A 53 foot-long truck backs up to the loading dock at the Alpharetta FedEx center, straight from the airport. Inside are containers weighing up to 5,000 pounds, each loaded with packages headed for homes and businesses on the north side of metro Atlanta.
There are probably three more trailers coming later in the day.
As the holiday season approaches, Americans go online and click. A few days later, a package shows up at the door. In between, that package passes through a vast and complicated network that moves boxes and envelopes via a series of handoffs that include planes, trucks, trains, vans and couriers.
FedEx expects to handle nearly 400 million items between Black Friday and Christmas – tens of thousands each day at the Alpharetta shipping center.
“With e-commerce, the growth is just so huge,” said Ted Oster, senior manager at the facility. “This is the last step, the last part of the chain.”
Each item goes through an intricate, digital-centric sorting process. Of course, the packages all have address labels, but how will they get there?
They need a driver, a truck and a route. And there are about 140 routes driven out of this FedEx center, one of about 10 the company has in metro Atlanta.
The decision about which route the package should take is up to the computer – although the drivers sometimes use their first-hand knowledge to make changes.
Customers can go online to look over the company’s shoulder.
“Virtually every time a package is touched, there’s a scan of it,” Oster said. “You can see you package pretty much wherever it is in our system.”
Hugh Scott, a former executive now a lecturer at the University of North Georgia business college, said package delivery processes – those used by FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service and Sandy Springs-based UPS – are dramatically more sophisticated than those of a decade ago.
More packages are delivered, with greater efficiency, higher speed and improved predictability, Scott said. “They can give you a pretty accurate estimate of when it will be delivered.”
That improvement comes despite an ever-greater challenge: The carriers must bring packages to millions of different places. “Ten years ago, mostly they didn’t deliver to homes. They were delivering to stores.”
At the FedEx center in Alpharetta, about 200 workers are needed each day of the holiday season to unload, move, sort, reload and ultimately drive those thousands of packages to the addresses on their labels, where they often deliver them hand to hand. Some workers start as early as 4:30 a.m., some don’t call it quits until 10 p.m.
FedEx doesn’t publicly offer specifics on pay, but companies that track American incomes say employees average more than $16 per hour after a few years. Drivers average about $24 an hour, according to Glassdoor.
The heaviest work load is after Thanksgiving and, on a recent morning, many wore several layers against the freezing air pouring into the big room through open gates and doors.
The holiday is coming. Families await presents. Stores await merchandise.
And the conveyor belts send unceasing rivers of boxes through the room. Sorters rapidly sort, boxes are scanned, shifted to different belts, scanned again, placed on the long belt that carries them past a line of vans and trucks.
Drivers stand alongside their vehicles, eyes on the boxes, watching the stickers, looking for numbers and letters that say: Your route, your truck, you.
It takes hours to fill a truck, and when it’s done, the driver hops in and heads out. To Cumming, Roswell, Milton – wherever the route.
Occasionally, there is a loud buzzer and the line stops. Usually, it is something minor – perhaps a box that needed moving – and the huge room is nearly silent for a few seconds.
And then the line starts up again.