When You Order Something Online, How Does it Get To You? (It’s Like Santa Claus!)

The following post is made possible by support from UPS.

Have you ever stopped to think what happens when you click the “Buy now” button on a website? It’s a marvel of the of the age we live in that we can tap a button on a screen and within a week, but very often the next day, be holding that widget in our hands. Even more fantastic is that this happens without us having any real idea about how it actually happens.

If you ask my four-year old son, Greyson, where everything from iPads to boxes of crackers come from he’ll delightfully tell you that it comes from GPS. That’s what he calls UPS. He equates them with Santa Claus.


I’m not sure he thinks that they’re the same organization, but he does imagine that they work the same way. According to Greyson, when you need something, you click a button on the computer. From there, a message is transmitted to UPS’s secret north pole location where hundreds of former Christmas elves immediately get to work hammering, sawing and gluing together whatever it was you ordered. Come to think of it, this might explain his propensity to “repair” unbroken items with the same tools.

After the item is finished, it is loaded up into a flying sled, again similar to Santa’s, and flown back down the nearest facility where it is put on a big brown truck and dispatched straight to our house.

In his mind, the only reason we ever see UPS trucks on the road is because of us. They’re always bringing something to our house. Even when we’re out of town, they’re on their way to our house.

It is funny to examine the world from the perspective of a four year old, but do you really think about the world of shipping and logistics any differently? Unless you’re in that field, you probably haven’t given much thought to the whole process. How exactly does something get to you after you click buy?

For purposes of our example today, let’s imagine that you’re a new parent. Your new bundle of joy doesn’t do much more than eat, sleep and well, soil herself. And boy is she good at that. Unfortunately, you’ve just discovered you only have one day of diapers left. What are you going to do? Run to the store? Not you. You live more than an hour away from the nearest Target, Walmart or grocery store. You fire up your web browser.

After you click the buy button on Diapers.com, a message is transmitted to their warehouse. It’s not at the north pole, but it is inhabited by tiny little elf-like workers that can work 24 hours a day, 365 days per year with only an occasional break to recharge. The little workers are orange Kiva robots, and one of them will drive out into the warehouse and find the shelving unit with your diapers on it. It will then pick up the shelves and take it to a human who will then sort the products, including your diapers, into shipping packages where they will await the arrival of the shipping company, who in this case, is UPS.

When the driver shows up at the Diapers.com warehouse, he’ll scan your package of diapers and continue on his daily pickup and delivery route. Once UPS has picked up the package, then the fun really begins. Every day, the company picks up and delivers more than 15 million packages. The pick up and delivery are actually the easiest parts of the entire process.

Once your package is the system, it is taken by a driver to a package center where it is presorted and added to the rest of that days outgoing packages and transported to a regional hub. If it’s a standard ground shipment, the package will usually be driven by truck. If it’s an overnight shipment, it’ll go by airplane.

Once at the regional hub, the ground shipments are sorted and then loaded onto trailers. The trailers aren’t attached to trucks and driven across the country, instead, they are loaded onto flat bed rail cars and shipped across the country by train. At the other end, the packages are unloaded at another regional hub. From there, they will be transported to the nearest package center to the delivery location. Then, the package would be loaded into one of UPS’s distinctive brown “package cars” for home delivery.

If the package has been shipped by air, or is traveling overseas, from the regional hub it’ll travel by plane to another larger hub, like the UPS Worldport, in Louisville, Kentucky. Once there, the package will be sorted and distributed to another airplane for travel to another regional hub. Once back at the regional hub, the process continues for the most part just like a ground shipment.

Finally at your house with a large cardboard box full of diapers, just as you used the last one, you reflect that UPS and our modern shipping network is almost more magical than Santa Claus. He just has to deliver packages from the one location (the North Pole) to every home in the world — by himself. How difficult is that compared with what your package of diapers has gone through?

For more, I suggest you read these articles:

UPS and the art of sorting nearly a million packages a day

How UPS, Fed Ex Move 25 Million Packages a Day

How UPS Works

Photo by JakeBateson/ShutterStock.

Featured Opportunities

Related Stories