Mr. Bezos Goes to Lexington

Amazon.com seems to be all over the news in 2009.

In January we learned that the company posted a profit in the final quarter of last year, despite the severe economic downturn.  Then in February, Amazon released the second-generation of its heralded e-reading device, Kindle, whose text-to-speech feature prompted a swift and bitter response from the Authors Guild.  March was a relatively quiet month for the retailer — that is, until CEO Jeff Bezos decided to shake things up again.  On Friday he reported for work not at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle but rather on the line at the company’s Lexington, KY warehouse.  He plans to work there for a week.

One can only wonder what motivations underlie Bezos’ decision to go blue-collar, if only temporarily.  The company hasn’t said much about why he’s decided to do so.

A commentator on the New York Times “Bits” Blog sees Bezos’ week in the warehouse as a stand-up move, especially given the penchant of late among billionaire CEOs to deny they had any sense of their company’s day-to-day operations.  And according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.”

I’m inclined to believe that Bezos’ reasons for getting his hands dirty are many.  No doubt he feels extraordinary pressure to show that he knows what’s going on in his firm, everywhere from the corporate boardroom on down to the warehouse break rooom.

The timing of his visit to Lexington, however, raises all sorts of other questions. It just happens to coincide with the quiet-ish shutdown of three of Amazon’s distribution facilities: in Munster, IN, Red Rock, NV, and Chambersburg, PA.  More than 200 employees will be affected, though at least some will see transfers to neighboring facilities.

In its rosier moods, the book industry likes to say that it favors culture over commerce.  Perhaps that’s true, but claims like this can only be sustained by ignoring what, in The Late Age of Print, I call the book industry’s “back office.”  This consists of places like Amazon.com’s colossal warehouses, which are nothing more and nothing less than labor intensive workplaces.  I detail how so in the book; for more, check out this fascinating article from the Guardian (UK).  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he Sunday Times reported that staff at the . . . [Amazon warehouse at] Marston Gate near Milton Keynes . . . were required to work seven days a week and “punished” for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a “penalty” point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing – 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Given these working conditions, one can only hope that the ultimate aim of Bezos’ week in the Lexington warehouse isn’t a speed-up of Amazon’s order fulfillment system.  But given the questionable timing, that doesn’t seem implausible, either.

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