Related link: http://amazon.com/prime
Okay, so maybe “perils” is too strong; but Amazon — in my book, the exemplar for online retail — is having some trouble with its newly announced Prime program. Which is to say: Amazon’s newly announced Prime program is dead on arrival!
What is Prime? It’s a $79 buy-in to really good shipping deals. You get 2nd day delivery free on all qualifying orders and overnight delivery for $3.99. And since 90% of what I buy from Amazon — new books — qualifies, this seems like a great deal for me. Do the math: I order about 30 or 40 times per year from Amazon, paying about $7 or $8 per order for shipping. That’s roughly $300 per year, and I almost never choose 2nd day — overnight is even more rare.
Even though I never choose overnight, I’m often tempted to choose it, because sometimes I want that new Zizek or distributed algorithms book, and I want it NOW. Using Prime, I can save lotsa money by using free 2nd day delivery, and occasionally I’ll spend $3.99 for overnight. Hell, if I always choose overnight, I’ll still save money.
So where do I sign up?
Apparently, right now, nowhere. Lemme clarify that: I signed up about 30 seconds after reading what Prime was last week, and then I waited and waited and waited. The $79 transaction never went through and I thought my credit card had been declined, though that seemed unlikely. Since I had a stack of Harvard Business Review books I wanted to buy, I got a bit anxious and called Amazon this morning, something I’ve only done two other times since 1996.
During the course of this call I learned that Amazon’s Prime program, while still being advertised on the front page in a big splashy form, doesn’t work. There are “technical problems” and I will get an email “when we have them ironed out”.
In all fairness, I suggested to the Amazon CS rep that I wanted an upgrade on free shipping for the order I was about to place, and he quickly arranged that for me, which is a good way to ameliorate my frustration. A quick search of Technorati surprisingly showed no one talking about this yet — or is it flakey too? — so I thought I quick weblog post was in order.
Seriously, Amazon is an amazingly well run organziation from my point of view as a tech-savvy frequent customer. Werner Vogels — one of my fav techie webloggers — just became Amazon’s CTO, and I know lots of Amazon geeks who know their stuff cold. I can wait till Amazon gets the kinks worked out of Prime; but what I’m really curious about is whether it’s a technical — i.e., computer software or hardware — problem or whether it’s a distribution or shipping system problem. Unless an insider weblogs it, I doubt we’ll ever know.
But given that Amazon is similar to Google in this respect — namely, that both companies key to success lies in an area most people don’t think about… for Google, it’s massive operations research; for Amazon, it’s distribution, warehousing, and shipping systems — it’s surprising to see them stumble in a core competency.
I applaud the Prime program because it shrinks one of online retail’s disadvantages vis-a-vis bricks-and-mortar retail (the “I want it ASAP” aspect of commodity fetishism), but you have to wonder how this embarassment of announcing a system that doesn’t work slipped through their fingers?
Amazon’s Prime program is interesting, except for the fact that it doesn’t WORK!