Another glimpse behind the scenes, this time by a reporter who was allowed to visit a Netflix distribution center.
If you subscribe to the DVD-rental service, the Netflix warehouse, which you know must exist somewhere; which a P.O. Box on every Netflix envelope suggests does exist; which processes your Netflix queue with alarming efficiency; which you bet will be as magical as you imagined if you ever stumble on it, overrun with dancing Oompa Loompas in matching jumpsuits of Netflix red, is one of those mythical New Economy temples.
Like an Amazon warehouse. Or an Apple warehouse. One imagines miles of pop ephemera between its brick-and-mortar walls — one imagines that limitless building from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but with 15,000 copies of ” Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
Netflix keeps the location of its 58 warehouses a closely-guarded secret – they are unmarked, drab, in anonymous office parks. An important reason for the secrecy: when people learn the location, they start dropping off DVDs in person, which interferes with the flow of things.
The discs are delivered to the distribution center in bulk at 3 a.m., so it doesn’t matter what time you drop your return disc in the mail. Then there’s no matching jumpsuits, no glamor, just hard-working people opening envelopes, examining discs, and putting them in bins, 650 times an hour. (Breaks for stretching and calisthenics every 65 minutes.)
From there, action shifts to long machines that go ffft. This, right here, is how you get discs as fast as you do. Inspected discs are scanned into the inventory by a machine that reads 30,000 bar codes an hour — ffft, ffft, ffft. The moment this machine reads the bar code, you receive an e-mail letting you know that your disc arrived. Then discs are scanned a second time — if a title is requested, and around 95 percent of titles get rented at least once every 90 days, the machine separates it and sorts it out by ZIP code. (The entire inventory of the building is run through this daily, a process that alerts other warehouses of the location of every one of the 89 million discs owned by Netflix.) After that, separated discs are taken to a machine called a Stuffer — which goes ssssht-click, ssssht-click — and stuffed in an envelope, which is sealed and labeled by a laser that goes zzzt.
Interesting stuff. Maybe Netflix isn’t as exciting as we thought but I still want to visit an Amazon warehouse – they have to use Oompa Loompas, right?