The Last Mile 

When the Internet grocer Webvan opened a distribution center in East Oakland, it seemed that some of the area's e-commerce riches were beginning to trickle down to street level. Now, employees wonder if the salad days are over.

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Here, slightly simplified, is how the order-fulfillment process works: After customers have placed their Internet order, Webvan's software crunches through a massively complicated program and combines it with all the other orders into a schedule for the day. Meanwhile, in the wee hours of the morning, vendors' trucks are pulling up outside the DC to drop off their shipments. Since my tour takes place mid-morning, I get to see only the tail end of the unloading process in action, but it's enough to get the idea. Near a loading bay, two people are cutting open cardboard boxes and dumping their contents into yellow bins. A third man with a bar-code scanner zaps the code on the plastic bin, then the UPC on one of the items inside the bin--in this case, jars of raspberry jelly--and enters the total number of jelly jars on a computer keyboard. He then hefts the bin onto the conveyor belt and it sedately rolls away. The system now not only knows that it has a dozen jars of raspberry jelly in a certain plastic bin, but it also has collected 150 different bits of information about that jelly, including its weight, volume, and perishability. This process is repeated thousands of times--Webvan estimates that they carry about 20,000 separate products.

Once the bins hit the belt, they glide off to be sorted onto shelves and racks. We head over to view what is possibly the world's most aggressive-looking and complicated shelving unit, a giant revolving rack capable of holding 5,000 different kinds of products. Imagine a long, thin, five-tiered grocery shelf, capable of spinning like a dry cleaning carousel on amphetamines. Or rather, five dry cleaning carousels on amphetamines: one worker loads five racks at a time. Employee Julie Knutson, wearing a Webvan zip-up fleece jacket and a long blond ponytail, is replenishing inventory for the coming night's picking and is totally focused on a silent communication between herself and the machine.

She stands with the five racks on one side of her; on the other, there's a two-tiered conveyor belt called the "dashboard," where she receives a steady stream of products to be shelved. She hits a button and immediately a dozen full yellow bins roll onto the dashboard. A green LED display lights up under one of the bins: it's number 3874--rice cakes, as it turns out. Knutson pulls the tray from the dashboard and whirls around to face the carousel behind her. Now a green LED light with an arrow is pointing to the empty tray on the carousel where she should dump the rice cakes, into slot 1B. When she's done that, she smacks a yellow "task complete" button with the palm of her hand, and the computer gives her her next assignment. While she's pulling the next item--a bin full of Reynolds Wrap--off the dashboard, the carousel racks frenetically revolve behind her so that by the time she turns back around, the right slot is in front of her and the green arrow is guiding her to it. Knutson can do this remarkably quickly and, better yet, does not seem to have been rendered insane by the task. "Ever see that game at carnivals, the Whack-A-Mole?" asks Mahood. "This is like that. Whenever you finish one task, there's another. It will drive you nuts."

Since it's after 9:00 a.m., most of the staff are busy preparing the racks and bins for the coming day's orders; in the early morning the process goes in reverse, as items are plucked from the carousels and shelves and put into plastic totes that will be shipped out to the customers. Only the more lightweight and nonperishable items get picked from carousels like the one Knutson is using--everything else is kept on more standard shelves, and pickers select the items from them by hand. For this process, pickers' marching orders are delivered to them via an RF (radio frequency) gun, a gray plastic device the size of a pocket novel that they strap onto their wrist with the aid of some seriously heavy-duty Velcro. The face of the device has a readout screen as well as a whole series of alphanumeric buttons. A thin cord leads to a tiny bar-code scanner that they attach to their pointer finger with tiny elasticized straps. You set off the scanner by pressing a little trigger with your thumb.

Mahood takes us to the pod where the heaviest items--the ones that must be packed into the delivery tray first--are loaded. At first they appear to have been arrayed on the shelf without rhyme or reason, with bins of beer, cat litter, bottled water, and boxes of crackers all jumbled next to one another. In fact, items are arranged on the Webvan shelf by the "velocity," or frequency, with which they are ordered, with the most popular scattered throughout. This is to prevent pickers from bunching up in front of one particularly high-velocity item. The picker's movements are so minutely controlled by the software that the program even calculates the minimum number of steps a worker must take to put items in the totes.

To begin filling an order, the picker first loads up a rolling cart with perhaps a dozen yellow plastic totes; each one will hold a different customer's order. By pointing and shooting the RF gun, the worker scans the bar code on each bin. The computer now knows which orders to fill, and quickly compiles a series of tasks for the picker to perform. As the picker pushes the cart along the shelf, the display screen on his wrist tells him which grocery items to put into which tote. Each time, the picker scans the product's UPC code as well as the tote's bar code to make sure the right things go in each bin. A friendly employee lets me try his RF gun on; it's like wearing a brick, and my arm lolls about lopsidedly until I get used to the extra weight. Zap. Six-pack of soda. Zap. Tub of cat litter. After a few minutes, my wrist aches, but I feel extremely cool. I am the comic-book hero of grocery checkout.

The tour continues; we stop in various brilliantly lit and chilly rooms where the mysteries of grocery assemblage unfold. In one room, two women in white aprons are bagging bananas in clumps of three, four, five, or six. (Bananas are the most popular item ordered on the Webvan site; the others in the top five are milk, oranges, strawberries, and avocados.) In another part of the shop, we find a glass case enclosing several dozen brands of cigars. In one blindingly white room, two women slice meats and arrange them on deli platters. Webvan used to run a full butcher shop, but now most meat-cutting work is outsourced; what's left is mostly the task of assembling party platters of meats, cheeses, and fruits. We duck into the freezer, but only for a second, as the eyeglass-wearing and camera-toting members of our party complain heartily about fogged-up lenses.

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