Several state and local officials will get their first look inside Middletown's Amazon Fulfillment Center today, exactly one year after the facility mailed out its first package to a customer.
"Our very first shipment was an 'American Idol Season 11' CD and it was a gift wrap item, as well," Bimal Patel, the center's general manager, said during a sneak peak tour provided to the Middletown Transcript on Wednesday. "It went out exactly one week after we received our first piece of inventory, which happened to be a plush Elmo doll."
Since then, millions of books, compact discs, toys, tools and countless other items have passed through the e-commerce giant's $90-million distribution center on Merrimac Avenue.
After starting with about 500 workers, the fulfillment center now employs more than 1,600 full-time employees – making its local staff roughly equal in size to the population of Delaware City.
"When we started, the center was mostly open space inside and we began by training those original employees in our processes as we headed into our first holiday season," Patel said. "Now those employees are training the new people and we've built out and up in here with the final phase – a three-story pick module – completed at the end of June."
The 1.2-million-square-foot floor of the fulfillment center now includes about 2-million-square-feet of work space, including miles of conveyor belts used to move inventory throughout the facility.
Hundreds of tractor trailers packed with items available for purchase at Amazon.com now arrive at the fulfillment center on a monthly basis.
As they're unloaded, Amazon employees – referred to as associates – unpack the boxes and log the inventory into a central database.
From there, the items are up divided into smaller units, called "totes," that are then distributed to "stowers" who place the inventory into rows and rows of "bins" that look similar to cubby holes used by most elementary school students.
Unlike most distribution companies that might store inventory by type or size, Amazon allows each associate to fill the bins in whatever order they see fit.
The location of the inventory is then logged into the database, which later tells "pickers" where to find items that have been ordered online in the most efficient manner possible to ensure speedy distribution.
"What makes Amazon so great is that technology," Patel said.
Once the items have been pulled from bins, they're then moved to packaging, where a computer system advises associates about the best method for shipping the items, down to what size box to use.
"Ensuring our customers' privacy is very important to us, so no personal information is included in the process until after something has been packaged," Patel said. "We have a machine that affixes the mailing label at the end of the process and the only people who see that are the associates organizing the packages for shipment, because they have to know what truck it needs to go on."
Page 2 of 2 - In July, the 19-year-old, Seattle-based company announced it would be adding more than 5,000 new full-time jobs at its 40 fulfillment centers in the United States, including one in New Castle. Last week, it said it also would be adding more than 70,000 full-time seasonal jobs in time for the holiday rush.
Corporate spokeswoman Nina Lindsey said hundreds of those long-term and seasonal jobs would be coming to Middletown, although the exact number has not been determined.
"Median pay inside our fulfillment centers is 30 percent higher than that of people who work in traditional retail stores, and that doesn't even include the stock grants that full-time employees receive," she said. "We also offer full-time benefits including healthcare and 401K matching, as well as a program that helps our associates pay for tuition if they want to go back to school, regardless of whether their field of study is relevant to their career at Amazon."
Lindsey said it was the availability of a strong local workforce that helped attract Amazon to the area.
"We've been so pleased with the great employees we've found here," she said. "And we're looking forward to adding even more for the holiday season."