Invited guests will have the opportunity to tour the center Monday at 8:30 a.m., when Amazon celebrates the grand opening of the facility.
General Manager Michael Thomas said Wednesday the Bradley County operation is similar to the one in Chattanooga with the chief difference being Chattanooga handles small items and Bradley County handles large items, including life-size garden statuary.
“Stuff larger than a coffee maker comes out of this building,” he said. “I like to refer to it as the more difficult stuff. We have everything in this building from TVs to rocking chairs — we have a wide variety of products.”
The local building, known internally as CHA-2, is less automated with fewer conveyors than CHA-1 in Chattanooga. Other than that, the operations are very similar.
“The way we manage inventory, the way we fill customer orders — a 72-inch TV doesn’t fit on a conveyor very well — so we typically use a forklift or some other type of powered equipment in order to transport our products rather than conveyors.”
Dozens of 53-foot semitrailers deliver merchandise to the warehouse on a daily basis and that many more national — including the U.S. Postal Service and some local carriers are used to ship it out.
“We use just about anybody who will deliver something,” Thomas said.
How do they ship a six-foot tall garden statue?
“It’s tricky,” Thomas said. “We have some processes in place to handle larger items like this which includes some packaging other things we do to make sure we get it to our customers safe and sound. Certainly if someone wants it in their front yard, we can get it to them and we’d be happy to do so.”
Amazon offers the world’s biggest selection of merchandise, but the warehouse and distribution center is filled not only with Amazon products, but also items belonging to other sellers who use Amazon’s fulfillment service.
“When you go on Amazon, you see a number of different sellers and some of the products in this building is actually owned by someone other than Amazon,” he said. “Altogether, what you end up with is a huge selection which improves the customer experience.”
Though the Bradley County site is less automated than its companion in Chattanooga, it is no less computerized. Items delivered by truck are unloaded onto the receiving dock and immediately scanned into the inventory system.
“What these guys are doing with the scanners is scanning the bar code to identify what the product is and that we now have it,” he said. “We let our software know that product now exists in the building and from this point on, everything has a virtual and physical location. Every time we move it, we scan it.”
An item is typically moved from the receiving dock to a staging area where it is picked up by forklift and moved to a rack location where it is again scanned. The tracking process is reversed when an order is placed.
Items are stored in random locations. Items weighing more than 50 pounds or longer than 48 inches is kept in the bulk area. When there is enough of an item to make a pallet, it is stored in a rack. If there is not enough to make a pallet, the product is stored on library shelves.
“We do what we call random stow. We do not tell the stower where to put it,” Thomas said. “Stowers put it in any open spot they want to, which we found to be more efficient.
“From a picking standpoint, you never know what a customer orders. They could order a microwave and a hot dog maker. The idea behind random stow is, we never know if the microwave is going to be over here of over there, but we are going to send the picker to the nearest location.”
The inventory system operates in real time. If the hot dog maker is not near the microwave, then another picker pulls it from the shelf. It’s all about efficiency and sending the correct item to the correct address.
Thomas could not quantify the accuracy of the system except to say it is “very, very, very good.”
All of the corrugated boxes are recycled and recycled material is used in materials shipped to customers.
“Being environmentally friendly is something we’re very focused on as well to minimize our footprint as much as possible,” Thomas said. “Many of the lights in the building are controlled by motion sensors.”
Items rise and fall in popularity according to seasons. Right now, people are ordering barbecue grills for summer cookouts. Although Christmas is a peak season all to itself but Thomas said there peaks in orders around other holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
“And we do gift wrapping as well, especially around Christmas,” Thomas said. “At Christmas, we more than double our volume. It starts a little bit in November but it really hits the three weeks in December and the last week in November. There is Black Friday, Cyber Monday and then it’s game-on and we go at it.”
He said the last step in the operation is for the driver to hook onto a trailer and deliver it to someone’s front door.
The local fulfillment center employs more than 450 full-time associates. Including a smaller fulfillment center in Lebanon, Amazon has three locations in Tennessee with another site in Lebanon and one in Murfreesboro coming in the future.