If you received a Jacksonville Jaguars replica jersey or a Sacramento Kings t-shirt or some other sports memorabilia for the holidays, there’s a good chance it passed through a warehouse in Frazeysburg, Ohio. Run by the company Fanatics, the warehouse ships out officially licensed gear for all major pro sports leagues.
BL: Bryan, you write that one veteran worker advises new pickers to bring comfortable shoes and a belt when they come to work. Why is that?
The new employees are imminently distractible. ... This is also a problem in the Fanatics warehouse when the swimsuit calendars come out around this time of year.Bryan Curtis, Grantland
BC: That's because the pickers — so-called at this warehouse — walk about 8 miles a day. So what happens is you can always identify a new picker who's come in because he's always pulling at the back of his jeans because he's lost a couple of waist sizes just in walking around and going for that Jaguars jersey you mentioned.
BL: “These workers,” you write, “have personal scoreboards which measure something called UPH.” Tell us about UPH — who keeps score, and what happens to folks whose UPH is too low?
BC: UPH stands for "Units Per Hour." So every job in the warehouse has a desired UPH. And the great workers in the warehouse — many of whom I talked to — have UPHs that are just absolutely off the chart. And basically that just means how many of these items that you and I lust over can you either place into a cart or can you put into a shipping box or can you put into a little cubby hole within an hour.
The guys who work there full time have really high UPH. The seasonal workers who come around Black Friday, they sometimes slip below. At that point you have to either figure it out or, I guess, get another job.
BL: You tried your hand at picking. What was your UPH?
BC: I think I lowered the UPH of the whole warehouse significantly. I'm pretty sure some red sirens were going off when I was doing it. Picking is a very funny exercise because it's kind of fun for 10 or 20 minutes, right? And you can get very good at it and figure out all these sort of tricks of the trade. But what's interesting about these jobs is that they're not what you would call physically taxing outside of the walking. But as one of the guys who helps run the warehouse told me, they're very tedious.
BL: Yeah it sounds like the ultimate in tedious and repetitious work. Did you get a sense of how the workers feel about their jobs?
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BC: The ones that I talked to were, by and large, permanent employees there — meaning they had health benefits. They made some, what they call, pretty good money, though the company was fairly cagey about what they made. But they like their jobs immensely.
We're talking about Ohio people here who worked on auto lines and for Longaberger baskets — companies that basically had either outsourced jobs to Mexico and other places or, in the case of Longaberger, had laid off so many of their employees that these jobs sort of dried up. So, you know, they're happy to have jobs, at least on that level.
BL: I have to imagine that being surrounded by all this sports gear is different from being surrounded by parts of steering wheels and brake linings. Pretty distracting for the workers sometimes, right?
BC: The new employees are imminently distractible. One of the trainers was telling me the biggest problem with the new employees was they look left, they look right. You can't get 'em to slow down. This is also a problem in the Fanatics warehouse when the swimsuit calendars come out around this time of year. You get a lot of "Lookie Lous" rather than people trying to actually stick the merchandise in the cart.
BL: You spent some time with one worker named Bobby Plummer. He had earned the nickname the “Octopus.” Tell me a little bit about him.
BC: Bobby Plummer stands 6-foot-7. He has long arms and he has long legs and he can go right and he can go left. He told me he used to be a power forward in high school and he used the same skills. You know, other people had a UPH of, say, 300 items. Bobby's was 400 to 500.
BL: This is MVP territory I would think.
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BC: He is the MVP of the warehouse, that is for sure. And he was one of those guys that when they discovered him they thought, "Oh my gosh, we can't lose Bobby. He's the best at what he does."
BL: Did your experience at the warehouse change the way you view Timberwolves keychains, Pistons potholders, and things of that nature?
BC: Yes, a little bit. I think we — when I used the word "lust" earlier — we lust over this merchandise because it's so cool. I doubt that many of us really think what happens when we move that thing into our digital shopping cart and order it. The shirt that's so special to you is one of a billion t-shirts that are floating around in space.
And there's a lot of backbreaking work on the other end, and people working very, very hard to get us this stuff in time for the holidays so that we make all the people in our lives happy.
BL: So that we can send it back and say, "This didn't fit."
BC: Right, so we can say, "A Jaguars jersey? Do you hate me that much, really? Couldn't you have asked what I wanted for Christmas?"
This segment aired on January 3, 2015.