Regardless of the time of year, we have shopping needs whether it’s grocery items or that special gift. Now, some people prefer to just shop during special sales events such as Amazon Prime Days, Cyberweek, or a daily deal. However, I think better savings can be achieved with a slow and steady approach. And while Prime is optional, a Smile is recommended.
Do You Need Amazon Prime?
My quick advice is that it depends. There are several factors that you should consider since the yearly cost is $139. While I’m presently a Prime member, I don’t always renew my subscription. I’ve gone months and years without it. Granted there are certain perks it affords you, but they may be items you really don’t use. For example, a new benefit is free Grubhub+ but it means nothing to me as I don’t use GrubHub.
One of the biggest perks is free shipping which normally arrives in several days. But, it’s also easy to get free shipping if you combine items so you hit the minimum order amount to qualify for free shipping. A related perk is two-hour grocery delivery with Amazon Fresh.
Also, Amazon has different Prime membership plans for different groups. For example, the following groups can get a discount:
- Active students (Prime Student) – this plan is unique in that in addition to many of the Prime benefits, students also get 6 months free of LinkedIn Premium, 3 months free of Calm, 1 month free of Course Hero, and discounts on entertainment channels. The plan comes with a 6 month trial and then costs $7.49 a month or $69 a year.
- Electronic Benefits Transfer, SNAP or Medicaid card holders – this plan also offers 50% off the membership price and you need to re-enroll yearly.
Another big expense for people can be medications. While I haven’t used prescriptions with Prime, it may be beneficial for some. It entails a digital Rx savings card which can be used at Amazon Pharmacy and over 60,000 pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens, Safeway, Costco and many more. According to Amazon, you can get substantial savings when:
- you don’t have insurance
- your medication is not covered by insurance
- your co-pay or deductible is higher than your Prime member price
My suggestion is to try the 30-day free trial and note how many perks you use. If you don’t like it, cancel the plan. I’ve done this many times. And while it does cost more, you can subscribe to Amazon Prime on a monthly basis instead of yearly.
One caveat is that Amazon, like many websites, used to have what I would call a “dark pattern” when you canceled. Please carefully read the messages to make sure you’re actually canceling.
Subscribe and Save
This is another convenience Amazon offers and you don’t need a Prime membership. As the name hints, it works best on items you routinely purchase on a regular schedule. For example, I have certain vitamins that I take and the container holds a set amount, let’s say a month. I can then have Amazon schedule my purchases as a recurring event and I get a 5% savings. The more items I add to Subscribe and Save, the bigger the savings up to 15%.
The items don’t have to be vitamins which are generally used on a daily basis. The items could be household items like paper towels, soap, water filters, diapers, and so on.
The good news is I can delay or cancel deliveries. Interestingly, when you place the subscription, you don’t get the first order in a couple of days. It schedules the delivery out to your frequency selection. It baffles me why they don’t fill the first order now. In other words, if I added some vitamins and asked to have it delivered it monthly, I would not get my first order till a month out.
Pace Yourself & Use Wishlists
Lists are one of my favorite features, but I find people don’t use them. Instead of being an impulse buyer, I prefer to add items to my wishlist and let them incubate. This has several benefits. The first is I clear my head and note that I’m interested in the product. Typically, I’ll get it on the list and do research at a later date.
The second benefit is Amazon indicates if the price has changed since I added the item. In the example below, Amazon has indicated the price has dropped 9% since I added the item. I can also see there is a 10% coupon.
Another way to use the wishlist is to keep a list of small dollar amount items that you use. This way, if you opt not to use Amazon Prime, you have some items waiting that you can add so you meet the minimum order amount for free shipping. I’m sure if you go through your “kitchen junk drawers” you can spot items. Maybe some rechargeable batteries, duct tape, velcro cord ties, flashlights, and so on.
To add an item to a list, scroll down the product page. One the right side, you’ll see a button labeled “Add to list“. You can create multiple lists and mark them as public or private. You can also access your lists from your Accounts & Lists menu.
Tracking Amazon Prices
I dislike shopping. One reason is pricing and how some merchants do discounts. Or, maybe a better way to say this is how they increase prices in the weeks before a sale. I get that prices are elastic, but I also like to look at price history. There are a couple of ways to track Amazon prices, but I prefer to just query two websites when I need more info.
The two services I use are Camel Camel Camel and Keepa. Of the two, I prefer Keepa as I find it less cluttered. Both services operate in the same manner where you can put in an Amazon URL to get the data for new items or used items. It doesn’t work for products that don’t have a lot of sales.
The price graph below is for one of the items I have on the Practical Gift Guide. It’s the Anker Portable Power Station. You can see there is a fair amount of price fluctuation over the year. In addition, you can see where the price dropped because of Amazon Lightning Deals. Doing a quick look, I can see a $65 swing for new units.
Both price tracking services allow additional options such as browser extensions, wish list imports, country availability and so on. You may have to open an account and provide your email address.
Double-check Delivery Times
Another hasty mistake I’ve made is choosing a lower price, but not looking at the expected delivery time. These days, a lot of merchants have Amazon handle their fulfillment. The merchant pays Amazon for warehouse, logistics, and delivery. This reduces delivery time.
The problem occurs when you don’t pay attention to the expected delivery date. Several times, I’ve assumed the fast times. However, there are plenty of merchants who ship items from overseas, which can add considerably to the time. The same problem can occur with domestic sellers.
Use Product Reviews Wisely
Before buying an item, I like to look at the reviews and questions people post. Early on a “lightening deal”, I didn’t do this research and found out the hard way that certain products lacked features. I wrongly assumed a robo vacuum was the same height as the 10 year old one I replaced. It wasn’t and the dang thing gets stuck in so many places, I bought Slinkys to go around furniture to deter the device. Worse, it didn’t come with virtual wall barriers. I was too focused on buying before the time expired. And yes, people had mentioned these shortcomings in the comments.
I should point out that Amazon has a very good return policy. They provide a date by which you need to file a product return. And, they make the return process simple by providing a QR code on your phone to a shipping partner such as The UPS Store. Previously, I would have to print out the return shipping label.
And while there are some great reviews and videos, not all reviews are equal. Sadly, there is a whole industry of people who do fake reviews. These reviewers get paid in either product or cash to give favorable reviews. This is different than the Amazon Vine program which Amazon runs. The flip side is people who negatively rate a product to drive down a competitor’s ratings, but never purchase the product.
I’ve developed my own system for looking at reviews.
- Filter for verified purchasers
- Look at the star rating distribution. I worry if everything is a 5 star.
- Look at reviews with 1 star ratings. I want to know the worst thing about the product and sometimes people provide alternate product suggestions or solutions
- Move up to 3 star and then 5 star product reviews
- If there is a specific feature I’m interested, I’ll search to see if someone asked a question about it
I wish there were a filter for people that just leave a star rating and no context as I don’t find the info helpful.
Amazon Warehouse Discounts
Amazon also has another section on their website called Amazon Warehouse. It consists of quality “pre-owned”, used, or open box products. You can get to it from the drop-down menu. These items are typically not new, but have gone through some sort of quality assurance testing. The products are graded in one of 4 categories:
- Used – like new
- Used – very good
- Used – good
- Used – acceptable
Once you’re on the main page which is accessible from the drop-down menu, you can use the left navigation to filter down into your specific category. From there, you can also filter by featured brands, price, and star ratings.
The selection of products varies considerably and is dependent on inventory. However, the savings can be substantial. I’m more apt to purchase an item from here for my personal use where I don’t care about packaging or some cosmetic issue such as my sous-vide purchase. I probably wouldn’t buy something from the warehouse as a gift unless someone wanted an older version or wanted to reduce electronic waste.
Amazon Renewed is a bit like Amazon Warehouse in that you’re dealing with return items. One noticeable difference is that manufacturers can sell their refurbished items into the Amazon system. The items are professionally inspected and tested. However, it may not be Amazon who is certifying the product, but another company. These products may not be exclusive deals.
For example, you bought Acme’s Super Duper 4K TV from a big box retailer, but returned it for some reason. The retailer might send the TV back to Acme. Acme may have their own refurbishing process or have some other testing service do it. Once it passes testing, Acme might offer the TV as a renewed product on Amazon.
You can find these Renewed Deals from the submenu that appears when you’re in Amazon Warehouse.
Unlike the warehouse, there is a different grading system for these eligible products.
- Premium condition
- Excellent condition
- Good condition
- Acceptable condition
Amazon Outlet Discounts
The Outlet also offers good deals and savings, but the items are overstock. Like Renewed Deals, you can also access it from the secondary menu under Amazon Warehouse. These are items where the merchant has too much inventory and is willing to provide a price discount.
While the area does have some of the biggest savings, I seldom use it. My experience is these are seasonal, novelty, or outdated products.
The section is broken into four categories:
- Premium Brands – mainly clothing and luggage
- Amazon Brands – items specifically made for Amazon ranging from electronics to furniture
- Overstock Deals – covers all areas
- Best Sellers – recognizable brands
Lightening Deals & Goldbox
Lightening Deals are timed promotions where a limited number of deals are allowed for the featured item. If all the deals are sold out, you can join a waitlist. Also, you have to commit to the purchase within 15 minutes. If you wait longer than that, you could lose the deal.
There are some good deals if you need these items. And Amazon Prime members do get early access to some deals. My suggestion if you use this area is to use the left navigation and filter for a category. You can further refine your search by filtering for star ratings, price, discount % and deal type.
One appealing factor is you can see deals ahead of time and when they will start. While you can’t buy these items yet, you can add the deal to your watchlist. Unlike the current deals, you won’t see the savings value show just yet.
These coupons are a bit different from the ones you clip from a newspaper. They are electronic and you can get the savings by clicking the Clip Coupon button. As with most Amazon areas, there are numerous items so I’d use the left panel to refine your choices.
Another way to use this area so you don’t have to scroll through countless products, is to search by brand name. There is a large search textbox to the top right. In the picture below, you can see there are a number of coupons available for my search term – eufy.
Smile and Help Others
If you’re going to shop on Amazon, I’d encourage you to use Smile to help others. This means a portion of your eligible purchase, about 0.5%, will go to a charity of your choosing. Your purchase price is the same whether you use Amazon Smile or not. You only need to do 2 things.
- Choose your Smile charity. There are over a million to choose. You may find your local library is included.
- When buying, start from https://smile.amazon.com/.
The bottom line is Amazon has a lot to offer shoppers. With some discipline and patience you can find good savings with minimal risk. Just remember they have a powerful recommendation system that may make you think you need various items. Shop wisely and always remember your local merchants too.