Avis Walton

Essay by chayluck February 2006

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Avis Walton is used to being told where to go and what to do once he gets there. As a "picker" for 99 Cents Only Stores, Walton spends his 5 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. shift cruising around a 750,000-square-foot distribution center in Katy, Texas, in an electric cart responding to a stream of spoken instructions. "Go to row 12, section 8, bin 31," an authoritative woman's voice in his ear commands, and Walton zips to row 12. Blip-blip. He scans the bin tag with a wireless handheld computer to confirm he's arrived at the right place. "Pick two cases plus four items," the voice continues. Beginning to break a sweat, 24-year-old Walton lifts two cases of vinyl tablecloths onto a pallet, rips open a third box and removes four more tablecloths. "Confirm pick," he says into his microphone, thus prompting the voice to send him zipping off on another assignment.

Doesn't her bossiness get annoying? "Nah, she's cool," Walton says. "She tells me what to do and I tell her when I do it."

Perhaps if this voice were that of a human, Walton might take offense. But the "she" that he and his 15 fellow pickers interact with throughout their shifts is actually the computer-generated voice of the distribution center's warehouse-management software. Like a digital flight controller, the as-yet-unnamed voice sends squads of pickers scurrying to gather the items needed by individual stores, all the while quietly calculating the most efficient routes that will also prevent them crashing into one another. At the same time, the voice tells the pickers which bins need replenishment and where they can find the stock to do so. Roaring away overhead is a mechanized conveyor system worthy of any airport's luggage- handling operation. Pickers run along four levels of a massive series of...