Picking Season

Behind the scenes at Fanatics.com’s sports memorabilia warehouse during the holiday rush

ohio-distribution-centerYou there, with the cursor. I see you’ve just moved an officially licensed NFL jersey into your digital shopping cart. You’re doing this on the NFL’s website or on your favorite team’s website. Or — let me reboot my NSA software — maybe that’s an NHL jersey from Shop.NHL.com. Or a baseball jersey from Shop.MLB.com. Details (free shipping on orders over $50, etc.) may vary. But these New Economy wormholes all lead to the same company, Fanatics. And 60 percent of Fanatics’ orders lead, in turn, to a warehouse in Frazeysburg, Ohio, in the frozen farm country east of Columbus. The warehouse is a cavernous, gray-blue building that measures about 550,000 square feet. It boasts 13 miles of conveyor belts that trundle between the four “picking” floors, across which workers scurry to find the jersey you ordered, and the “mez,” where the workers mostly stand in one place trying to get that jersey ready to ship. On Cyber Monday, you ordered 600,000 sports-related tchotchkes from the warehouse. LeBron James Swingman road jerseys. 14-inch Patriots nutcrackers. Pirates Pro Grip hammers. By Christmas, you will order nearly 5 million more.

These items suggest nothing less than a psychological profile of the American sports fan, circa 2014. On Thanksgiving Day, for example, 68 percent of Fanatics web traffic came on mobile devices. It was as if you waited until Grandpa was staring blankly at the TV and then slowly extracted your phone. You claim to hate Derek Jeter. Yet on Cyber Monday, you were ordering more of Jeter’s merchandise than any other player’s in baseball. Your kitsch tolerance may stop well short of a toaster that can burn the word “Steelers” into a slice of bread. But at the warehouse, the ProToast Elite is selling quite well. As is the NFL-licensed Frog Bench Garden Statue.

Your order is also a literal order — get me this in five to six business days! — to the warehouse’s workers. These workers have personal scoreboards called UPH, or units per hour. UPH is the rate at which they must convert your paroxysm of fandom into an actual item that arrives in a coextruded polyethylene bag. If this is sports fandom’s back end — to use the argot of the New Economy — then the best time to observe it is in the stretch between Black Friday and Christmas. That’s when many workers arrive in the warehouse’s cold, puddled parking lot before dawn and leave after dark to get you the stuff you want. Seahawks cuffed knit hats. Johnny Manziel HD masks. West Virginia Mountaineers glass hoodie ornaments. The workers call this time of year “picking season.”

This is Butch Morgan. Butch is 50, with a graying mustache and a mouth curled in a permanent conspiratorial smile. He does a lot of jobs around the warehouse, but on this day he was a picker. Picking is the first thing that happens when you order a jersey. Butch looked at his scanner and saw this:

C-44-A-07-06-18

Every item in the warehouse has a sequence like this. In this case, it directed Butch to Level C, Aisle 44, Section A, Bay 7, Rack 6, Bin 18. The item there was a fitted New Era St. Louis Cardinals cap, sized 7¾, in a silver color common to Honda Accords. “Some things up here,” Butch likes to say, “you think people got more money than common sense.”

Butch scanned the hat and the cardboard bin in which he found it. Then he scanned the bar code that was affixed below one of the six blue totes he was pushing on his cart. This told the computer that he’d found the hat. And then Butch moved on. Quickly.

Picking is a scavenger hunt crossed with The Long Walk. “I tell all the new people to wear comfortable shoes and to bring a belt,” Butch said. “They look at me funny when I say that. But I tell ’em you’ll be walking eight to 12 miles a day here, and you’ll lose weight.” You can spot new pickers because they’re the guys on Levels A to D pulling up their pants by the back belt loop, wondering how they lost a couple of inches off their waists.

Picking is a highly organized job disguised as a disorganized job. Fanatics uses a popular warehousing technique called “random stow.” Basically, when jerseys and hats pour into the warehouse from suppliers, a worker puts them in whatever empty bin they can find. The silver Cardinals cap sized 7¾ may be two floors above the same cap sized 7½. But the computer knows this. It sends a picker like Butch to find items that are close together — in order, in fact — so that Butch never has to make so much as a U-turn with his cart.

As soon as he grabs the Cardinals cap, Butch’s scanner will show a sequence like this:

C-44-A-07-02-08

That is a forest-green Green Bay Packers sweatshirt, size XL. It’s on the same level and the same aisle and the same section and even in the same bay as the Cardinals cap.

Butch is a refugee from manufacturing. He spent 20 years at places like United Technologies Automotive in Zanesville, where he worked on lines that made headlight switches and wire harnesses. Butch was the kind of employee who could spot a flaw in the line before management did — something like a conveyor belt set too close to the floor, which would prevent the workers from sliding their chairs and legs under it. Butch would report the problem, and some management guy would shake his head at him, only to come back later and admit that Butch had been right.

United Tech’s Zanesville plants were sold in 1999 and the lines were later moved to Mexico. It was an early casualty in a mass die-off of manufacturing jobs in Central Ohio. AK Steel imposed a series of layoffs beginning in the mid-2000s. A lot of workers then moved to Longaberger, a company whose handmade baskets became a totem of fine suburban ranch houses in the ’90s. By 2012, Longaberger had laid off more than 80 percent of the workforce at its Frazeysburg facility and sold the warehouse to Fanatics.

Fanatics reopened the warehouse last April. Its business, it boasts, is nearly outsource-proof. You can manufacture a Johnny Manziel mask in China, but you can’t ship it from Shenzhen to Shaker Heights in a day. The psychic trade-off is that Ohioans who spent their lives making things with their hands are now picking them. “When this opened, you know, it seemed like something I wouldn’t like to do,” Butch said. “I skipped the interview. At United Tech, the warehouse was dark, dimly lit, and damp, and that’s what I envisioned here. But I came in and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. It changed my opinion of warehouse work.” Butch lives in Roseville and drives nearly an hour to the warehouse each way. “It’s not too far to go to get a decent job,” he said.

Whatever Butch missed about making things was offset, he thought, by the strange thrill of working in a place that feels like Dick’s Sporting Goods. Where else could he be surrounded by Minnesota Wild WinCraft wall clocks? Butch trained new employees, and during picking season, teens with wispy goatees were constantly asking him to fix their scanners. Butch found that the hardest thing to teach these newbies was not to shop. The problem was exacerbated by the annual release of the swimsuit calendars.

On this day, warehouse operations were being watched over by Lonnie Phillips and Dom Strada, two executives who were visiting from Jacksonville. At most companies, the suits wear, well, suits. At Fanatics, the suits wear sports T-shirts. Lonnie — a buff, ex-Navy helicopter pilot — found his Arizona State T-shirt in a picking bin and decided he had to have it, even though he didn’t go to Arizona State. Such is the madness of merchandise lust.

Warehouse jobs, Lonnie explained over dinner one night, “are not super-hard, but they’re long and they’re tedious.”

“Tedious work is just that unless you give it some purpose,” Dom said.

Around noon, halfway through the warehouse’s first shift, Dom stood on the mez with a microphone in his hand. “Hello, picking!” he said. The pickers wore blue jeans and baggy shorts and pajama bottoms — anything comfy and non-lewd is allowed in the warehouse. But for their taste for Ohio State sweatshirts, management had a tough time figuring how the Frazeysburg workers would be different from the ones at Fanatics facilities in Jacksonville and Louisville. They figured it out on December 1, when an enormous number of warehouse staff asked for the day off to observe the first day of Ohio’s gun-barrel deer-hunting season.

Dom announced that the warehouse had shipped 256,000 units the previous day, setting a new 24-hour record. There was applause. It was a kind of teamwide UPH. “They’re usually impressed with themselves when you share that,” Dom said later, “and they should be.”

Then came the real draw: Management raffled off a $100 gift card. This was like a promissory note: A business that employs a lot of temporary workers wants to make sure these workers come back the next day. The gift card was won by a mustachioed, middle-aged picker named Dave. Then everyone got back to picking.

At night, Butch is Master Butch. He teaches a karate class at the “Coszacks” School of Self-Defense — a misspelling, for the record, that originated with the school’s grandmaster. “I’m a single guy,” Butch said. “I live alone. The only thing I won’t let the job interfere with is my karate class.” He said he had a chance to train with Team USA in 1988, but his boss at United Tech told him he wouldn’t hold his job if he left. Butch chose to keep the job. Now Master Butch uses his sifu-like abilities on picking.

He was standing on Level D, the highest picking floor. To see him from the mez would have been to see a Hasbro figurine inside a giant toy cabinet. Let’s say you get a readout on your scanner, Butch explained, that looked like this:

D-60-A-12-06-02

That’s Level D, Aisle 60. A newbie picker might simply turn his cart down Aisle 60 and start searching for the item. But Butch knew the picker’s nextreadout might look like this:

D-62-A-09-05-16

See that? You’ve got one pick on Aisle 60, Section A and another in the same spot of Aisle 62. So if you turn your cart down Aisle 60, you’ll have to awkwardly put it in reverse, or else push it down the length of Aisle 60 and then up Aisle 61 before you get to Aisle 62. And that’s awful for your UPH. Butch parks at the edge of the aisle, leaves the cart behind, and walks the few steps to make the pick. It’s like ditching your shopping cart at the end of the cereal aisle when all you need is a box of Special K.

Pickers at the warehouse make these decisions in a split second. To maintain their UPH, they need to find an item, scan it, and drop it in their cart about once every 40 seconds. Butch surrendered his cart to me, and I made a pick on Aisle 12. I looked at the scanner and saw the next pick was on Aisle 15. I tried to think like Butch. I thought he might back out of Aisle 12 so he could use Aisle 14 as a shortcut. But this, I soon realized, offered no advantage — Aisles 12 and 14 led to the same place. So I just stood there, surrounded by sports merchandise. Butch said sympathetically, “That small conflict right here cost you 34 seconds.”

When his totes were full, Butch walked to the conveyor belt at the end of the aisles. On the picking floors, the conveyors are so long that they seem to disappear into the horizon, like a flat stretch of highway in the desert. Butch placed his totes on the conveyor. They rumbled away. The lowest acceptable UPH for pickers is 84. Last Christmas, Butch said with a smile, his UPH was 150.

Let’s follow a blue tote down the conveyor belts to Pod 71. There, skinny, long-limbed Bobby Plummer was waiting for it in fraying Air Jordans. Bobby stands 6-foot-7, but has an innate modesty that seems to give him a stoop. “I’m pretty sure you’ve seen taller people than me,” he said.

Bobby is prized in the warehouse less for his walking than for his reach. He works at a station called “put-to-light.” If you ordered a hat that Butch found on Level D, and a T-shirt that another picker found on Level A, then put-to-light is where Bobby would marry them for shipment.

Bobby scans an item — a 300-piece Chicago White Sox jigsaw puzzle, say. Then his real job begins. Eighty cubby holes are arrayed before him, starting at about eye level and extending to the floor. Each cubby hole has a light below it. The top row’s lights are red, the next row’s are blue, then orange, purple, and green. The computer tells Bobby which cubby to put an item into by illuminating the light below it. Bobby’s UPH is measured by how quickly he can find the light and insert the item. His job resembles nothing as much as the old electronic memory game Simon.

Bobby is very good at his job. Fanatics wants its put-to-light workers to maintain a UPH of about 300. Bobby’s ranges from 400 to 500. At the high side, that means Bobby puts an item in a cubby once every 0.72 seconds. It seems impossible until you watch Bobby’s long arms whirling like those of an old telephone switchboard operator, or the man who moves the clock hands in MetropolisManagement calls him the Octopus. On a recent day, they gave Bobby six full pods of put-to-light. That’s 480 cubbies. Bobby emptied every tote at every station, at a rate he said reached 840 UPH.

“He’s so good at it!” said a female voice. Bobby could just catch glimpses of Elsie Wright’s face as she worked at her job on the opposite side of the cubbies. “He’s so tall! Complete order. Yeah!” Elsie and Bobby have a kind of symbiotic warehouse relationship. The faster that Bobby puts items in the cubbies, the faster that Elsie can pull them out and stick them in packages before sending them on to their final, climactic moments in the warehouse. And that, of course, is good for Elsie’s UPH.

Bobby played high school basketball in Brownsville, Texas, where he was a center and power forward who liked to dribble. He moved to Coshocton, Ohio, to care for an ailing grandmother, who has since died. In February, he got a full-time job at the warehouse, with health insurance, when management discovered his astonishing skill with put-to-light. “I worked my butt off and showed I could do the job,” Bobby said. “I’m really, really happy because it’s my first job and I love sports.” He drives 25 minutes to work each way.

Dom Strada, the executive, walked into Pod 71. “You’re the talk of the building!” he said to Bobby. Dom had a handful of raffle tickets for the next day’s drawing. The warehouse’s workforce expands from 700 employees during non-peak months to around 2,100 during picking season. Every employee got a daily raffle ticket — come back tomorrow! Please! — but Dom liked to slip high-UPH employees a few extras. He gave Bobby three tickets. “It’s like having Michael Phelps over here!” he marveled. Bobby muttered something modest.

As with picking, there are tricks to raising your UPH in put-to-light. Bobby’s technique owed something to basketball. He used his left hand to go to the left cubbies and his right hand to go rightward. He could deposit an item into a cubby and tap the button below it in a single, continuous motion, like a basketball player tapping the glass after a layup. Bobby emptied the four totes in his pod. Then he looked mournfully as totes whizzed by on the conveyor belt above him. The computer, in its wisdom, was directing totes to one of the other 83 pods. You might think of warehouse work as humans at the computer’s beck and call. But in the Fanatics warehouse, the humans had gotten their UPHs so high that they often waited for the computer to catch up.

Bobby arrives at the warehouse before 5 a.m. He puts items into cubbies until 6:30 at night, a shift interrupted by two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. “I like to work five or six days a week,” Bobby said. “I don’t do much at home. All I do is watch sports.” In an odd way, watching sports is almost redundant. The 6,000 items that pass through his hands become a kind of news ticker, an ESPN BottomLine. Earlier this year, Bobby noticed he was stuffing an unusually large amount of Derek Jeter memorabilia into the cubbies — New Era Jeter Seal Flex hats, say, and Nike “Salute the Captain” T-shirts. Bobby asked a coworker what had happened, and the coworker explained that Jeter had retired.

“How does the whole computer system know what goes where?” Bobby said after I took over his job in Pod 71. “Which totes go where? I still don’t know. I’m very curious about that. It’ll be interesting to find out.”

I forgot to push a button, making all the lights in the cubby grid turn red and causing Bobby’s UPH to temporarily crash. Bobby was apologetic, telling me he hadn’t explained his job very well. “Every one of these cubbies is going somewhere around the world,” he said. “It’s neat, isn’t it?”

Let’s follow another tote, which has trundled down more conveyor belts to Station 64. This is a department called singles, so named because it’s where packages with single, rather than multiple, items are processed. Bobbi Jo Canterbury, a young-looking woman in her thirties, was wearing a fuzzy pink-and-black striped sweater and sunglasses on top of her head. Bobbi Jo loves to talk. She remembered the words “too sociable” once appearing on one of her reviews. “There are 78 people on singles, and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe you know all our names,’” Bobbi Jo said. “I like talking to people. And if I talk to people, I like to know their names.” The alternative was listening to the conveyor belts run all night.

Bobbi Jo can talk about anything: her four kids (“my termites”), the speeding ticket she got for driving 92 mph on the way to work that day, the problems of the world that other people in the warehouse brought to Station 64“I’ve got 5,000 things going through my head,” she said, “and I make sure I communicate everything.”

She can talk while she works. Her job is like a shipping clerk’s. A tote was before her, full of merchandise “picked” by someone like Butch and “put” by someone like Bobby. Bobbi Jo removed an item — a right-handed Montreal Canadiens putter, say — and scanned it. Her computer screen told her whether to put the item into a branded Fanatics bag or an unbranded bag. The branded bag was for people ordering from the Fanatics website; the plain bag was for people ordering from one of Fanatics’ constellation of partner sites, who likely had no idea that Fanatics had handled the merchandise or even, in all likelihood, what Fanatics is.

Once Bobbi Jo selected the proper bag, she scanned that too. Then she printed out a “pack slip” — a receipt that tells you how to return the Redskins iPhone 5 case if Mom got the wrong color. Bobbi Jo folded the pack slip in half, widthwise, and inserted it into the bag. She pulled a tab and sealed the bag. Then she hit a button so the all-knowing computer could calculate the shipping cost of the item based on the method by which you, the consumer, elected to ship it. While the computer was preparing to print a mailing label, Bobbi Jo started on a second item. Like Bobby Plummer, she usually ran ahead of the computer.

When the computer finally spit out a label, Bobbi Jo returned to her first package. She affixed the label to the side of the bag. Then she picked up the bag and, with a flick of her right wrist, flung it about four feet onto a moving conveyor belt. Her eyes never looked toward the belt. Bobbi Jo estimated that she hit the belt about 99 percent of the time. When she missed, she didn’t pick up the errant package until later, because that would hurt her UPH.

Bobbi Jo’s loquaciousness disguised a fierce work ethic. She’d gotten to the warehouse at 4:30 p.m. the day before and had worked in singles until 4 a.m. Then she talked to a coworker. The friend couldn’t believe she would just hang around off the clock like that, but that was Bobbi Jo.

When Bobbi Jo got home, around 5:30 a.m., she helped her kids get ready for school. Then she soldiered on as if she hadn’t pulled an 11-and-a-half-hour shift. “I went shopping this morning,” she said. “Then I went tanning. Then I got my car washed. I haven’t eaten yet. Not that I’m not hungry. I’ve just got 500 things going on.” She would eat her single meal of the day during her lunch break, around the time that most of America was dozing off in front of the TV. “There’s no time to get tired and sleepy,” Bobbi Jo said. “It’s continuous repetition.”

At first, Bobbi Jo was reluctant to start working at the warehouse. She’d just sent her youngest termite to kindergarten; taking the job signaled the end of full-time motherhood. She cried and felt sorry for herself for a few days. But she was a quick learner, and when she started working in singles, it took her less than a week to bring her UPH up to par. An acceptable UPH in singles is 100. Bobbi Jo’s UPH is 195, which is good for third-best in the department.

Bobbi Jo loves the farm she lives on. It has 85 Angus cattle and once belonged to her great-grandmother. She doesn’t care much for sports. The insanity required to buy some of the merchandise in the warehouse makes her laugh. “Some of the things you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “There’s hand sanitizer with a team logo.” There is indeed. As the Fanatics site notes, “There’s only one thing standing between you and a heaping mound of Clemson game day cuisine — your grubby mitts!”

Do your feet hurt from standing all day? I asked.

“No, mine don’t,” she said. Her eyes briefly turned upward from her computer screen.

How do you get the energy to do this job?

“I think when I get older,” Bobbi Jo said, “I won’t be as spunky as I am now.”

On December 7, Ohio State made the four-team College Football Playoff. The news was announced over a loudspeaker at the warehouse. The staff cheered. Then everyone got back to work, because the Fanatics website would soon be hawking “Nothin’ Sweeter” Buckeyes Sugar Bowl shirts and “Pasadena Bound” Oregon Rose Bowl T-shirts and other garb that abetted fans’ tendencies, as the site explained, to “tell the world who’s No. 1!”

Sports merchandise is identity politics and it’s a form of bragging and it’s something to get Dad because you ran out of inspiration and time. At the warehouse, these notions are converted into the UPH of the soul. An overzealous writer could exhaust himself describing the workers’ focus and skill and determination. It’s perhaps better to say that the stuff we want is dreadfully hard work.

Butch Morgan took a day off on December 2. It would be one of his last, he figured, in the sprint to December 23, the final day that Fanatics could guarantee your jersey order for Christmas on FedEx Air. The warehouse was closed part of Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day. Then Butch would return to the picking floors to note the sales spike after the Super Bowl, and the echoing spike during March Madness, when you, with your cursor, would make the warehouse seem as unshakable as any factory that ever towered above the Midwest. UConn plush throw blankets. UFC Shock training shorts. Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed-catch “Just Do It” shirts. “I’m 50 years old,” Butch said. “I think this might be the place I retire from someday. It seems like it’s going to stay. It seems like the kind of place that’s going to be around in 20 or 30 years. … Everybody has a favorite team.”

From Grantland  |  BRYAN CURTIS, DECEMBER 18, 2014

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