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Don’t just Buy Now! When shopping on Amazon, you need to pay attention


MARCH 26, 2019

Roy Arguello wants nothing to do with the 10-foot ladder he ordered last month on Amazon.com.

A Prime member, Mr. Arguello found it in a search—“I was like, this free delivery is going to work out in my favor,” he says. But a week later, a different ladder arrived at his Chicago apartment. And it was damaged.

He started the return process through the Amazon app, printing a UPS label. He paid a friend $40 to drop it off but multiple sites wouldn’t take the irregularly shaped 38-pound item. Ultimately his friend returned it to him.

“He’s like, ‘Dude, I’ve got your ladder,’” says Mr. Arguello. “I’m like, ‘I paid you to get that ladder out of my life.’”

Mr. Arguello says the seller then told him that to get a refund, Mr. Arguello must destroy the ladder, so no one will get hurt using it. Though it wasn’t a Prime purchase, Amazon intervened after the Journal’s inquiry and refunded his money. Mr. Arguello says he might pay his friend another $40 to take the ladder to a landfill.

Such are the risks of operating on Amazon autopilot. After years of shopping success, you’ve come to expect any number of things that aren’t necessarily true: that every price you see is competitive, that Prime orders always arrive in two days, that Amazon’s Choice items are the best value and that returns and refunds are always a few easy clicks away.

After nearly purchasing a 75-ounce bottle of Cascade for $13 that Walmart sells for $6, I started looking into how not paying enough attention on Amazon can cost money and time. Here’s what I found:

Amazon raised the annual price of its Prime program to $119 last spring. While there are various benefits, including streaming media and discounts at Whole Foods, many customers are in it for the two-day shipping perk. Lately, a lot of them are complaining that Prime no longer seems to mean two days.

Customers are naturally confused when in-stock Prime items show shipping estimates of 4 to 5 days or require an additional charge to arrive in two days. On the flip side, there are times when Amazon surprises customers with one-day shipping at no extra cost.

Amazon will also sometimes display one shipping estimate when you click on an item and a different one when you go to check out. When I viewed a recommended Prime product on a Monday, it said “Free shipping by Friday.” When I went to checkout (still Monday!), my earliest free-delivery window was the following Monday.

“The shipping method time starts when the item ships,” its website says. Unless otherwise specified, the two days refers to business days, not weekends or holidays. And they don’t include “processing” time. An Amazon spokeswoman said that factors ranging from oddly shaped items to airplane restrictions can affect processing time, and there is a chance the available item is at a far-away fulfillment center.

The spokeswoman said that last year, the company delivered billions of products in two days in the U.S. and that more than 100 million items are eligible for Prime two-day shipping. “At Amazon, we are focused on delivering as many items as fast as possible,” she said.

Tip: Make sure you’re logged in when shopping, otherwise shipping times might change at checkout. Also, some non-Prime items can also come with decent prices and free, speedy shipping. Look at those before settling for a sub-prime Prime option.

In 2015, Amazon started rolling out seller-fulfilled Prime. Eligible sellers can display the Prime badge next to their products but ship their own items, instead of paying Amazon to warehouse and ship them (aka “fulfilled by Amazon.”)

Sellers in the program don’t get a grace period for “processing.” They are required to ship more than 99% of orders on time to keep their Prime badges, the website says. Sellers must adhere to Amazon’s return policy and Amazon handles customer service.

Valerie Lee, head of sales for clothing distributor Unik Inc., said while items have been selling better since she was accepted into the program, her staff now has to come in on Saturdays to keep up two-day shipping.

Amazon paused third-party Prime enrollment as it looks for ways to scale the program up, a spokeswoman said.

Tip: If you look under the Buy Now button, you can see if an item is fulfilled by Amazon or shipped by the seller. Click the seller’s name to see if it has a good reputation.

Also, checking the Prime box or in-app toggle during a search doesn’t guarantee all results are Prime. In some cases, if an item doesn’t have the badge next to it, there’s a Prime-eligible alternative in a different size or color. In Mr. Arguello’s case, he filtered his original search for Prime items, but clicked around and ended up on a non-Prime product with free shipping.

There is a sea of things to sort through when you search, from sponsored products and “Best Sellers,” to grocery and pharmacy items that are part of Prime Pantry or Amazon Fresh, which appear cheaper but might require minimum orders or extra fees. The top results aren’t necessarily the best deals.

The first several are often ads. Look for the tiny gray “Sponsored” label. Ads are often interspersed with the rest of the results, too. Lately, Amazon has been pushing its own brands, so don’t be surprised if your search for an iPhone cable turns up an AmazonBasics option.

When I searched for dish detergent, there was only one 75-ounce bottle out of the 50 results I looked through that was cheaper than it is at my local grocer. (It was also Amazon Fresh, meaning I had to pay the $15 program subscription to get it.)

I could have gotten a lower price if I bought six bottles for $50. Unfortunately, you can’t assume that buying in bulk means a better deal. I found several instances where buying a multi-pack or the largest size was much more expensive: A 170-ounce bottle of Tide from a third-party seller was $49.99, whereas a 150-ounce bottle was $17.94 at Walmart.

Tip: Sometimes Amazon provides cost per ounce or unit in small gray print near the price. Amazon also has a Subscribe and Save program where you get discounts for regularly buying the same items. While the discounts help, keep in mind that item pricing can go up or down over time.

You will often see the Amazon’s Choice label attached to a product high up in search results. The company says the badge is based on popularity, customer ratings and reviews, availability and more.

Of course, shady sellers have been known to manipulate the system. (My colleague Joanna Stern has tips for spotting fake reviews here.) Amazon works to combat fake reviews and told the Journal they make up a “tiny fraction” of activity on the site. Nevertheless, I found an “Amazon’s Choice” Apple Watch charger with reviews for a 50th-anniversary edition of “My Fair Lady.”

When you click on the Amazon’s Choice for Pampers Swaddlers diapers, the top six reviews are positive. But scroll more and you’ll see several frustrated parents complaining the Pampers were fake—they leaked or caused rashes. I asked Amazon about a handful of Amazon’s Choice items that seemed suspect. When I checked back up on those items, some of the badges had been removed: One product went from having over 3,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars to 122 reviews averaging 1.5 stars.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the popular Amazon’s Choice feature is  “just our recommendation, and customers can always ask for specific brands or products if they choose.”

Tip: Sort reviews before you buy. Look at the most recent ones in addition to the top ones. And if you see nothing but 5-star reviews, and the reviews aren’t marked Verified Purchase, chances are the reviews are fake.