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Photos: A day in the life of an Amazon.co.uk order

You hit 'buy now' - and then what happens?
By Will Sturgeon, Contributor on
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1 of 9 Will Sturgeon/ZDNET

You hit 'buy now' - and then what happens?

07:20am It's early in the morning and I'm surfing Amazon.co.uk looking for something to buy before heading off to Milton Keynes to see that order processed.

All photos: Will Sturgeon

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2 of 9 Will Sturgeon/ZDNET

As one of only six or so people left on the planet who hasn't read The Da Vinci Code, I decide it's time to bite the bullet and find out what all the fuss is about. The website says Amazon.co.uk has copies in stock right now, so I place the order. Then, while the order is processed in cyberspace, I head north to see what happens once the order appears on screen in the Amazon.co.uk distribution centre.

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3 of 9 Will Sturgeon/ZDNET

10:15am Just off Junction 13 of the M1, a few miles outside Milton Keynes, is the vast Marston Gate distribution centre of Amazon.co.uk. Arriving by taxi I can see the building from about a mile away, which eases some of my concerns about whether I'll be able to find the place.

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10.20am This is one of three distribution centres owned by Amazon in the UK. Two new buildings have been opened in Scotland on the outskirts of Glasgow and Edinburgh. They will handle predominantly electric goods, such as cameras and DVD players, while the Marston Gate centre will continue to offer all of Amazon's goods as well as housing the company's DVD rental business.

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10:45am Here's my book on the shelf. Looks like they've got a few copies left. There are miles and miles of shelf space inside the colossal hanger which at the moment is at its emptiest. Huge empty spaces show where the last Harry Potter book had been until its release. Soon the company will start to fill the shelves in the build-up to Christmas.

'Pickers' work in set neighbourhoods of the warehouse, selecting items off the shelves which are part of live orders. They load up bright orange crates which are then taken off to be sorted and separated out into individual orders. If there are currently 12 live orders for The Da Vinci Code then all 12 will go into the same crate to be sorted further on down the line.

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10:50am The orange crates travel on conveyor belts over the heads of the sorters and packers below. As crates arrive they are unpacked and at this stage individual orders are made up and placed in smaller green crates with the other items that make up that order.

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10:55am Packers then take the green crates and package the contents ready for despatch, putting CDs, DVDs, books and everything else from electrical goods to kitchenware into the distinctive Amazon cardboard packaging.

At this stage the orders are identified by bar codes generated when the order is processed. The next stage will see those bar codes matched against delivery addresses on the database in order for labels to be printed up.

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11:00am The barcode is scanned and the address label printed and stamped onto the package as it travels along a conveyor belt. At this stage the package is also weighed. If it is lighter or heavier than the item or items on the order, the system automatically queries the contents and the parcel is rejected.

The system is so sensitive it will be able to tell the difference between a parcel which contains four CDs when it should contain five or the difference between a hardback and a paperback version of the same book.

The fast-moving conveyor belts then whip the packages away for posting out to all corners of the UK.

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Next day: 09:30am A parcel from Amazon.co.uk is waiting for me in the silicon.com post room. Much of the mystique has been removed from how my book arrives so quickly - but sure enough it's the one I ordered.

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