Yesterday in Las Vegas I spent a great afternoon at the headquarters of Zappos, which is the Amazon of shoes. They have what may be the largest in-warehouse inventory in the world--750,000 unique products, amounting to more than 1.5m pairs of shoes in the Kentucky distribution center (needless to say, this is a great Long Tail retail example, although I'll save that analysis for a later post).
Having just read David Weinberger's great new book, after which this post is named, one of the things that struck me most about Zappos was the way it organizes its massive warehouse. It doesn't. The shoes are placed randomly on the shelves.
Sure, Zappos experimented with various taxonomies and organizational systems, but none of them scaled. New shoes came in and old shoes went out, seasons changed and so did styles. When a vendor creates a new line, you can't just shift everything down to make room for it next to the old line. When a line is discontinued there's no way to pull everything up to fill in the space. Short of reorganizing the entire warehouse with every twitch of the marketplace, no ordered system was better than any other at accommodating change.
So Zappos just stopped bothering. It made peace with messiness. The shoes are logged in by UPC when they arrive and assigned a spot wherever there is room available. When it comes time to pick-and-pack, the computers tell the warehouse staff where to go. No single trip is optimized, but the system as a whole works as a minimum-effort machine. Just as random access works best for bits in disk drives, it turns out to be great for atoms in warehouses, too.