Amazon has more than 100 million “Prime” members, each of whom pays $119 a year for an ever-increasing list of services, but mostly, the promise of unlimited, free two-day shipping on “Prime” items.
Yet with more than a week before Christmas, hunting through the stacks of items for that reliable “Prime” logo, I was shocked by how many items won’t arrive in time for the holiday, let alone in the promised 48-hour window. That little Prime logo used to mean something. Now it feels like a ruse that lulls shoppers into a false sense of security, until they go to checkout and see a shipping arrival date far later than anticipated.
This cuts through the greatest promise of Prime. It’s not just the free, two-day shipping. It’s that it’s so reliable, you never have to think for more than a second about buying something. In this sense, Prime was constructed to be great for the consumer (so efficient) and great for businesses (mindless impulse shopping!).
I’ve been a Prime member myself for over a decade, so I’ve come to expect that the rush of the holiday season will clog the arteries of Amazon’s fulfillment centers and delivery services alike and make shipping less than reliable. But anecdotally, to me and many of the people I know and work with, this year, it feels worse than ever.
It doesn’t help that we’ve seen a slow dilution of Prime itself over time, with the rise of Prime Pantry and Add-on Items. They force you to buy a minimum number of items to get the best deal, adding back the very psychic burden Prime had eliminated from the equation of online shopping in the first place. As a result, it can be hard to find true, two-day Prime items that aren’t marked up to insane prices by third-party sellers.
But Prime was still Prime. This holiday, I’ve noticed things that are in stock and labeled “Prime” have nonsensical shipping dates. I’m not alone in experiencing Shipping Shock™. Complaints about slow Prime shipping abound across the internet. Quora literally has a thread asking, “Has Amazon slowed down their free shipping speed intentionally?” The “top answer” with 22,000 views is a customer rant about late shipments. Many others chime in to confirm the slowdowns, and offer conspiracy theories as to what could be going on.
It’s certainly happened to me. Take the little gasket (pictured above) that I need to make fresh, festive whipped cream for the holidays. It’s Prime! It’s in stock! My ancient hunter brain takes a load off; I’ve provided the crucial saturated fats for my family. We will survive the Greater Chicagoland Area winter. And then I notice, this 10-cent piece of rubber arrives via four-day shipping with the “FREE” in all caps, like Amazon is doing ME the favor for making me wait four days for something I could get at a restaurant supply store in a few minutes.
Yes, technically the arrival date was listed there for me to see all along, right in the product feed. Technically. But the whole promise of Prime was that the fine print didn’t matter. That I didn’t have to track a FedEx truck on Christmas Eve while cross-referencing Weatherbug, only to end up on a mail plane that crashes onto a deserted island where I’m forced to befriend sporting equipment.
The Prime logo had a clear meaning that was crucial to Amazon’s interface and user experience, and now it signifies… nothing.
One other common problem I’ve encountered is that out-of-stock Prime items aren’t actually labeled “out of stock.” Instead the page reads something like, “In Stock on January 1.” This little semantic trick makes it seem like everything is fine, like it’s “in stock” as it should be, when in fact it isn’t. Oh, and if a package arrives next month? Let’s just not even pretend it’s Prime anymore. Maybe the Prime label should get the axe until, you know, it’s Prime again.
Yes, Amazon lets you search and sort according to Prime. And maybe Amazon, in its infinite retail wisdom, has actually offered all of us a new suite of controls to sort items that are truly, two-day Prime, and I’ve just missed them. Rechecking the manual sorting controls in the Amazon feed, I encounter, not help, but the ultimate dark pattern–a nasty trick of user interface design that companies deploy to control users–in which it appears Amazon is obfuscating Prime shipping rather than clarifying it. Here, I can sort by Prime and Prime “free same day” items. But we’ve already established that Prime isn’t Prime so it doesn’t help me find Prime two-day.
Alternatively, I can sort by arrival date–ditching the Prime logo hunt altogether. Ooh, this must be the ticket! Nope. I can choose between “Get it today” and “Get it tomorrow.” These options often come with an extra price not covered by Prime. So again, both ignore the option of finding the true, free two-day shipping speed I’ve been promised as a Prime customer.
As with so much of the experience of shopping on Amazon, the interface leaves us helpless to protest. I literally couldn’t find the customer service number listed on Amazon’s app or site when I looked yesterday, but I did find it by Googling, and you can call them here.
I reached out to Amazon to ask why two-day shipping is so elusive this holiday. Apparently, the purchase option I was given was part of the Prime’s “Small and Light” affiliate program. It allows third-party retailers to offer so-called “Prime” packages that actually ship in 4-5 days to widen their margins, rather than guarantee your package will arrive in two days like normal Prime. In the case of my whipped cream gasket, Amazon clarified that there were, in fact, other [two-day] “Prime” vendors that I could have scrolled down to in order to get my package within two days. Why one of these true Prime options wasn’t suggested, or automatically chosen for me, within Amazon’s confounding front end is unclear. I write about interfaces for a living, and I missed this workaround. Most other people will, too.
There is no justice for the consumer when all they face is a machine. There is no underpaid clerk to heroically accept the rants of a scorned consumer, to call in a manager who can make things right. Instead, we get rejection by algorithm–gaslighting through interface design. It’s as if Amazon’s product feed is asking us, “Prime? Does that really mean two-day? Are you sure? How many days away is Christmas, anyway? Are you counting business days? Isn’t reality just a holographic projection though? Isn’t time a construct of human perception?”
In a sense, all Amazon packages have already been delivered, if you think about it.