Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

Our next story is about what happens after you click the Place Order button online, but before that holiday package arrives on your doorstep.

The National Retail Federation estimates that 38 percent of holiday purchases will be made online this year. And if UPS, FedEx and postal service trucks are the real world equivalent of Santa's sleigh, then the real world Santa's workshop would be something called a fulfillment center.

NPR's Ted Robbins takes us to one.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The fulfillment center for Target.com is enormous.

WINNIE WINTERGRASS: About 16 football fields you can put in here end to end.

ROBBINS: Winnie Wintergrass is general manager of this facility on Tucson's east side, one of five Target fulfillment centers. We walk inside yellow safety lines on the floor so we don't get hit by forklifts carrying goods or run into the six miles of conveyor belts and spiral chutes carrying products up and down three levels.

WINTERGRASS: So, this is where it all starts.

ROBBINS: When a customer - Target calls them guests - places an order online, it goes to a machine where a bar coded shipping label prints out and...

WINTERGRASS: Where our automatic box builders actually building the box that the guest is going to actually receive.

ROBBINS: Software figures out the geometry of all the items in an order and constructs the correct size box for shipping. That bar-coded label on the outside makes sure the box travels to the next stop.

Javier Polendo stands between a conveyor belt carrying the boxes and a long row of toys on shelves. He holds a hand-held scanner on the box and it tells him which shelf an item is on. In this case, it's a Play-Doh Autobot Workshop. Think about it. In a store, you have the item in your hand when you buy it. With online shopping, if one of the 220 permanent or 100 seasonal employees at this fulfillment center picks the wrong item, it could mess up someone's holiday. So, Javier Polendo pays close attention.

JAVIER POLENDO: For me, it's just like you feel the gratification of just being able to get all these orders out and you know all these people are getting all their products that they ordered online and stuff. So, you kind of feel like Santa Claus.

ROBBINS: Need gift wrapping? Then your box goes to - get this - the big wrap semi-automatic gift wrapping machine. Then the seemingly endless stream of blenders, microwaves, Barbie dollhouses and Scrabble games head to waiting UPS trucks.

Between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday this year, this fulfillment center processed more than 300,000 orders. Fulfillment centers are either huge or they're small boutique operations like Custom Back Office Solutions, also in Tucson. The biggest week so far here, 2,000 orders.

Even the head of the company, Jean Reehl, pitches in. She's putting stickers on a paint set for blind children.

JEAN REEHL: It's been available online and we just were waiting for these Braille stickers to come in. So, I'm doing it just to get the orders that we have on back order out.

ROBBINS: Custom Back Office Solutions is what's called a third party fulfillment center. It charges companies to store inventory and to ship orders. When a customer places an order on a client's website, it ends up here. There's a nonstick cheese knife, jewelry supplies, herbal sprays, t-shirts.

Jean Reehl says she likes helping small companies, businesses which need to focus on manufacturing, marketing and sales, not picking, packing and shipping.

REEHL: Where's the best place for them to use their time? Is it putting things in boxes? That really isn't the best use of a business owner's time.

ROBBINS: They use bar codes here, too. The rest is not so high tech. The four full-time and two part-time employees here put the packing tape on manually. Big or small, though, holiday orders in the digital age are usually fulfilled - that is, out the door - in 24 hours.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.