My own personal Amazon Prime day is in two weeks. It’s not the day that Amazon puts a lot of random crap on sale. (That’s in approximately three weeks.) My day is when Amazon will charge me $120 for another year of membership. That’s $20 more than what the company charged me last year and $40 more than what I paid five years ago, when I signed up for a free trial of Prime and forgot to cancel it. This year, I think I might bow out.
It’s not the money, per se. Every time Amazon raises the price of Prime Membership, tech writers around the world flock to the topic and wonder, “Is Amazon Prime still worth it?” Heck, I wrote my own version of that blog post when the price went up a couple years ago. It was a fawning post, too, because I was in love with the free shipping and the new (at the time) Amazon Original movies and TV shows. I even signed up for an Amazon Rewards credit card so that I could get 5 percent back on my increasingly regular orders from the world’s largest store. The membership fee meant nothing, when Amazon made it seem like I was getting more for my money.
Years later, I’m carrying a balance on that Amazon Rewards card and paying more in interest than I’m reaping in rewards. That’s my own damn fault. I’m also going out of my way to buy stuff on Amazon, not because it’s more convenient but because I feel the need to take advantage of my Prime benefits. This is also my fault, and it happens in various ways. Sometimes, I’m tossing random shit into my cart, so that I can hit the minimum amount for a Prime Pantry box. Other times, I’m renting videos through Amazon Prime, because I can’t find anything good that’s free and, well, it’s so easy to do in the app. Sometimes I just open the app on my phone, when I’m bored and wonder if I should be buying stuff. This is the dystopia I pay for.
The contrast between my spending on Amazon pre-Prime and my spending after becoming a member is incredibly stark, too. Using this form, I downloaded the data of every physical Amazon order I’ve made from my current account. (You can download yours, too, and the results might alarm you!) In 2008, I bought exactly two items on Amazon: a book about movies and a book about psychology. Fast forward to 2012, the year before I joined Prime, and my grand tally was… two items. The next year, I bought ten. Every single item purchased, I bought after my Prime membership kicked in. Things escalated after that, and in 2017, I purchased 112 items on Amazon, all through Prime benefits. It’s worth pointing out that Amazon has expanded its inventory quite a bit over the years. It’s still mind-boggling to me that I went from buying two things a year on Amazon to buying 112 things a year, undoubtedly because of my paid Prime membership.
It’s not like I’m spending my whole paycheck on Amazon orders, either. Most of my orders are in the $50 range, and most of the stuff I buy, I could also buy locally and carry home in my backpack. The one big, inconvenient thing I ordered was a TV that would have been free to ship even if I didn’t have Prime, since Amazon ships “all orders over $25 or more of eligible items” for free. So when I think hard about it, I’m only really benefitting from Prime when I buy, for instance, a single pair of very excellent nail clippers from Japan—which I have done. But it does feel crazy that I’m paying Amazon over $100 a year simply to encourage myself to buy more shit on Amazon.
The craziest thing is that I keep re-convincing myself that Amazon Prime is the best deal in tech. That’s an old Gizmodo conclusion, one that we’ve stood by for the better part of a decade. Prime is also a deal that keeps getting sweeter. Just this week, Amazon announced that Prime members will soon get discounts at Whole Foods stores nationwide, including free two-hour delivery in some states. How sweet it is! New discounts on overpriced groceries seem better than no discounts on regular groceries, so why wouldn’t I be tempted to walk the pristine aisles of my local Whole Foods looking for a yellow sticker or a blue Prime sign the next time I need to stock up?
It’s not so much that Prime is a good deal. It’s that Prime is a great trick. When I look back at my spending over the past five years, my profile perfectly matches up with that of the typical Prime member. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), Prime customers spend more than twice as much money on Amazon goods than non-members, and when Amazon hikes the price of membership, those Prime customers actually spend even more. That’s the business model. Historically, Amazon has actually lost money on perks like free two-day shipping, but the company is making up for it not only by impelling Prime customers to buy more stuff but also, increasingly, by encouraging them to buy goods from Amazon’s private label brands, which get promoted above other brands in searches on the site. Some say this represents a devious type of monopolistic business practices. I’m inclined to agree.
There’s also the fact that Amazon is the embodiment of the evil American corporation that I swore to avoid in my younger years. This is the new Walmart, the new Viacom, the new Visa, the new Google, and the new Nike all rolled into one. Those are only a handful of the logos that appear on the Adbusters Corporate America flag I hung on the wall of my college dorm, but before long, Amazon’s tentacles will reach even further into these massive industries. Amazon wants to grow its banking business. It’s explored opportunities in pharmaceuticals. We even learned recently that Amazon is very involved in selling facial recognition software to law enforcement. This, on top of the fact that Amazon continues to exploit its warehouse workers in extraordinary ways and apparently treats the contractors who deliver your packages even worse. And don’t even get me started on how Amazon has been hawking the data-hungry Echo, which is a potential privacy nightmare and yet another way that Jeff Bezos tricks you into buying more shit on Amazon.
I know what you’re probably thinking. Here’s Adam, complaining about something again and then vowing to quit doing it forever. You’re not wrong. This is what’s happening, and it’s happened before. I complained about Seamless a few months ago and quit using it. I whined about Netflix last year and quit that service. Two years ago, I complained about coffee pods and stopped buying those. I am, indeed, a picky consumer prone to outrage and always ready for a boycott.
This fixation with Amazon is different, though. Amazon is the monster I invited into my home over a decade-and-a-half ago, when I started buying books for college online, and it’s been living in my basement since then, eating my spare change and growing. Over the years, when Prime entered the scene, the monster demanded more than the erstwhile meal of stray dollar bills and tapped directly into my bank account, where it started sucking down funds, like a colossus with a straw that led straight to my milkshake. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the beast’s company sometimes. It’s always giving me fresh reasons to enjoy having it around. And it’s become increasingly apparent that Amazon Prime, now my nefarious old friend, can’t be replaced.
I have started shopping around. Instead of putting together a Prime Pantry box, I drag myself to the bodega and spend 50-cents extra on my favorite soap instead of coming up with a way to spend $40 and clear the bar for free Prime Pantry shipping. Instead of buying the weird dog food that qualifies for free shipping with Amazon Prime, I buy my dog stuff from a pet website with a better selection, and I cough up a few bucks for shipping. I bought new jeans from an actual clothing store the other day. They cost the same as the ones I always used to get from Amazon, and I actually got to try them on, so they fit great.
My shift away from shopping on Amazon isn’t saving the world. I am spending less money, though, and I’m actually spending it on stuff that I know I like. It’s like if you stop buying stuff on sale just because it’s on sale, you’d be amazing by how much more value you get for every dollar spent. That’s how I feel, anyways. Do I also feel a little better when my building’s lobby is full of Amazon boxes and none of them are mine? I’m not sure. Packages in the lobby make every day feel like Christmas. Until you see the poor guy in an unmarked van, delivering Amazon-branded boxes after hours and realize he’s probably working overtime most days, without benefits. Even the Post Office offers health insurance.
I don’t know if I’ll renew my Amazon Prime membership this year. Reasons to quit Prime sure are stacking up fast, though. I’m also not telling you to stop buying stuff on Amazon. It’s convenient as hell! But Prime is becoming one of those too-good deals. There are hidden costs, some of which aren’t so hidden any more and others that we won’t comprehend for years to come. It’s extremely difficult to judge how well Amazon makes you spend money you don’t need to spend. One thing seems certain, though. Amazon is very good at getting me to spend money. And it’s getting better at a breakneck pace.