Clicking “Buy”

By Brett Schultz

The size of online retailers will make the expansion of online retailing inevitable.

Millions of Americans shop online. Technology has become who we are, and the ease of buying online has radically transformed shopping. Clicking “buy” is much easier than taking a trip to the nearest store.

As the New York Times noted this month in article on the new retail, the difference can be seen when comparing empty malls to an Amazon fulfillment center.

And likely the best way to understand the death of the mall and the rise of the e-retail is think back to winter holiday season and how most of the gift-giving begins.

Hell at the Fulfillment Center

You know about mail sorters and package sorters at FedEx, DHL, UPS, and USPS. But very recently, with the creation of Amazon, a new type of sorting takes place.

Just ask RACC student Michael Mente, who works for a local Amazon fulfillment center as an order picker. Mente compared the hectic holiday conditions at the fulfillment center to having to share your desk with three people – using the same computer, and the desk only seats one.

While he is not allowed to say what goes on in the warehouse, he assured me that a lot of extra hours are put in around the clock from the beginning of November until the middle of January to get everyone’s shipments where they need to go. It was very hard for Mente to attend class when mandatory overtime kept him busy. I had a class with Mente, and after Thanksgiving break, he was gone. Mente asked to sit in on his professor’s same courses that were taught at different times. He couldn’t make many of the morning classes because he was sleeping in from working up so late.

Mente even said some employees actually volunteer as temporary workers to earn extra money for their families during the holidays, even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And the packages don’t stop coming.

The Rush’s Start

Web Development Professor Brian Savage, formerly a Senior Software Development Manager at eBay Enterprise, said each year at 3:30 p.m. the eCommerce traffic exponentially spikes to its highest point of the entire year – and will remain there until after Christmas.

Savage said at that point in the afternoon, many people have finished eating their Thanksgiving meal and sit down on their phones and start Christmas shopping while their engorged stomachs strain to digest the food.

Radial, the company that bought eBay Enterprise, staffs their organizations at over 200% to keep up with the exponential spike.

Servers

But there is another type of worker that is deeply involved – the servers.

The massive database warehouses that support the eCommerce transactions become a giant heatsink. Under normal operation, about 10-20% of the servers are on to manage the eCommerce traffic. But once 3:30 p.m. hits, Savage, who has witnessed this moment firsthand, said that an entire room the length of football fields will begin processing commerce data, rack by rack, row by row. Soon, the entire warehouse is in full swing as the deafening roar and hot air creates a small wind.

Like all electronics, servers emit heat. Lots of heat. A British Thermal Unit (BTU) is the measure of energy it would take to raise a pound of water by one degree. The average server rated at 400 watts (3.3 amps @ 120V) running at maximum would theoretically generate 1,360 BTU/hr. Now, place thousands of servers in the same room, and – well, you get a giant oven.

Fortunately, over-staffed HVAC technicians, diesel mechanics, and electricians as well as other technical specialists are stationed in the server warehouses to monitor and maintain the high-volume cooling, the back-up diesel generators the size of tractor trailers, and the electrical systems that cool the air and spray water into the air to keep the humidity between 40 and 60%.

The data involved in this commerce is mind-boggling.

These data centers process petaflops of information a second (1 petaflop = 1 quadrillion calculations/second). They are so powerful they make even the world’s best supercomputer look like an abacus. They use well over 35 megawatts of power – enough to power 35,000 homes, or the total number of homes that have a Reading zip code, with a few megawatts to spare.

Air Traffic

Once a shipment leaves a warehouse via truck, it may travel by train, too. But not many people think about air. Faster than ships, jumbo jets provide a fast method of volume cargo transportation. At the UPS WorldPort shipping center in Kentucky, or FedEx’s Central Hub in Tennessee, hundreds of planes from around the world touch down every, every evening, for every hour between 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

They are unloaded, loaded, and sent back the way they came in a matter of minutes. These shipping airports are larger and busier than the largest passenger America has to offer.

The latest average for a plane to touchdown at just one of these airports during the holiday season was one every 22 seconds for the entire night.

More Clicks, Less Mortar

As the New York Times noted, the bricks-and-mortar store will not disappear entirely, especially as online retailers use a physical footprint as an access point to customers.

But with well-orchestrated e-commerce machine supporting any consumer whim (next day delivery of a Chia Pet, anyone?), the mall will likely remain dead for a long time.

Editor’s note:  an earlier version of this article said that Mente explained the holiday rush when it was actually Savage. The article has been updated to reflect this.