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How One Bad Thanksgiving Shaped Amazon

It’s officially the holiday season, which means 70,000 people have temporary jobs at Amazon fulfillment centers to ensure that your gifts arrive exactly when they’re supposed to. While these jobs aren’t exactly easy or high-paying – there’s been plenty written about the not-so-awesome working conditions – it’s in many ways remarkable that Amazon is able to easily leverage the population of a small town less than 15 years after a panic-filled Thanksgiving led to the mammoth and tightly-controlled supply chain system that’s in place today.

The “Save Santa” incident, described in Businessweek reporter Brad Stone’s recent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, was an “all-hands-on-deck emergency” in 1998 resulting from one of the biggest problems an online store can have: there were far more orders coming in than shipments going out. This required all employees – including the executives – to work a graveyard shift at one of two warehouses. “They brought their friends and family,” writes Stone, “ate burritos and drank coffee from a food cart, and often slept in their cars before going to work the next day.” Bezos held contests to see who could pick items off shelves the fastest. Then he vowed the company would never have an inventory shortage again.

“The underlying truth is that Amazon becomes, like almost like all retailers, a different company during the holidays,” Stone explained to me over the phone. “Volume grows over the previous year. The already aggressive and fast-moving environment in the headquarters and fulfillment centers become manic. I describe it as two Amazons: one that operates for 10 months and the other that operates for two months out of the year.”

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