Yorkshire advent calendar December 7 VIDEO - Santa’s real-life little helpers

It’s the most wonderful time of the year - unless you’re caught in the Christmas crush on a rainy day. Now more and more of us are choosing to shop on the internet from the comfort of our own homes. We visited one of online retailer Amazon’s huge warehouses to gain an exclusive, behind the scenes insight into the booming world of internet shopping.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 7th December 2015, 7:00 am

Step foot into the Amazon Fulfilment Centre and the first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of it.

The facility is a whopping 500,000 sq ft - enough to squeeze in five and a half football pitches.

Row after row of imposing shelves are stacked 30ft high with every item imaginable. Skate boards, lightsabers, board games, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, books, DVDs. You name it and it’s here.

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On the day of our visit the centre, based in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, had more than 800,000 items in stock, all ready to be shipped out to meet orders in the busy Christmas shopping season.

Site leader Nathan Fetherston said that although this is the most busy period of the year, team morale has never been higher.

He explained that staff members are happy to play the role of real-life Santa’s little helpers - their aim is to make customers’ festive dreams come true by ensuring gifts are delivered right on time ready to open on Christmas Day morning.

The 39-year-old said: “It gives us a great feeling at this time of year, when you go through all of the items we have, you can feel the joy that you are going to be bringing to people when they open up all of these presents.

“When you talk to the team, they are really excited at this time of year. We help to keep morale high by having coffee and cookie breaks and things like that. The work we are doing right now will make people happy and that brings a tremendous amount of pride to everyone that works here.”

When you click that button to buy something from the Amazon website, a unique barcode makes it way through cyberspace to the centre, where it is picked up by a team of around 300 ‘pickers’ who sift through the huge inventory to locate the item and make sure it gets sent out to the right place.

On average between 20,000 and 50,000 packages are dispatched from the centre every day. They leave via a fleet of trucks and how they reach their end destination depends on the location of the buyer. They can eventually be delivered by vehicle, ship or plane as items processed at the site are delivered across the whole of Europe.

Given the sheer number of items you would think everything would be stocked in like for like areas. Electricals in one part, garden furniture in another, and so on.

But that’s not the case at Amazon. Everything is stocked completely randomly. So garden rakes are perched alongside dolls houses, kettles are nestled beside picture frames.

On the face of it this sounds like a logistical nightmare, with staff having virtually no chance of finding anything.

But this unusual method is actually the best way they can work it.

Nathan explains: “Each item that comes in is placed into a cage with several other items. The cage itself also has a unique barcode so our central computer directs a member of staff who is handling an order to the correct cage.

“From there they look at the item’s unique barcode and can easily pick it out from the other items. So let’s say you need to pick out a TV and are looking at a cage that is full of TVs then it would be difficult to spot the individual item as they would each look about the same.

“But if you are looking for a TV in a cage with lets say garden furniture and a stack of toys then it is obviously easier to pick out as each item looks different.”

To meet the tens of thousands of extra orders over the festive season, Amazon draft in 700 additional temporary staff at the Doncaster site alone to help meet demand. Across their 10 UK centres, they draft in an army of 19,000 temporary workers.

In Doncaster there are also 30 specialist gift wrappers, who spend all day adding special bows and loving messages to Amazon parcels.

One gift wrapper Iwona Purzymska, aged 42, of Doncaster, believes she has the best job on site.

She said: “They say gift-wrapping is the best job in the centre, especially at this time of year, and I think its true.

“It makes you feel good because you can see the messages and where they are going. It makes you believe in Christmas and goodwill!”

Nathan added: “You do find yourself looking through the items and it makes you think, ‘My wife or children, or a relative would really love that’. It gives you some great ideas for presents.”

In addition to meeting demand temporarily, Amazon is also having to think long term as more and more people are turning to online shopping. Research by UK retailer Shop Direct recently revealed one in four British people now shop online at least once a week.

A second 250, 000 sq ft Amazon Fulfilment Centre is set to open shortly in Water Vole Way - creating more than 300 jobs - a short distance from the current centre in Balby Carr Bank, Balby.

And over in nearby Sheffield, 270 jobs have been created at a new delivery office that opened last month at Victory Park, Upwell Street.

John Tagawa, vice president of operations, said: “We will continue to create new sites, more jobs and provide a wide range of benefits for our employees.”