Amazon’s same day delivery is a combination of robots and human labour

How DOES Amazon deliver your parcel in just 9 hours? Journey of one mum’s package from warehouse to her front door and why it’s set to kill the high street

  • Office for National Stats say nearly £1 in every £5 spent in the UK is now online
  • £79 per year Amazon Prime customers get same day delivery free of charge
  • Harry Wallop tracked a camera delivery from warehouse to Leeds mum’s home 

Figures revealed this week by the Office for National Statistics showed that nearly £1 in every £5 spent in the UK is now online.

No wonder there are grave fears about the future of bricks-and-mortar retailers, with increasing numbers of shops closing — as highlighted by the Mail’s Save Our High Streets campaign.

The online store where most money is spent is Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer and the UK’s fifth-biggest retailer.

Last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond vowed to bring in an ‘Amazon tax’ to help ‘level the playing field’ between High Street retailers paying hefty business rates and online operators, who tend to pay very little tax.

Quite how little was apparent when Amazon’s accounts revealed its UK corporation tax bill was just £4.5 million last year — for £1.98 billion in UK sales and an operating profit of £79 million.

Much of the High Street’s woes can be blamed on consumers who jump at online retailers’ promise to deliver not just within 24 hours, but the very same day.

Anyone who pays £79 a year for the Amazon Prime service gets unlimited one-day free deliveries as well as same-day delivery from a range of ‘a million’ items if they order before about 11am (it varies depending on the item).

To find out how Amazon achieves this, HARRY WALLOP tracked one Amazon purchase from start to finish.

Anne Doughty, a 51-year-old geography teacher,  places same day order on Amazon website from her home in Garforth, West Yorkshire

Monday, 8.40am, Garforth, West Yorkshire

Anne Doughty, 51, a geography teacher who lives with her family in this dormitory village near Leeds, goes online to find a cheap camera for her holiday. She says the internet is invaluable for household items, books and presents. ‘Everything is there in one place. However, I’d never buy clothes online — you can’t try them on.’

8.49am

Anne identifies on Amazon an Aberg Best 21 megapixels camera, which can be delivered the same day. She’s impressed by the price — £38 — and as a Prime customer there’s no delivery fee. She clicks and buys.

8.49am, MAN1, Altrincham, Gtr Manchester

Sixty-five miles away from Anne’s home in Garforth is MAN1, one of Amazon’s 17 giant UK warehouses, or ‘fulfilment centres’ as the company calls them. Each is named after the nearest airport. MAN1 is a few hundred yards from Manchester Airport.

General manager Neil Travis, 51, says being near the M56 and M6 means they are close to a large percentage of customers and allows them ‘to do same day, next-day delivery’.

The warehouse is 780ft long, has nearly a million square feet of floor space arranged across four floors and holds ‘many millions’ of products.

Neil says it is ‘a matter of seconds’ between Anne clicking and MAN1 receiving the order. ‘When you click ‘buy it now’, the system will see which of the 17 buildings in the UK has that item in stock,’ he adds. ‘And it works out where the customer is located.’

The system then determines the quickest route to get the product out to the customer.

‘The computer that controls the ‘system’ is ‘in a cloud’,’ he says, referring to the nickname for where data is stored on remote servers.

Explaining how products get from the warehouse to our door, he adds: ‘Everything works backwards from the customer’s home.’

It must leave MAN1 by 2pm, be packed by 1pm and selected for the start of this process by 12pm. ‘It calculates it all the way backwards.’

8.50am, MAN1

The camera is located in the middle of the warehouse on the second floor — in a ‘pod’, Amazon’s word for a four-sided fabric storage unit. There are more than 10,000 pods closely packed together.

Each is 8ft tall and 2ft 6in wide. They have cubby holes on each side — storing, for instance, a Beast Gear self-moulding mouthguard, a Will Smith CD, two Katy Perry CDs and a plug-in pest repellent. ‘Everything is randomly stored across all the floors,’ says Neil. This allows staff to access separate pods if there is a sudden rush of orders for one product rather than all having to queue by one pod.

10.29am

Ann Doughty’s order is received at the Amazon Fulfilment centre in Manchester where a robot locates her camera in a yellow ‘pod’ and bring to ‘picker’ staff

A robot called No. 53721, one of 2,000 in MAN1, collects the pod containing the camera. The robots outnumber the human staff by 800; they are about the size of a large electric lawnmower and cost more than £10,000 each.

They move like rooks on a chess board — going east to west or north to south. They can’t go diagonally, but can spin around to move direction by 90 degrees.

The robot whizzes under the pods until it finds the right one. A hydraulic lift in the top of the robot is released, which raises the pod an inch. It then carries the pod towards the edge of the floor.

The robots are continually lifting up pods and putting them down. ‘It’s quite therapeutic just watching them move about,’ says Neil.

10.31am

‘Picker’ Fatima Mohamed,18, takes the order from the pod and scans and place it into a black bin for packaging

Robot 53721 is queuing behind four others all carrying pods at station 2131. Arranged around the four sides of the warehouse floor are human pickers ready for the robots to bring the pods to them.

Fatima Mohamed, 18, from Manchester, has worked here for three weeks. She stands at her station while a screen at eye-height flashes up her next job: ‘4C, Pick one item, Aberg Best 21mp camera.’ 4C is the cubby hole of the pod (column 4, row C), which has moved to stand in front of her.

She reaches into the cubby hole, which also has two £8.99 Lencent USB chargers (I see 300 of these in just 20 minutes), a pack of triple berry scented dog waste bags (£5.49 for 120) and a 500g bag of dieters’ protein powder (£9.99).

Fatima pulls out the camera while a scanner above her head, emitting a red beam, reads the barcode. She places it in a black tote, presses a button and the screen gives her the next item — a history book.

She picks items at the rate of about three a minute and wears safety gloves. ‘Sometimes there are sharp objects inside [the pods], so occasionally you put your hands in and get scratched,’ she says.

10.33am

The camera in the tote is trundling along a conveyor belt towards the packing area. With it is a copy of Gail Honeyman’s bestseller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and some probiotic pills.

10.38am

The tote arrives at the packing station of Graeme Nicolson, 58, who used to run leisure centres.

Having come out of retirement to work at Amazon, he earns £8 an hour — about to rise to £8.50 ‘because I will have completed two years’. Graeme works ten-hour days for four days followed by three days off. His hours are 7.30am to 5.30pm. ‘It’s OK,’ he says matter-of-factly.

Graeme takes the camera out of the tote and scans the barcode. A screen tells him which of the 20 cardboard boxes, folded on shelves in front of him, he needs.

Many items go into a box, which is stuffed with ‘dunnage’ (waste paper). ‘We’ve changed box sizes,’ says Graeme, ‘the new E4 uses more paper, but it’s a better box.’

The camera gets a C2 — a cardboard envelope requiring no dunnage. Graeme wraps it in seconds. A machine spits out a label with another barcode on it; Graeme is reminded by his screen to put a ‘Warning: contains a lithium battery’ sticker on the parcel. He then places it on another conveyor belt.

10.42am

Orders are scanned and labelled with the delivery address at this machine

Further down the conveyor, the parcel moves under another barcode scanner. The conveyor belt briefly pauses while a sticky address label for ‘Mrs Anne Doughty’ is printed and stuck onto the parcel.

It flies down a chute to the floor below, then the ground floor.

10.44am

It’s still less than two hours since Anne clicked ‘buy’. The camera, having travelled along a fair chunk of the eight miles of conveyor belts, is (after another barcode scan) sent down a side-chute into a huge open-topped, 6ft-high cardboard box, called a ‘gaylord’. (They were first created by the Gaylord Container Corporation in the U.S.)

Underneath the conveyor belt side-chutes, about 90 different gaylords are lined up, each one designated to a particular area of the country.

Anne’s camera is sent into a gaylord destined for DLS2, an Amazon ‘delivery station’ in Leeds, along with 181 other items.

2.17pm

The camera has been sitting in the DLS2 gaylord for a short time. But at every stage, its barcode has been scanned to ensure it’s on time and going to the right place.

It is now loaded onto the back of an HGV lorry with other gaylords and leaves MAN1.

The business rates bill Amazon had to pay last year for this vast warehouse outside Manchester was £919,370, according to the real estate adviser, Altus Group. This is less than £1.42 million that the financially troubled House of Fraser paid on its department store in the centre of the city.

‘Is Amazon a good corporate citizen?’ I ask general manager Neil. He replies: ‘In an area that had reasonably high unemployment, we’ve offered over 1,000 permanent positions to people in the local community, offering a lot of economic prosperity as a result of that.’

3.52pm

The lorry arrives at DLS2, the Amazon delivery station near junction 45 of the M1, on the outskirts of Leeds. A far smaller building than the Manchester fulfilment centre, it is one storey high and about 240ft long. The gaylord is unloaded from the HGV.

4.07pm

Operations associate Hassan Khan sorts parcels into delivery districts for delivery drivers at the Leeds based delivery station, West Yorkshire

Amazon has 38 different UK delivery stations, which act as sorting offices. Until 2012, products were collected by firms such as Hermes, Yodel and DHL, which sorted and delivered them.

However, Amazon took greater control of this process after it started offering same-day and Sunday deliveries.

The Leeds base opened in 2016 and employs 40 full-time employees. They sort the parcels into postcodes for areas from Huddersfield to Scarborough.

Because Anne’s camera is a same-day delivery, operations associate Hassan Khan sorts it into a yellow cage full of parcels being delivered this evening.

4.58pm

Mornings tend to be busiest at Leeds. That’s when one-day deliveries get sent out. Same-day deliveries — a far smaller proportion of Amazon orders — are picked up at about 5pm. Outside the delivery station, a trickle of cars and white vans arrive for the evening pick-ups.

Amazon uses a network of courier companies, as well as a newer service called Flex, which is similar to online taxi service Uber.

Anyone with a car and a smartphone can sign up to be an Amazon Flex driver, earning £12 to £15 an hour — though they pay for their own car, petrol and insurance.

Cars — I can see a Seat Leon, a Vauxhall Astra, a Mercedes C2, a Nissan Note and a Citroen C4 — line up in rows.

The Flex drivers, men aged 20 to 45, most speaking broken English, arrive in the warehouse and use their phone to scan a quick response code on a warehouse computer terminal. They are given a cage, with about 25 to 30 parcels, to wheel out to their cars.

5.07pm

Delivery driver Alex Rabone,28, picks up his orders together with mrs Doughtys and loads van at the Amazon Delivery station, Leeds

Anne’s camera isn’t picked up by a Flex driver but, instead, by Alex Rabone, 28, who works for JMHC Logistics, one of ten courier companies that collect parcels from Leeds delivery station. He arrives in a white Mercedes Vito van.

Alex doesn’t know what he’s picking up, but is given the route. He says: ‘It’s quite clever. You log in during the morning [into the Amazon app on his phone] and your route is there. It’s all planned.’

Though he works for JMHC, the route is calculated by Amazon.

5.20pm

Alex, who lives in nearby Tadcaster, usually does daytime routes and never knows how many parcels he has to deliver.

Both he and his company get paid for delivering all the parcels on a designated route, not the number of parcels. Each route is designed to take nine hours.

‘You could go out with 50 parcels in a rural area or you could go out with 100 in a residential area,’ he says. In the run-up to Christmas, ‘it can go up to 120’. By 5.20pm, Alex’s van is loaded.

5.25pm

Alex drives to the M1, heading for Garforth. He says he earns more as a courier driver than in his old job as construction site supervisor.

His boss, Rebecca Hall, who co-owns JMHC with her husband, says Amazon pays the company bonuses for hitting various targets, which she says isn’t linked to the number of parcels delivered.

‘It’s about hitting customer demands and metrics,’ she explains. ‘It’s about looking after the customer, not driving on the property, not blocking driveways. It’s simple things, really.’ These bonuses get passed onto drivers.

Alex enjoys courier work as he gets ‘lots of smiley faces’, adding: ‘Nine times out of ten, people are really pleased to get their parcel.’

5.39pm

Alex Rabone,28, delivers Mrs Doughtys order to her home in Garforth, West Yorkshire

Anne’s cul-de-sac is Alex’s first stop. ‘I like delivering around here,’ he says. ‘The best areas are high-density, suburban — all the front doors on the ground floor. Lovely.’

He rings Anne’s doorbell. She answers and is handed her parcel — less than nine hours after she first pressed ‘Buy Now’.

5.41pm

Anne opens the package in her kitchen and is impressed at how lightweight and ‘dinky’ the camera is. ‘I do worry about the High Street, but Amazon is so useful,’ she says. And cheap.

Her nearest electronics store is Currys PC World in Pontefract, 20 minutes away. Its cheapest digital camera is £69, compared with her £38 model from Amazon.

One thing is certain, however. With robots helping Amazon to ship parcels within nine hours of them being ordered, the millions that we spend online every week are only going to increase.

 

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