'Don't Fear The Robot': Inside Central Ohio's Retail Fulfillment Centers

Aug 22, 2017

Forklifts weave through a massive warehouse in Groveport, while metal scaffolding towers over the hundreds of workers busy below. This is what it looks like after you click "buy" online. 

“It's sad because the malls are great, but these days it’s order it and most of the time you can get it on your door before you get home,” jokes Pat Worrell, the site leader.

Right now Worrell is hustling to hire some 500 people in anticipation of the holiday rush at the Radial Fulfillment Center. But she's not alone.

This part of town is filled with dozens of these giant warehouses, including a fierce competitor: Amazon.

“But we are competitive, we have to be competitive,” Worrell says.

Unsurprisingly, 2017 has not been a great year for brick and mortar retailers. J.C. Penney, Macy's and Kmart have closed hundreds of stores, as have Central Ohio brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and The Limited. That's led to major layoffs for workers in traditional retail.

But there are plenty of jobs in the next generation of retail: warehouse fulfillment centers.

Radial’s 500 positions are seasonal, but Worrell she’ll hire many workers permanently after December. At that point, they can take advantage of benefits like a 401K, paid time off and health insurance.

Worrell’s not allowed to comment on the pay rate, but online postings for similar jobs advertised $11-16 an hour. What really wins people over, she says, is the flexibility, because the warehouse operates 24/7.

“We accommodate people that have another full-time job and they want to just pick up extra money over the holidays,” Worrell says. “Moms that have daycare issues.”

She walks through rows of merchandise where workers use hand-held scanners to locate the right item, like an extra small red dress (ordered by a customer in New York). That dress takes a ride on a conveyer belt to a second station where workers like Breann Veal package it up.

“Then scan everything in the tote,” Veal says. “All of them should go through if it's in the right  product.”

Breean Veal packs an order of garments into a cardboard box before placing it on the conveyor belt to be shipped.
Credit Esther Honig

Veal scans each item into a computer, and in one swift move, wraps the dress in a plastic bag before throwing it on the line. The bag speeds away on another conveyer belt, so it can be delivered to the customer's front door.

Veal is fresh out of high school, and says the work here is easy.

“I mean my mom likes it, a job is a job,” Veal says. “I'm going to go back to school but right now it's working for me.”

According to the Department of Labor, employment at these centers has been climbing steadily. Mike Mandel, the chief economist at the Progressive Policy Institute, politely disagrees: He says it's exploding.   

“Since December 2007, there's been 400,000 jobs created in e-commerce,” Mandel says.

A worker loads packages into the backs of trucks. This fulfillment center ships 20,000 to 30,000 packages a day.
Credit Esther Honig

Mandel says fulfillment centers still don't have their own category in the Department of Labor's survey, so jobs there are often miscounted. What's clear is they're creating dependable full-time jobs, which Mandel says on average pay 30 percent more than retail. 

“Retail jobs are generally short hour jobs,” Mandel says. “They have short work weeks and a lot of them don't have benefits.”

Mandel has some advice for the skeptics who say these jobs will be fully automated in 10 years: “Don't fear the robot.”

He says, historically, efficiency lowers costs and expands the market, so e-commerce is positioned to continue to create even more jobs. Central Ohio, at least, could use all of them it can get.