Amazon Tetris?!

A screenshot from a Windows version of TetrisScrolling through the timeline of “somebody that I used to know”, I saw a tweet which had been retweeted more than 25,000 times as of this writing and which has even been the subject of articles on mainstream media websites. It makes a claim about those weirdly oversized packages we sometimes get when we order things from Amazon — the cardboard envelopes which are several times larger than the thing you ordered. The tweeter, one Alexander Savin, is apparently quoting something he saw on Reddit but the words in the image read:

Amazon uses a complicated software system to determine the bay size that should be used based on what else is going in the same truck and the exact size of the cargo bay.

It is playing automated Tetris with the packages.

Sometimes it will select a larger box because there is nothing else that needs to go out on that specific truck, and by making it bigger, it is using up the remaining space so items don’t slide around and break.

This actually minimizes waste and is on the whole a greener system. Even if for some individual item is looks weird.

It is optimizing for the whole, not the individual.

I’ve worked for companies that deliver Amazon goods and I can state with authority that this is nonsense, at least as far as Amazon in the UK (where the oversized box phenomenon is also well-known) is concerned. I had a job last year which involved pulling a trailer loaded with Amazon pallets from their depot in Weybridge to some freight forwarding operation near Heathrow. The company I was working for was a small logistics contractor which only operated one “class 1” (articulated, i.e. tractor-trailer) vehicle (it also runs a number of smaller trucks). Each pallet had a sort of square cardboard ‘cage’ into which the packages were dropped, and they were just dropped in a random pile, not in any regular fashion. It did not look like they had been neatly arranged in a Tetris-like fashion. The pallets were arranged in two rows in the trailer, though sometimes the bulging pallets made this impossible. If they really did use a huge box because there was nothing else going out on an entire truck, one would expect to see much bigger boxes than the ones Amazon actually use, but of course they would not fit through anyone’s front door.

I’ve also worked for companies that do actually fill the trailer with individual boxes; even then, although we try to fill up the available space and shore up packages to stop them falling over and being damaged or causing damage, it’s impossible to arrange the boxes that neatly. The article seems like an attempt to make Amazon look like this super-efficient, ultra-computerised operation but this isn’t a description of their logistics at all. The most likely reason for the random use of oversized boxes is just that — randomness, or a mistake or rushed selection on the part of the Amazon worker.

(This idea, by the way, sounds a lot like a case of the Tetris effect or Tetris syndrome, in which “people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams”, such as when someone who has been playing Tetris for hours imagine ways to make everyday objects fit together like the four-square shapes that drop from the sky in Tetris. Amazon cartons, however, are not that regular and don’t fit together.)

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