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Inside an Amazon warehouse that ships your supersized purchases

Because if you want a javelin or a life-size Yeti statue, you need it with two-day shipping.

Rich Hanna, GM of Amazon's Fall River warehouse for odd-sized items.
Cool? Yeah. But wait'll you see the kegerator. Rich Hanna, GM of Amazon's Fall River warehouse for jumbo-sized items.
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Rich Hanna stands amid a seemingly unending series of long gray metal shelves loaded with a random assortment of items, including trash barrels, stacks of Kibbles 'n Bits dog food, a stuffed-animal chipmunk sealed in a plastic bag, an LED-glowing underwater stool for a pool and a 35-pound tube of Safe Paw Ice Melter. That's just the start.

"You wanna see unique? This is a kegerator for a home brewer," Hanna says, proudly showing off a large, red Rubbermaid cooler that's been modded with a beer tap in the front and cooling coils inside.

Hanna, the tall, unflappably upbeat general manager of Amazon's fulfillment center in Fall River, Massachusetts, is giving me a tour of the 1.2 million-square-foot building (that's 26 football fields, in case you were curious) to show me all the big and bulky items Amazon keeps there.

Since the warehouse opened, in September 2016, it's become the temporary home of a life-size Yeti statue, kayaks, a hot tub and a 70-pound bean bag.

"Suspensions, transmissions, engines — I've seen everything," Hanna, a 20-year Navy vet who joined Amazon three years ago, tells me while standing by a two-basin metal restaurant kitchen sink in a protective wooden cage.

Now playing: Watch this: How Amazon ships its biggest and bulkiest stuff

You may use Amazon and its Prime membership program to buy popular items like diapers, paper towels or iPhone chargers. But in its ambitious march to become the everything store, the company has amassed a virtual inventory of hundreds of millions of products. The far end of that spectrum is taken up by these larger, low-volume items typically sold by the over 1 million smaller US retailers that use Amazon's warehouses and shipping infrastructure to sell their stuff.

Why would Amazon even care to offer a Yeti statue for sale? After all, it's expensive to ship that big guy. Well, that's likely because the company is keen on building up our muscle memory, so for whatever we can dream of wanting, we'll go to Amazon first.

"What Amazon has been really good at is being the channel that people go to, to look for different kinds of items," says Laura Behrens Wu, founder and CEO of Shippo, which makes shipping software for e-commerce companies. "That makes it harder for other retail channels, like Toys R Us or Walmart or Target."

Beyond Amazon, there's a broader push by online retailers like Wayfair, Overstock and others to sell us anything and everything online, even the biggest stuff, in hopes of taking over more of retail. Wholesale companies like Boxed and Costco are building up their capabilities to ship bulk items, too. And Walmart is expanding its e-commerce selection to offer sectionals, fridges and outdoor play sets (though some of these items include freight shipping fees or in-store pickup).

Wayfair said it developed its own Wayfair Delivery Network in 22 metro areas. This in-house operation is specially made for e-commerce deliveries of its large, bulky and fragile homegoods items, like armoires, sheds and vanities. One of the heaviest item this network shipped was a 1,050-pound outdoor pizza oven, the company said.

"Consumers are getting more and more used to that level of convenience and service and they expect it for more and more things," Jane Carpenter, Wayfair's head of public relations, says about online retail.

For now, e-commerce takes up 10 percent of total retail sales in the US, according to the Census Bureau, so there's still a long way to go to getting us to buy our patio furniture and mattresses online.


Heading down the tubes.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Supersize my shipping

Hanna are I are walking around the mezzanine level of the Fall River warehouse. In one section are rows and rows of cardboard Sonotube rolls, which are made for pouring concrete into molds but were instead bolted to the floor and jury-rigged to hold thin, long items like brooms, dozens of curtain rods and a roof rake (for scraping snow off your roof).

Hanna pulls out a javelin from one tube — yes, apparently people buy those on Amazon, too.

I ask him, "You would still offer two-day shipping for something like that?"

"Yeah, this is not too big," he tells me. Left unanswered, though, was why someone would need a javelin on such short notice.

Fall River is not your average Amazon warehouse. Most of the e-commerce giant's more than 75 North America warehouses are called sort fulfillment centers and are built with miles of conveyor belts, warehouse robots that can move around stacks of products and plenty of automated processes to ship loads of orders each day.

This 1,300-employee location, called a non-sort fulfillment center, is set up specifically to handle big and bulky items. The space has far fewer conveyor belts, no warehouse robots, and more hands-on workers to move around any given Star Wars Supreme Edition Shadow Trooper costume or 27-inch Predator gaming monitor. Shelves loaded with pallets reach several stories up to the roof, and the stuff kept there gets picked by an army of 230 powered industrial trucks fitted with forklifts that extend all the way up to the highest shelves.

Stuff that doesn't fit on pallets goes elsewhere, like the Sonotubes or lines of shelves on the mezzanine. Just about all the shelves are intentionally randomized to avoid bottlenecks, though the layout adds a hoarder-like atmosphere to the place.

Despite the need for more human labor in a non-sort facility like Fall River, Hanna tells me the location is still able to ship 80,000 to 100,000 boxes per day. And that number can nearly double during the peak holiday season.

For e-commerce companies, shipping larger items is a challenge, said Behrens Wu, with sellers often needing to schedule a drop-off time, bring an item into your apartment and sometimes unbox and build a piece for you. All that additional work is way more complex and expensive than just dropping a box at your front door.

But e-commerce providers, she said, are getting better at this work, using more innovative packaging — like Casper squeezing its foam mattresses into smaller boxes — or partnering with different shippers that specialize in bulky items.

A BOD machine

Heavyweight boxer, aka the Notorious BOD.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Work that BOD

Day Martin, the president and founder of Stand Steady, is certainly grateful for all this behind-the-scenes work by companies like Amazon.

She was in a car crash and ended up with a minor back injury that made it tough to sit at a desk for hours. She looked for a standing desk on (obviously) Amazon and when she couldn't find one, she decided to start her own standing desk company out of her home in 2012.

At first, she'd have to lug her 20-pound desks to the front porch for FedEx to pick up every day. In 2014, she started paying Amazon to deal with the hassle of warehousing and shipping for her.

"It was the only way for me to grow the business, because I was literally packing the boxes myself," she says.

For our last stop at Fall River, Hanna takes me to the custom-boxing machines, called "box on demand," or BOD, machines. There, teams of Amazon employees work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week constructing up to 200 boxes an hour for stuff that doesn't fit in standard-sized boxes.

We watch as one worker grabs different-shaped items — like a long, narrow box of Disney princess "Shimmering Dream Collection" dolls or a trailer hitch — from rolling metal cages and measures each one. The measurements are then fed into a machine that sucks in three different sizes of corrugated cardboard and cuts them to the right dimensions.

A machine operator with a long graying goatee takes out each cut piece of cardboard spitting from the machine and hands it to an assembler who's wearing a fluorescent safety vest over a black Boston Bruins T-shirt. The assembler then quickly puts the box together, sticks an item inside and sends it on its way down the line.

"We see a lot of grills, a lot of car seats and just oddly shaped things," Joe McLaughlin, a warehouse worker who oversees the BOD area, tells me.

I head out afterward, but the work that day keeps going into the next morning and the day after that.

A few years from now, maybe we'll all be buying all the bizarre and enormous stuff we need online, getting huge boxes delivered to every front door. And if that future does happen, it'll be just fine with companies like Amazon.

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