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There's a world of activity between the time online shoppers click the "place order" button and when a holiday package is delivered to their doorsteps. The National Retail Federation estimates that 38 percent of holiday purchases will be made online this year, which is keeping fulfillment centers large and small very busy.
Target.com runs five fulfillment centers. One of them, in Tucson, Ariz., stretches the length of 16 football fields.
"So this is where it all starts," says Winnie Wintergrass, general manager of the facility, as she walks inside yellow safety lines on the floor.
The lines are there to keep people from getting hit by forklifts carrying goods, or running into the 6 miles of conveyor belts and spiral chutes that carry products up and down three levels.
When a customer — Target calls them guests — places an order on the company's website, it goes to a machine where a bar-coded shipping label is printed out, and automatic machines build boxes that customers will receive.
Software is used to figure out the geometry of all the items in an order, and it constructs the correct size box for shipping. The bar-coded label on the outside makes sure the box travels to the next stop in the center.
Javier Polendo, a fulfillment center employee, stands between a conveyor belt carrying the boxes and a long row of toys on shelves. He holds a scanner on a box, which tells him which shelf an item is on. In this case, it's a Play-Doh Autobot Workshop.
Think about it: If you're shopping in a store, you have an item in your hand when you buy it. With online shopping, if one of the 220 permanent or 100 seasonal employees at this fulfillment center picks the wrong item, it could mess up someone's holiday. So Polendo pays close attention.
"For me, it's just like you feel getting [the] gratification of just being able to get all these orders out and you know all these people are getting all these products that they ordered online," he says. "You kind of feel like Santa Claus."
But what if your order needs to be gift wrapped? Then your box goes to the big semi-automatic gift wrapping machine.
Then, a seemingly endless stream of blenders, microwaves, Barbie dollhouses, and Scrabble games head to waiting UPS trucks. Between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday this year, the Tucson fulfillment center processed more than 300,000 orders.
It Takes All Sizes
Fulfillment centers are either huge, or small boutique operations like Custom Back Office Solutions, which is also in Tucson. The biggest week for the center saw only 2,000 orders.
Even the head of the company, Jean Reehl, pitches in. She's putting stickers on a paint set for blind children.
"It's been available online, and we just were waiting for these Braille stickers to come in," she says. "So I'm doing it just to get the orders that we have on back order out."
Custom Back Office Solutions is what's called a third-party fulfillment center. It charges companies to store inventory and ship orders. When a customer places an order on a client's website, it ends up here along with things like a nonstick cheese knife, jewelry supplies, herbal sprays and T-shirts.
Reehl says she likes helping small companies so businesses can focus on manufacturing, marketing and sales, instead of picking, packing and shipping. Putting things in boxes "really isn't the best use of a business owner's time," she says.
Custom Back Office Solutions uses use bar codes, too, but the rest is not so high-tech. Four full-time and two part-time employees put the packing tape on manually.
Big or small, holiday orders in the digital age are usually fulfilled — that is out the door — in 24 hours.