First Time at Amazon Day 25 – Day 26

Disclaimer:  We  are not spokespersons or officially affiliated with Amazon in any way. This account is of our personal experience as seasonal employees in the Cambellsville, KY distribution center in 2017.  I in no way speak for the company or my co-workers, and am only recounting my personal experiences.  Also, any details I get wrong in this or any other post are due to a misunderstanding on my part and are not intentional.  To start at the beginning of our Amazon experience, click here for the first Amazon post. 

Day 25 

Although I was really sore in the morning, a long hot shower really helped, and I felt pretty good when we started out the day.  This feeling was helped along when I saw the day shift supervisor and went up to him to share my ideas about the power hour.  He not only listened, but liked what I had to say, and after talking it through decided to change the next power hour to a random drawing for anyone who was in the top 25 % of the picks that hour. He seemed to appreciate that this approach would be more inclusive and agreed that this might improve the pick numbers overall.  He’s going to give it a try next week, and we will see how it goes, but either way it was nice to be heard.

I was particularly grateful for that conversation, because not too long after that my supervisor came up and found me.  I was hoping I would get through a week without showing up on a report, but that was not to be.  This time it was for leaving drawers partially open (my name showed up 7 times on a QA audit) and although I appreciate the constructive feedback and the manner it is being delivered, I dug my heels in on this one.  I said that I wasn’t allowed to use the “amnesty” bins and wasn’t strong enough to push in all of the overstuffed drawers, so what exactly did he want me to do in that situation???  To his credit he really talked the situation through with me and was trying to find an answer to the problem, but ultimately I made it clear I didn’t feel I was the source of the problem.  He promised to pass along the feedback to his manager in the report and we landed on me calling a problem solver if I found a drawer I couldn’t close.

Calling a problem solver seems to be sort of a catch-all solution, but really isn’t one that works very well.  Yes, there are radios on every floor, but they are generally not close by and while you are reporting the problem the seconds tick away. Theoretically you are supposed to notify them of the issue and perhaps wait until they arrive to solve the problem, but frankly it is rarely done.  I am sure too many problem solver calls would raise a red flag as well, and the lost time hurts your numbers.  Plus, if they really wanted it done frequently they would have an easier way to do it on the scanner.  Almost everything else can be done simply on the scanner, but calling a problem solver and flagging an issue requires multiple steps, and often can’t be done at all. Plus, it really isn’t solving the core problem (over stuffed bins in this case), and I am going to take a minute and talk about that.

First off, let me say many Camperforce people are stowers and after talking to them I have no doubt it is a difficult job.  They are moved to a floor of a building, given boxes and boxes of stuff, and turned loose to find a place it will fit.  I’ve watched them do it, and talked to my friend Harry, and it’s a tough job, so I want to make that clear.  That being said, the pickers are the internal customer of the stowers’ process, and we have no way to provide feedback.  In general, what we have been seeing is the middle drawers are being overstuffed and the ends of rows and bottom drawers have openings.  In all fairness though, the stowers have no easy way of knowing which bins have capacity and are walking up and down aisles opening drawers and looking for spots.  They have time pressure as well to get X amount of items stowed in an hour, so I can see the temptation to shove it in where they can. (We might get more detailed information of a stower’s perspective from Harry that we can share after this post. – Lee)

They are also using ladders, and I think that is where I have a problem.  When you are on a ladder you can push the clothing down and the drawer in, but when we try to pull it open from ground level it gets stuck. Yes, we have access to ladders as well, but it would absolutely kill our ratings to pull them out on every single high pick.  So we are pulling and yanking, and clothes go flying and pushing it all back in is a mess.  (When you open a drawer you can usually tell if you’re the fist person to get to it after a stower has been there, because everything is all neat and tidy and separated (there are always several different items in a drawers, sometimes five or six different types of things) and things are pretty easy to find. But because everything is in plastic bags, as soon as you put your hand in it all starts to slide around and the orderliness is gone. Bill calls it “bin churn”, which is a very appropriate description. – Lee)

And in case you think this is all much ado about nothing, we heard from regular full time staff that there have been a high number of injuries this year from overstuffed bins.  Anecdotally we heard one person got a bloody lip from hitting herself in the mouth with a stuck drawer that broke free and there have been numerous muscle strains.  (When I first heard about the “injuries” I was honestly puzzled about how injured you get could get from having a bra or a knit sweater fall on your head from 18 inches above you. Then I ripped most of a fingernail off pulling on a drawer that stuck, and another time I pulled too hard without a good grip, expecting the drawer to pop right out, and when it didn’t, my hand popped right off and I smacked myself right in the face. Considering some of the stuff I say out loud, and all of the stuff I think but don’t say, I probably deserved being smacked in the face that day, but I didn’t like it. – Lee) I personally can attest to the cumulative effect of overstuffed bins as my shoulders were killing me the two days things were at it’s worst. And not just me, one of the long term employees mentioned she was having problems as well, so I know it’s just not newbie aches and pains. (Another issue is that some stowers put heavier than appropriate things in the high drawers. When you pull out a drawer that’s full of belts or wallets, you’re usually doing it one–handed, and a drawer that you’re holding above your head with one hand that should weigh a few pounds but actually weighs 10 or more can come down a lot faster than you expect. And a drawer full of boxes of wallets is going to hurt more than a drawer full of bras. – Lee)

So in case any of you are ever stowers in an Amazon facility, I took a few notes and thought I would pass along some “Voice of the Internal Customer” from us pickers.  Here’s a few things that make us pickers crazy, and if you can avoid doing them that would be awesome.  I know it isn’t always possible, and I totally respect how hard you are working, but please, do what you can.

  • Storing heavy items in a high bin.  Keep in mind we hardly ever use ladders and when I reach up and grab a box that is heavy it almost falls on my head.  Anything with metal (luggage tags, bra extenders, belts) can have a cumulative weight effect and are much better in lower storage bins.
  • Please don’t put one extra small G-String in a large bin full of other stuff.  Rooting through bins takes time and really slows us down, so when there is one tiny item among larger items it can get lost in there. I know it’s tempting, but these are much better off in one of the smaller drawers where they are easier to find.
  • Bins full of socks are particularly challenging, but it is much easier for us if they are all the same brand.  Placing one “oddball” sock in a bin full of like socks essentially means we have to touch every single item to find the right one.  And Murphy’s Law says, it’s the last one we touch, so this takes a ton of time.
  • Along these same lines having lots of similar items and one or two items that look the same but are different is a challenge. For example I was looking for a bracelet in a large bin one day that was full of compression sleeves.  Turns out the bracelet was in a small black pouch that looked almost identical to the compression sleeves and I have to root through 30 or so of those before I found the bracelet pouches.  That extra minute or two may not seem like a big deal, but the time has to come from somewhere and in order to stay on track for our picks per hour we need to make it up somewhere.  Plus in that particular case I had to wonder if someone did it on purpose.  It seemed way too hard of a find to happen by accident.
  • Finally, even with big items when there are many of them and they are all the same size that is great, but when only one is a different size that can be a real pain. I see this all the time where there are 10 shirts and they are all small and somewhere in there is one medium shirt.  It would be so much easier to place the one medium in a different drawer where it would be an easy pick to find.
  • On the plus side, Jeans are almost always done perfectly.  They are grouped by size, at the bottom of the bin, and I never mind picking jeans as it is super quick.

Just a few thoughts to pass along, and who knows, someone may read this and every great stow does equal a great pick!

One positive thing about the conversation with my supervisor was it did give me something to think about throughout the day, which passed pretty quickly.  Plus something really nice happened towards the end of the day that was the highlight of my week.  This is my supervisor’s first experience with Camperforce and since he was interested I shared a little bit of my background with him one day.  Turns out my career path of Six Sigma Black Belt and project manager was the career path he was interested in.  So when he needed to select an employee to help with his first 5S safety audit he chose me.  Not only did I get a break from picking, but as we were walking around with the safety supervisor he shared my background with him.  In the Amazon world, a Six Sigma Blackbelt is a big deal, and since I am passionate about the subject it was a lot of fun to be able to use that skill set, even in a limited way.  They were genuinely interested in my thoughts about the areas we looked at and  it’s been a long time since anyone has listened to me that way.  It’s one thing working a line level job in a place where my skills aren’t understood or needed, but quite another doing it in a place where my skill set is an integral part of the operation.  All I can say is it reminded me of who I used to be (in a work environment) and it had an impact on me. Let’s leave it at that.

Tracy: 24,691 steps ( 10.31 miles)
Items Picked: 771

Lee:    27,521 ( 12.16 miles)
Items Picked:   784

Interesting Item Picked:  I don’t have young kids anymore but Paw Patrol must be super popular because I am picking a ton of that clothing.  I also saw Sleepytime Bamboo pajamas which help with hot flashes, according to their packaging.  That was interesting to me, but they are a little out of my price range, still I will keep an eye out for some on sale and maybe give them a try. My favorite item was another T-Shirt made by Panoware. It said “A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone” which I really liked. 


Days Off

We were both very excited about having a couple of days off and although we briefly discussed going and doing some exploring neither of us really had the energy.  Instead we talked to several family members (it’s tough squeezing in the time on our days off) and had both lunch and dinner at the nearby college.  We had bought a 10 punch card for meals when we first arrived, but with our shift we are limited in the days we can go.  So Lee and I went together for lunch and then we took Kelly and Bill with us for dinner.  Both meals were really good, and they do have an excellent dessert selection, but I had forgotten how loud college cafeterias can be.  It’s a really nice option to have, especially on those days you don’t feel like cooking, but personally I don’t think we would do it again.

Saturday, Bill, Kelly, Linda, and Steve went to Maker’s Mark but again Lee and I stayed home.  We do plan on visiting at least one bourbon manufacturer before we leave, really have to do that when you are in Kentucky, but other errands took precedence.  Plus, we were having combination birthday celebration for Steve and Kelly that night and I wanted to try out some new appetizers. I am still picking away at new recipes for my second recipe book and certain ones really are best prepared for a group so I prepared Mini Beef Wellingtons (cool concept but I overdid the horseradish), crab puffs (turned out OK, but not quite good enough to make the cut, and a large loaf of cheesy bread.  The best thing about the bread was Linda had a better recipe she shared, so next time I will try it her way and hopefully will have a winner.  It was all fine, but the star of the show was Grandma Murray’s carrot cake (which Kelly ended up making), which is literally the best carrot cake any of us have ever had.  That recipe is in my existing recipe book and never fails. We had a wonderful time with spirited conversation and as always it was wonderful celebrating fellow RVers birthdays.  We are with our friends on their special days more often than I ever thought we would be, but this is the first time we were able to celebrate Kelly’s with her.

Grandma Murray’s carrot cake

Lee checking out the appetizers

Linda and Steve

Joint birthday candle blowout which was really funny

Steve and Linda are actually leaving Amazon to head back to Texas to be with family for the holidays, so we won’t be seeing them for a while.  It was nice spending more time with them and getting to know them better, and if nothing else we will be seeing them at the reunion rally.  Speaking of that, so many of our group are able to make it to the RV-Dreams reunion rally and we are pretty excited about that.  It’s rare our schedules all come together like that, but almost everyone is making a point to be there. It will be the first time we have had so many of us in one place in years and everyone is super excited about it.

Day 26

Our mandatory overtime was cancelled for Sunday, but after a few anxious hours they finally posted voluntary overtime, which we successfully signed up for.  At this point many people would be thrilled to just work a 40 hour week, but for us the overtime pay is what makes this even close to being financially worthwhile.  The good news is for those of you who would like the experience and care less about the money, so far there have been many opportunities to work a shorter week.  Voluntary time off has been offered every week so far, and it’s much easier to just work a four day schedule.  It’s a shame we can’t take advantage of that, because we would definitely have more energy to explore the area with that third day, but we are here to make as much money as possible and working that fifth day is definitely a part of that.

When we went into work, Lee walked up to the pick desk to ask the daytime supervisor a question and he asked Lee if he would like to learn to pack.  Lee’s response was an instantaneous yes and then he said he was sure I would like to do it as well.  So Lee and I were both sent up to pack for training (and given $10 Dunkin Donuts gift cards for agreeing to learn!) and we walked upstairs to the pack area.  This is the area our friend Kelly works in, so we knew a little bit about it, but we both were pretty fuzzy on how exactly it worked.  Thankfully we had an excellent trainer, who did a great job of simplifying the process while giving us the information we needed to do the job.  First she walked us through it, then she showed us, and finally we were allowed to try it under her supervision.

Learning something new and different is always fun for us, and once the training was over the time just flew by as we packed individual items.  Our experience in picking definitely helped us identify the items, but I at least had some trouble figuring out what type of box or bag each item would go in.  Turns out the system was pretty automated though and almost every item has a recommended package.  You are allowed to override it, using common sense, which I liked. There were a variety of simple rules which were pretty interesting, mainly because it never would have occurred to me.  I’ll share some of these below, which found particularly interesting because it explained why sometimes when you place an Amazon order you get a relatively small item in a box that clearly too big.  We never understood that before.

  • Magnets have to go in a box because if they are in a bag they could “stick” to the metal on the conveyor belts (never would have thought of that)
  • Round pill bottles have to go in a padded envelope or a box because if they are in a loose poly bag they can “roll” on the conveyor belts and not actually move along the line.  Again makes perfect sense but I never would have though of it
  • Anything “crushable” including baseball hats goes in a box versus bag
  • Any clothing items with wire (underwire bras, corsets, etc) need to go in a padded envelope because the wires can be bent or poke out of the bags
  • All liquids have to go in boxes
  • Any items with a lithium battery gets special handling stickers on them.

We spent a ton of time talking about this last one because there is a pretty high fine for forgetting these, but the system thankfully prompts you.  I was really impressed by the whole setup, especially the tape machine.  Each box has a corresponding button on the tape machine and the tape comes out (pre-wet) and cut to the proper size.  Wow!! So much better than the old days of tape guns and according to what we have heard saves the company millions of dollars.  Really cool.  Most items though (and almost all apparel) goes into poly bags, which are those slippery white plastic bags that have a “zipper” tab to pull to open (If you’ve never seen one, order an apparel item from Amazon and will almost certainly come in one. But wait until we’re done, we have enough to do already. – Lee) and those bags already have the stickers you need on them.  So basically you scan the item, place it in the bag, close it, and scan the SPOO label (like a routing number) on the bag.  Easy peasy, although I did find that if I get interrupted or was mentally focused I would sometimes forget which step I was in.

(Interestingly, nothing in this process tells us who ordered the item or where it’s going. The SPOO label gets read a few feet down the conveyor by a shower of laser beams that covers every part of the package except the bottom, and a few feet after that a robot prints out the address label and applies it. It’s called the Slammer, even though it’s very gentle, because it looks like it’s slamming the label on, and it’s amazing to watch. So the only way it would be possible to know where or to whom something is going would be to pack it, then walk down the line following it after it gets “slammed” and then read the label, but it’s not on the line for very long at all after being slammed, it just disappears downhill towards the shipping area.  – Lee) 

My biggest complaint was the sound when your SPOO didn’t scan wasn’t very distinguishable so it was easy to not get that final scan and then put the item on the belt, which causes an error.  I did several of those.  In picking, when you make a mistake, it makes a very obnoxious noise, which really gets your attention.  This noise is too close to the “did it right noise” and I did struggle with this final step.  Overall though putting things in bags was pretty easy and since we were doing single items (one per bag or box) doubly so.

Boxes are a little tougher, although the system does makes recommendations, mainly because you are supposed to put the pillow stuffing in each one as well and sometimes it didn’t all fit.  In general though if you trusted the screen it all worked out well, but definitely took longer than an apparel bag. We both had a great time and felt really good when we went to lunch but since we are mid-shift we weren’t sure what to do.  After lunch we talked to the night shift picking manager though and she sent us back upstairs to packing.  At first the scheduler wasn’t sure what to do with us, but since we wanted to be there and they had plenty of work they assigned us stations and then gave us a different trainer for the evening portion of our shift.

Our second trainer was just as nice as our first one and really seemed to like us.  They appreciated that we were serious about learning the process and both expressed to us that it was nice we didn’t “act like we knew it all.”  That’s just not our way of doing things, usually we tend to ask too many questions, but in both our training sessions that was appreciated.  And both trainers loved Lee, because no surprise he took right to it.  I was a lot more tentative and know I made some mistakes, but he jumped right in and was generating 115 packages an hour (the target is 110) in no time.  I didn’t do too bad at 92 an hour, but as I said I know I made some mistakes.

I wasn’t surprised at all he did so well, because Lee has always been a great packer.  The kids and I called him “the packmaster” back in the day, because he could always fit more stuff in any space than anyone we ever met.  Car trunks, boxes, closets, you name it, he could fit tons of stuff into other stuff.  And he’s always been a container guy.  Loves boxes and putting things in boxes, since he was a little kid, so truly this may be the perfect job for him.  (It’s absolute heaven. Sorting, categorizing, and putting things correctly into correct containers is literally my favorite thing in the world. If you’ve never seen me walk through the Container Store, you’ve never seen true bliss. They have boxes inside boxes in that place. – Lee) We knew it was going well, when they had several items that needed to get on the truck by 10pm and our trainer told the supervisor to give them to Lee “because that guy is really fast.”  He ended up with 40 Echo Dots (each one needs to go into a custom built box) and of course he processed them with plenty of time to spare.  Even I was impressed by that.  I was given a box of 8 priority items to do, and did OK, but the added pressure of a time crunch made me a bit nervous.  Still overall I think it went OK, and again the time went by much faster.

I will say though that I started to get a little sore towards the evening.  We get to stand on thick rubber mats, which is nice, but I have to lean forward a bit to reach the bags and my back and knees started bothering me a little bit towards the end.  I have no doubt there is a cumulative effect on that as time goes by, but we will be finding out as they want us to come back for the next three days.  Lee was very excited about that, and I certainly am glad to get to learn about another process in the building, but we will see how it holds up over time.  I am fully aware everything is easier when there is a novelty factor. More details to follow as we learn about it, but at this point we are both very happy about the ability to do something else.

(I also like that for the most part the pack stations are laid out pretty well and ergonomically. After a few hours I saw a bunch of ways it could be tweaked just a little to make it even better, but nothing that kept me from falling asleep. Most of it had to do with being able to move things an inch or two here and there to speed up the process even more. Each person is a little different, and the ability to change things to fit each person perfectly makes a HUGE difference without much investment. The back soreness Tracy is experiencing is likely due to the fact that she has to reach a few inches farther for the bags. Getting her or them closer would solve that. I’m not complaining, I’m just pointing out that on this scale, the time and energy spent to travel even a few inches adds up over time to big money, but for me it’s more about refining as close as possible to perfection than money. What I particularly liked was that as we worked there was a small unit of people they call “water spiders” (probably because they keep the water reservoirs on the tape machine filled, and also probably because of the way water spiders skitter around really fast on the surface of water, getting things done) that were constantly emptying our trash cans, and refilling our supplies so we never ran out. Very efficient. – Lee) 

Tracy: 7,631 steps ( 3.22 miles)  Oh yeah that’s a big difference!
Items Packed in the second half of our shift: 424  (92/hour)

Lee:  8,036   ( 3.5  miles)
Items Packed in second half of shift:  524 (115/hour) Showoff!!

Interesting Item Packed: When you are packing you get to see all kinds of interesting things as they go by, but today’s pick is definitely the Echo Dot. It’s on sale for only $29.99 and we packed a lot of these.  Not only did it require a special box, but you also had to scan them twice, once for the item and once for the serial number, so they definitely took a bit longer.  Essentially they are a smaller version of Alexa which people can put in any room and then network them.  For an RV this may be all we need and we are very tempted to buy one as our friends Cori and Greg have it and it’s pretty cool that you can just ask for information or they can play music for you.  Again this is the little version so has less power, but at this price it’s hard to say no! 

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Or you can check out our recipe book filled with 80 real recipes we have cooked in our RV and taste tested by Lee himself. The cookbook specializes in recipes that have a limited number of ingredients, without sacrificing flavor and is organized into categories that matter to full time RVers such as Happy Hours, Travel Days, and Pot Lucks   You can preview the kindle version on  Amazon or the Apple version on Itunes.    It is available in paperback on Amazon if you prefer.

7 thoughts on “First Time at Amazon Day 25 – Day 26

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your experience learning to pack. Figured there was a matrix of some sort for choosing boxes, etc. I use Amazon A LOT and rarely have a bad packaging experience, but a few days ago, I got a box with two hardcover books, a 1.5 pound box of dog chews, and a one pound English fruit cake that was a gift. So were the books. The only padding in the box was three air pillows on the top. The edges of the books were a bit damaged and the box with the fruit cake was really torn. How should they have been packed? Is bubble wrap ever used to protect items like books? I look forward to hearing your expertise!

    • Hey Liz, we are supposed to wrap the bubble wrap around all the sides and on top but sometimes e boxes we are given don’t have enough room for that. It’s a judgement call to get a new box at that point but with the time standards, unless it’s really obvious there will be damage we just roll with it.

  2. Awesome on getting moved to pack, Tracy! Take time to do mini-stretches, as repetitive motion injuries can sneak up on you. My height and big hands gave me a huge advantage, especially when grabbing multiple pairs of jeans and stuffing them in a polybag all at once….but, boy, did I pay for it at the end of the day.

    We actually had someone do the magnet in a bag thing when we were there, and it got caught in the conveyer gears after all three of the pack conveyers converge into one. Everything stopped for over an hour, but we kept packing full tilt. We had boxes stacked everywhere!

    Have fun! 🙂

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