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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

These shoppers have a ‘love/hate relationship’ with Amazon but can’t stop spending — as much as $2,000 a month

An Amazon delivery person takes packages out of her truck on Chestnut Street in Center City. Some Philadelphia consumers say they can't break their Amazon shopping habit, despite having ethical concerns with the company and its owner, billionaire Jeff Bezos.    (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
By Erin McCarthy The Philadelphia Inquirer

Rebecca Wadsworth has a “love/hate relationship” with Amazon Prime.

She and her husband spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a month on Amazon, charging it to their Amazon credit card. They buy a wide range of items — body wash, shampoo, vitamins, dog food, even clothing and shoes — and packages arrive at their Philadelphia home several times a week.

For recurring purchases, they have opted into “subscribe and save,” which automatically sends customers refills of frequently used items to their door before they run out. They’ve priced out what it would cost to buy the same items at other retailers like CVS, Target or Wegmans, she said, and it’s usually cheaper on Amazon.

At the same time, “I truly hate it. If I could get off Amazon, it would be great,” she said. “I hate supporting Amazon and (founder) Jeff Bezos in any way shape or form.”

Amazon and its Prime subscription service, which costs $15 a month (or $140 a year) and comes with faster shipping speeds at no additional charge, have fundamentally changed the way consumers shop online. Industry experts have coined this shift “the Amazon effect.” Consumers now expect a quick and easy shopping experience, with ultrafast delivery speeds, real-time package tracking, on-demand customer service, and flexible, free returns.

Customers aren’t necessarily busier than they used to be, but they have gotten used to the convenience, especially since the pandemic, said Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The isolating early months of COVID-19 led to a surge in Amazon Prime subscribers, and prompted Amazon to raise prices.

“We’ve just acclimated to the ‘Click and get it out of your mind and just have it show up’” mentality, said Fader, who researches consumer behavior to forecast shopping patterns.

The adjustment has occurred even as some customers worry about the ethical impact of their shopping habits. Owned by one of the world’s richest people, billionaire Jeff Bezos, Amazon has been criticized amid reports that it has overworked employees, polluted the environment, and retaliated against workers’ organizing efforts. The company was also sued last year by the Federal Trade Commission, which accused Amazon of running an unfair monopoly that pushes out competitors, and some local mom-and-pop stores say online shopping has undoubtedly hurt their business.

In a statement to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly said, “We’re proud to offer an outstanding shopping experience with the best combination of a wide selection of quality products, low prices and fantastic deals, fast delivery, and a range of Prime member benefits. Our commitment to serving customers while also providing good jobs and creating a positive impact on the communities we serve, are not mutually exclusive.”

Kelly highlighted $17 per hour starting pay, health care, and prepaid tuition for employees in Philadelphia, and electric delivery vehicles that are being rolled out in the region and across the country.

“We know more work has to be done and we’ll continue to listen to customers, employees, and partners to keep getting better,” he said.

In the past, Amazon has said it creates competition that benefits consumers, lets workers choose whether they want to unionize, and is committed to its sustainability goals, such as reducing carbon emissions.

Its customers can’t stop shopping.

“I do know of people who do not order from Amazon, because they don’t like what Amazon is all about, but that’s the vast minority,” Fader said. “It’s so compelling on all dimensions.”

Amazon is ‘a hard habit to break’

Amazon is far-and-away the top e-commerce retailer, commanding more than 46% of the market-share in the fourth quarter of 2023. It could overtake its closest competitor, Walmart, which continues to ramp up its online marketplace, this year as the largest retailer, according to JPMorgan. Amazon’s “click-to-door” speed is on average on average 50% faster than other companies.

Amazon has become a default “one-stop shop” for many consumers, who now go to Amazon instead of Google to search for a product they need, said Jillian Hmurovic, an assistant marketing professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.

“Amazon is a hard habit to break,” she said. “I hear a lot of consumers expressing reservations about using Amazon or continuing to buy from Amazon, but I’m also hearing that it’s very difficult to not use the service because of its speed and convenience.”

Gabby Southworth, 28, of Paoli, Pennsylvania, canceled her Prime subscription this fall when she assessed the rising cost of her subscriptions. She was only ordering from Amazon a couple times a month, she said, and she wasn’t sure whether the service was worth it.

The administrative assistant still buys from Amazon several times a month. Often, she’s getting specific items in a larger “value pack” quantity, such as a certain oatmeal or water enhancer or dog food, that she has trouble finding on store shelves.

About once a month, she online shops for clothes elsewhere — often Target, and, less frequently, higher-end stores like Anthropologie — and she has had a hard time kicking her Instacart grocery shopping habit since the pandemic.

But she’s trying to cut back on all online shopping.

“It is so convenient, which I love,” Southworth said, “but I kind of feel guilty and lazy for not going in person.”

Amazon’s unmatched convenience

For many of the 180 million Amazon Prime subscribers nationwide, the service’s benefits outweigh the costs, which can include more than just the price of the subscription.

In South Philadelphia, Prime subscriber Joei DiSanto, 27, said she has noticed packages taking longer than expected recently. Instead of taking one or two days, they’ll arrive in three.

“Whenever I order things now, I kind of have to have a buffer,” said DiSanto, an office manager, who estimates that each month she buys $100 or more of diapers, baby supplies, and other household items on Amazon.

Still, ordering on the site remains easier for her than having to make another trip to a store with her 18-month-old daughter, who often falls asleep as soon as she gets in the car.

In Philadelphia, Wadsworth, 37, said she and her husband have “come close” to canceling their Prime subscription a couple times, despite their reliance on the service for so many essentials.

“Every year that we get the announcements that they’re raising the rate of Amazon Prime, I just want to scream and get rid of it,” said Wadsworth, who works in marketing.

She said she’s gotten particularly frustrated when she selects same-day or overnight delivery, which is available on certain items for an extra $2.99, or for no extra charge if the order contains aft least $25 of eligible items. Every time Wadsworth clicks that option, she said she and her husband have to keep an eye on the door during the delivery window. The drivers for these especially quick deliveries sometimes don’t follow the delivery instructions on their account, she said, and leave packages in spots where they can easily get stolen.

Still, the overall convenience of Amazon is unmatched, she said, and she can’t kick her habit. Her neighbors are in the same boat, stoking a friendly contest to see who orders the most Amazon packages.

“It’s ridiculous. Some weeks its like, ‘Who is going to have the most packages coming to the apartment?’” Wadsworth said. “It’s a really tough competition.”