Last holiday season, a staggering 40% of America’s entire online shopping spending went to Amazon, with 200 million more packages delivered to Prime subscribers than in 2014. And when those subscribers weren’t shopping for books and office supplies and groceries and socks (and basically everything except weapons-grade plutonium), they were listening to free streaming Amazon Music and watching—that is, bingeing on—shows like Transparent and The Man in the High Castle, part of the company’s new TV production arm. The company’s revenues topped $100 billion in 2015, up 20% over the year before. 

In short: Amazon—aka “the Everything Store,” a name it’s picked up over the years—is winning so handily, it’s the online-store equivalent of the 1992 Dream Team, casually lobbing alley-oops over the global competition. 

Now, full confession: I’m something of a brick-and-mortar retail purist who loves cruising stores and trying to haggle my way to a better price. But let’s be clear: I’m an outlier. So I decided to take a look into the basics of Amazon Prime to find out what it really offers and how to, essentially, game the Prime system to make them most of the yearly membership fee. Here’s what I learned.

 

What comes with the basic Prime membership

There are several reasons you’ll hear that Prime is worth every penny of its $99 yearly fee. Here, a few of the best:

1) Free two-day (and discounted overnight) shipping: If you forego a Prime membership but still shop Amazon for holiday gifts, you can easily exceed $99 on shipping costs, making Prime a smart buy for that reason alone.  The site also deeply discounts over- night delivery, which comes in extra handy three days before Christmas (or a forgotten birthday or anniversary). Also on the way is the $7.99, one-hour Prime Now service Amazon’s already started rolling out in some cities. But as a Prime member, your goal should be to take advantage of free shipping. My advice? you're already paying almost a hundred bucks for it—why not use it? 

2) (Seriously) hassle-free returns with no annoying “restocking fees”: Amazon turns pretty much a blind eye to returns on Prime-eligible items, sending you
 a free mailing label or, at times, even letting you keep the unwanted item. (According to one phone rep, it can 
be cheaper for them than shipping it back.) So, though another seller may beat the Prime price—and even offer free shipping—you could get stuck with unreturnable merchandise or hit with a ridiculous “restocking fee.”

One caveat: During the online return process, when asked why you’re sending an item back, never, ever check the box for “No longer needed/wanted”—the one reason Amazon may feel a shipping/restocking fee is called for. A last, little-known Prime benefit: If you call to start the return process and ask the rep nicely, he/she can give you an “instant refund” so you get the cash back before you’ve even boxed up the reject.

3) Free video: Amazon started offering streaming video on demand (VOD) to Prime members in 2006, then in ’11 expanded to unlimited streaming of thousands of films and TV shows, all watchable on most every modern doo- hickey: computer, TV, Blu-ray, Chrome- cast, Roku, and Android/iOS devices. In 2013, Amazon, like Netflix, began producing its own shows, such as Transparent, about a transgender dad and his family, which won a “best series” Golden Globe in ’15 (a first for any streaming-media-produced show).

4) Free streaming music and 
playlists: Another Prime bonus is unlimited access to a million-plus ad-free songs from heavy-hitters across all genres, including Yeezy, the Stones, Tay-Tay, and Madonna, plus indie acts like Foxygen and Tame Impala. Perks include being able to browse hundreds of Prime Playlists curated by Amazon’s resident music experts, like “Missy’s Party Popping” (Missy Elliott Faves) and “Classical Dreamtime.” Or go “radio” with Prime Stations, which offer an uninterrupted stream of (again, ad-free) songs you can build into your own soundtrack. You can also download any song from the catalog, then listen to it offline.

5) Video games: This sure got some hardcore gamers’ attention: In January, Amazon announced that Prime members will get 20% off all pre-orders and new releases (new = the first two weeks after launch). The discount, added at checkout, applies to physical copies/ special editions, not console bundles.

6) Cloud storage: One reason to join Prime that’s rarely discussed: the Amazon Cloud Drive, which offers unlimited photo storage for free, and “unlimited everything” storage for an extra $60/year. Compare that with Dropbox ($100/year for 1TB), Google Drive ($120/year for 1TB), or iCloud ($120/year for 1TB), and it’s the most cost-effective way to back up files. “It delivers on a single promise,” says Charles Tulley, an Amazon-shopping expert who’s written several users’ guides to the website. “Unlimited file storage, with no hidden costs.”

7) Prime Pantry: There are two ways members can buy food and personal/ household items (shampoo, Ajax) on Amazon: Item by item, with the usual free two-day shipping, and Prime Pantry, where you fill a box with up to 45 pounds of products (usually in everyday, not Costco, sizes, each discounted and often with generous coupons), then pay a flat $5.99 for shipping. Of course, since 45 pounds costs no more to ship than five, it’s easy to get carried away and spend more than you planned, so it pays to use some restraint.

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Other worthy (non-Prime) deals:

Some of the best buys are the items that made Amazon into, you know, Amazon, says consumer expert Andrea Woroch. Which is to say: books, on which you’ll definitely save money over a brick-and- mortar store, and consumer electronics, like speakers, TVs, and peripherals. 

Other deals: Products from “Amazon Basics,” low-priced electronics gear the company uses to pull folks into their ecosystem, says Tulley (“The recharge- able AAs I use are top of the line”). Then there’s the company’s own proprietary hardware, which is tempting to buy because it’s so surprisingly cheap: Only Amazon can sell for $80 a Kindle that cost $84 to make—a difference it easily recoups in book sales.

Here’s my lightning-round take on their newest tech gadgets to consider:

KINDLE: An obvious no-brainer, whether it’s the basic version for $80 or the newest Kindle Voyage for $200.


FIRE STICK: At $40, this TV-streaming device is supereasy to use and has everything I usually want—news apps, HBO Go, Sling, ESPN—as well as access to Amazon’s streaming content. Though I happen to prefer the Roku Streaming Stick ($50), which has even more content and is less restrictive to use.


ECHO: Designed as a smart home’s nerve center, this fun, voice-activated Wi-Fi device ($180) lets you bark orders to control your music, lighting, and security systems, and answers questions you’d otherwise Google. (Though if your home’s not Internet-enabled, it’s pretty much just a wireless speaker.)

NEW FIRE TABLET: I can’t rave enough about this: The 8GB version with a seven-inch screen ($50) doubles as a Kindle, and is way cheaper than an iPad for streaming on the go.

 

Finally, a few smart shopping tricks

To get the best deal on everything Amazon, due diligence is in order. Some tips:

GO FOR “BEST SELLERS”: Amazon employs a pricing strategy of offering deals mainly on popular or well-reviewed items. Choose products with “#1 Best Seller” labels or near five-star ratings, and it’s a good bet you’ve got a good deal on your hands.

FOLLOW THE PRICING: Amazon tweaks 40 million to 80 million prices a day, experts say, often multiple times on a single item; the numbers can fluctuate by a few pennies or hundreds of dollars, according to supply and demand. How to keep track? If you like an item but not its price, place it in your cart anyway; then each time you open the cart, watch for an “Important Messages About Items in Your Cart” list of price changes on your saved items. A steep drop means you
 may want to snap it up- before the price rises again.

Also, sign up for the camelcamelcamel.com price tracker, download the Camelizer extension, and click on it while viewing any Amazon item to see a detailed pricing history. Then set the price you’re hoping it will drop to; if it’s reached, Camel will send an alert.

HACK THE REVIEWS: First, if you see a product with tons of five-star write-ups, search the reviews for the keyword “honest,” as in “I received this product at a discount in exchange for my honest feedback”—the recent scourge of online reviewing. Honest or not (there’s no way to tell), the practice inspires suspicion.

Next, read “most recent” not “top” reviews first, to weed out those by company shills or supportive friends who wrote raves the week the item came out.

Last, be wary of book reviewers who keep dropping an author’s name (“Dr. Eaton truly knows her subject!”; “James writes such gripping stories!”). They might as well write “Love, Mom” at the end.

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