The Amazon Way: Adventures in Gift Wrapping

The Box of Shame

I went inside Amazon last week. That’s right: inside Santa’s distribution center and birthplace of the Kindle. Building 3.

The “ooh, ahh” factor was considerable. Approaching and entering Building #3, a behemoth windowless block longer than five football fields, was like what I imagine boarding the Millenium Falcon might be like if it landed just west of Phoenix off the I-10. Disappointingly, Harrison Ford didn’t greet me at the door. No one else did either. Don’t get me wrong–others were present, in the form of  two uniformed personnel behind an elevated desk and several others busily working the airport-like security exits, bag search windows, and full-body turnstile entries, but no one greeted me. No one acknowledged my appearance in any way. I looked down to see if I had turned invisible somewhere between my front door and theirs, but no, there at the bottom of me were the comfortable shoes I’d been instructed to wear, in the email from Mbot’s school PTO leader, who’d organized this fundraising event which involved a five-hour stint wrapping gifts. In exchange, Amazon would give 75 cents per gift to Montessori to buy more turkey basters or tweezers or paper for books about the biomes of the wetlands.

Volunteer wrapping gifts at Amazon. Not.

When I’d happily agreed to participate, I’d imagined a relaxing afternoon around a large conference table making friends with other mothers while we honed our folding and taping skills. I estimated that by the end of five hours, I’d wrap perhaps seventy gifts and have more friends. In my fantasy, we were all sipping mochas, too, but I realized even then that might be pushing it.

In reality, ten or eleven men and women, none of whom I recognized from Mbot’s school, stood in front of the metal detectors, looking as confused as I was. My wrapping fantasy flickered, like in The Matrix, when there’s a break in the continuum and you realize that what you thought is real might not be. They seemed to be shuffling one-by-one through a metal detector, and I followed the crowd, shuffling past a log book in which I listed the personal electronic devices on my person. No one had actually spoken to me yet, so the only way I knew to do this was to flip back a few pages to see what other people had written. I passed through the metal detector and stood with the others, who were finally communicating with one another, mostly to express how strange our gift wrapping experience had been so far, even though we hadn’t actually started wrapping gifts.

An enormous banner hung high across one wall reading: “No Running Allowed,” and all around us, employees were fast-walking across the concrete floor of the massive space, whose metal roof was slit with skylights and higher than a field goal kick, and whose east wall I could not even see, it was so far away. While I contemplated the wonders of contemporary engineering, a woman appeared and ushered those volunteers who had “done this before” out of sight into the indecipherable maze of the machine. Several minutes passed. Then a tall man arrived; he didn’t  introduce himself, just mumbled a few indecipherable words and passed out nondisclosure agreements. I dug for a pen and wondered if I was breaking any rules by leaning my agreement on a pallet of hardcover copies of some book I’d never heard of. I read both sides of the agreement and signed it. In doing so, I promised not to give away  any of Amazon’s secret processes.

The tall man led us westward for over a minute until we finally reached a wall, with a door in it that led into an office, where we were instructed to leave our personal items. We could keep our phones, but were admonished that talking on a cell phone and gift wrapping were not to be done simultaneously. Then we were led–again, for well over a minute–back out into the main space and into a maze of high aisles of segmented, numbered, metal shelves that continued into infinity. Each held items of all description and groups of people moved with carts among them and among clusters of low-tech machinery, tables, ramps, etc. The main impression was of movement, constant and everywhere.

Our small, confused group finally came to a halt across from loading bay #126, where a small, businesslike and perpetually moving person introduced herself as Dolores, and proceeded to briskly and impressively demonstrate The Amazon Way of gift wrapping. There’s a way to wrap a Kindle, a way to wrap a CD, a way to wrap Boxed Items, a way to wrap books, and a way to wrap Large, Unwieldy Gifts (LUGs). So as not to disclose nondisclosable details, I will just note here that The Amazon Way involves neither a conference table nor mochas nor paper, scissors, or small plastic rolls of Scotch tape. 

Dolores endeared herself to us right away, possibly because she was the only person yet who had made eye contact, smiled, and had a name. Was this a deliberate strategy employed by Amazon? Were we meant to feel intimidated and unwelcome by all but our immediate superior so that we’d pledge undying loyalty to her? After all, without Dolores, none of us would be able to find a restroom, much less our personal belongings or the way out.

Each volunteer found a station for him or herself, checked for the appropriate tools, and went to work. I was again reminded of The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves’ real body was plugged into a giant power plant. My station was beside two stations shared by heavily pregnant best friends, the only others, I’d learned, who were also wrapping for Mbot’s school. We three formed the end of the line.

For those of you considering such a diversion yourselves, I can reveal the most important secret without breaching my nondisclosure contract, and it is this: position yourself at the station as close to the front of the line as possible, so you can pick and choose what to wrap before undesirable, difficult, time-consuming items get rolled down to you. One woman, obviously a veteran, was up at the front hand-picking the Kindles. The Kindle, and I hope I’m not disclosing any nondisclosable details here, arrives via conveyor belt at your station accompanied by its own custum wrapping box with a pre-taped ribbon. If you get to exclusively wrap Kindles for five hours, your school will be able to buy enough paper for a million books about the biomes of the wetlands.

Standing beside a perpetually moving conveyor belt, I magined myself taking a wrong step and ending up in one of the giant blue bags designated for LUGs or taped with no more than three pieces of tape into a box and sent to Scottsdale. Perhaps with a card like one I affixed to a beribboned something-or-other, labeled, “Merry Christmas Fartpants and Sophia.” Maybe at the end of the day  (but when do the days end, inside Amazon, at this time of year, when employees work eleven-hour shifts around the clock?) some uniformed security personnel might blearily notice that a volunteer had entered, carrying a personal computer and a cell phone, and never left. He’d assume I was still at my wrapping station. By the time the shift, and the next, rolled around, the narrow line containing my name and descriptions of my personal electronic devices would become lost under new pages of new volunteers and their personal electronic devices. I would only be discovered, lifeless but not yet bloated, thanks to Amazon Prime, the next day by Fartpants and Sophia. They’d never be really the same again.

I watched my step, and met the challenge of a thirty pound La Crueset dutch oven that trundled down the conveyor belt. But the Lady Gaga coffee table book almost bankrupted Montessori. In an interesting paradox, while the Kindle is the easiest item to wrap at Amazon, home of the web-order book, an old-fashioned book is the most difficult. Old-fashioned books come in all those inconveniently different sizes, and have all those pokey, pointy corners. Eight of them, to be exact, each one ready to tear a carefully folded pre-cut sheet of wrapping paper, sometimes again and again.

Torn wrapping paper is not The Amazon Way. 

Neither is using more than three pieces of tape per gift. Nor is crinkling. Nor is unevenness or crookedness of paper, ribbon, or card. Nor is the blue ribbon with the green paper. Or the blue paper with the beige ribbon. But when in doubt, use beige. “Beige goes with everything,” says Dolores. She and Burberry know.

As the two pregnant ladies and I toiled, giggling over each other’s mediocre wrapping skills and high-fiving our triumphs, Dolores appeared among us, one hand raised high above her head. In it was a gift–one that had been tracked via a nondisclosable computer code to our row. The package looked like something Mbot might have wrapped. Its gold paper was crumpled at one end, which was affixed by three large pieces of tape.

“The Box of Shame,” I intoned under my breath. The pregnant ladies and I turned shamelessly to find out who might claim it. We speculated not quite quietly that it was surely one of the women handpicking the Kindles. That those women needed the Kindles because they had no genuine wrapping skills. No one fessed up, and Dolores picked someone, at random, although I don’t think completely at random–Dolores was on the ball–and gave a lecture and (another) wrapping demonstration as the rest of us not-so-guffawed ungraciously.

Twenty minutes later, quality control arrived again, in the form of Dolores holding another gift high in the air–this time, a small, blue-wrapped box. I squinted to see what was wrong: Aha! the tag had been applied sideways. Again, the Montessori mothers denied responsibility with smirks of superiority. Half an hour went by. I wrapped a felt pocketbook-making kit, a history of war, and a block of suet.

Dolores appeared a third time, now shaking her head and threatening us. In her upheld hand was another gold package–this one with a large tear on the side. Even worse: the tear had been taped! Not only was the responsible party a shitty wrapper, but she was trying to get away with it!  I started kind of feeling sorry for this person who apparently was genuinely really, really, bad at wrapping presents. Give ’em the Kindles, the pregnant ladies and I agreed. With those genes, their kid would need the private education more than mine.

After three full hours of wrapping, and quite a bit of standing around because the gift volume was down that afternoon, we were told we could go. There simply wasn’t enough work for all of us. I counted thirty tags to add to the Montessori pile. In three hours, I’d made $22.50.

The pregnant ladies had chosen to stay an extra half hour, so I was chaperoned to the turnstiles alone, where my chaperone disappeared, but no one could tell me how or where to retrieve my personal belongings. My chaperone had to be called back to lead me there. With personal belongings in hand at last, I then proceeded to bungle the exit procedure. I made every mistake in the book, and the uninformed security personnel let me. First I tried to push through the turnstile instead of going through the X-ray. They let me almost get through without giving them my bag. And then my cell phone. And then I was directed to turn on my cell phone so they could ascertain t wasn’t hot off the shelves. I am sure they didn’t let me make every mistake in the book for their own amusement–I think they’d just forgotten that anyone alive might not know The Amazon Way.

As I drove home on the interstate just before rush hour, I thought about The Amazon Way. Amazon had charged anywhere from $3.99 (for a Kindle) to $5.99 (for a LUG) for every item we wrapped. I did the math. On the average, this left Amazon not only with the $4.24 per gift after Montessori’s take (minus supplies and cost of conveyor belt), but also with whatever it was saving by not actually hiring people to gift wrap. Meanwhile, I’d made $22.50 for Mbot’s school. I hope it goes to buy more paper to make more books illustrating biomes of places, maybe other than the wetlands.

“There are the plants that reach and reach high and high to the sun,” Mbot had said when he brought home the first book.

“There are plants that stay down under,” he told me when he brought home the second book.

“Wetlands are stinky!” he announced when he brought home the third book.

I will keep them forever. It’s my way.

What’s yours?

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