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How Amazon gets your last-minute gifts to you on time

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

If you’ve waited until the last minute to do your Christmas shopping, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service might just have you covered. The bad news is that if you’re not in one of the 30 participating cities and regions, you’re out of luck.

Amazon (AMZN) Prime Now is an offshoot of Amazon’s Prime service that guarantees to get your order to you within two hours for free. If you pay an extra fee, your purchases will be delivered in just one hour.

And if you order before 9 p.m. on Dec. 24, Amazon (which was just named Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year) guarantees you’ll get your package on Christmas Day.

Amazon’s Prime Now service can deliver your last minute Christmas gifts on Christmas day as long as you order by 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

I took a tour of Amazon’s Prime Now facility in the heart of Manhattan, and was surprised to find a system that embraces chaos and turns it into the epitome of efficiency.

Organized chaos

The first thing you notice when you step into Amazon’s massive urban center is the incredible number of products packed onto shelves. It’s reminiscent of that warehouse scene at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Row after row of everything from peanut butter to Nintendo’s Super NES Classic fill three floors of this nondescript building in midtown Manhattan.

But when you get closer to one of the thousands of cubbies that makes up each aisle, you realize that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how they’re organized.

Bottles of hand lotion sit next to Echo Dots, next to garlic shakers, next to socks. There’s a reason for the randomness of it all, though.

“The products are not organized by category. They are put wherever there’s space,” explained Stephenie Landry, worldwide vice president of Amazon Prime Now.

“The reason we do this is because one of our main goals here is to maximize the amount of stuff we can get onto the shelves and to make it as fast as possible.”

Yes, Amazon gets items into the Prime Now center and arranges them like a 5-year-old forced to clean his room. Everything has its place. That place also happens to be wherever it fits.

Amazon intelligence

Of course, Amazon also tracks exactly where it puts every item. When a packager walks through the warehouse, they know exactly where to go to pick up an item and put it into a customer’s bag. Packagers scan a barcode attached to the cubby they pull an item from. Then, they scan the item and the customer’s bag and continue down the line.

It’s an impressive process, and to the workers at the warehouse, it seems like second nature.

Speaking of which, those packagers are all flesh and blood human beings. As Landry explained, there are no robots inside the Prime Now hub. The facility isn’t as large as a standard Amazon fulfillment center, so it wouldn’t make sense.

But that doesn’t mean that Amazon’s high-tech smarts aren’t behind everything in the building. As soon as an order is placed, Amazon’s algorithms tell packagers what size bag to use based on the size and weight of the items being purchased.

On the road

How can Amazon promise that Prime Now orders will arrive at their destinations so quickly? Because the company takes into account everything from a customer’s location to the traffic on the route between the warehouse and their home.

Unfortunately, Prime Now isn’t available to everyone. Amazon only offers the service in 30 cities around the country. And even if you live within one of those cities, Prime Now might not be available.

I, for example, live in Queens, and while Amazon has Prime Now facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the service is unavailable in my area. It’s understandable, though, as shipping products within a one-hour window from Brooklyn or Manhattan to the farthest reaches of Queens is virtually impossible.

If you’re shipping to a friend and want to get your gift to them quickly, you’ll also need to make sure they live within a Prime Now area too.

If you do live within a Prime Now area, though, and you still have some last-minute shopping to do, Prime Now might be your best option.

Amazon Prime Now is available in these cities and areas:

Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Berkeley, Brooklyn, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles & Orange County, Miami, Minneapolis & St. Paul, Nashville, New York City, Northern Virginia, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh, Richmond, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle & Eastside, and Virginia Beach.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.