during the lunch break. But for the most part, people are pretty oblivious to how Amazon works.
So yeah, after three days, I called it quits. I rested my feet for a couple of days and walked away though with a couple takeaways from working out that warehouse. And just a few takeaways, which I think that you can perhaps apply to your company as you're selling on Amazon. So, first one, like I mentioned, Amazon has different warehouses for different size items. So, what this means is that you should never ever, ever send in a shipment to Amazon that is consisting of oversize items and standard size items, because what will happen is that you are essentially going to double the number of warehouses that you have to send your items to.
So, always when you're doing your shipment planning, try to keep all your standard size items together and all your oversize items together. When I'm ordering from China now, if I'm working with a factory, I will only order one size item from them because this way I can ship more directly from Amazon to one warehouse. I shouldn't say from Amazon, I can ship more directly from China to Amazon and hopefully only have to ship to one warehouse.
The other thing that I noticed is that Amazon sells a lot of diapers and TVs. It's amazing, of the entire warehouse, I would guesstimate that 25% of the entire warehouse was occupied with TVs and pampers boxes. It's absolutely amazing how many diapers Amazon is shipping. Basically Amazon is taking care of all the babies throughout North America and providing them with diapers. Absolutely amazing.
The next thing I really noticed is that Amazon has an ability to handle pretty much any item that you send it. So, I’ve seen massive kayaks at this Amazon warehouse. All they had on it was a single barcode. I see statues, again with no packaging, nothing on them, except one barcode on the statue’s forehead. Amazon can handle any item that you can throw at it. So, I do think that oversize items are a huge opportunity for sellers nowadays. So don't over stress about the packaging of your items, at least the packaging getting it to Amazon. Amazon will figure it out one way or the other.
The next thing I noticed is there's not some massive conspiracy to lose or damage your items. So look, Amazon is this massive warehouse and they are still fairly disorganized. Yeah, sure they are more organized than your average warehouse, but they lose stuff constantly. There is multiple times when I'd be asked to pick an item and they said, okay, this item is at line, rack B, aisle four. And I go there, and lo and behold, that item is not there. And I say, what's happened here, but what happened a couple of times I was fortunate enough, I’d look to the right beside me, I see, oh, somebody has taken this item and actually just placed it on the rack beside where it's supposed to be.
So, if an item is simply out of place, even just a couple of feet, warehouse pickers are not going to be able to find it. And what's going to happen is you as a seller, you're going to get a notification from Amazon that, hey, sorry, we lost your item. Well, Amazon simply just misplaced that item, and a lot of times they've misplaced it only by a couple of feet. And eventually that item will be found and Amazon will either resell it as liquidated inventory or put it back in your inventory. I've heard people think that there's some conspiracy that Amazon loses your items and then liquidate some for ultra cheap just to kind of lower the price of your items. In my opinion that's not what's happening.
And yeah I think the other my final takeaway is that we all know that come October, we get hit put on what they call peak fees. So your storage rates go up four times almost. And there's a reason for this. Amazon is having to hire a ton of people at stupid prices during this peak season. So, those higher wages are trickling down to sellers and that's why Amazon is having to increase their peak storage fees so much there and other fees during that time. And I suspect that these fees are only going to increase over time because I think Amazon is going to have more and more of a harder time hiring warehouse employees as they grow larger and larger.
There's only so many lower educated people willing to take a $14 an hour job. So as this goes on, Amazon is just going to have to pay an absurd amount of money to these warehouse. So, hopefully that gives you guys an idea of what it's like to work inside an Amazon FBA warehouse. If you head on over to EcomCrew.com/AmazonFBAwarehouse, you can see more photos of my time working there as well as some more detailed information about the warehouse itself. So, until next time guys, happy selling.