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Friday, February 23, 2024

The Pandemic Put Amazon in a Prime Position

If you have an Amazon Prime membership (maybe it’s where you’ve been buying all your toilet paper during the pandemic), then you’re likely aware of the key benefits: free shipping, access to special deals, and the free streaming movies and TV shows. But there are a host of other, lesser known benefits available to Prime customers, like free Kindle books, free Twitch Prime, free kids’ content, and a few ways to earn credit on future purchases. This week, we’re joined by WIRED staff writer Louryn Strampe, who tells us about all of the free and discounted stuff you can get from Amazon that you didn’t even know about.

Also, we discuss how the pandemic has shaped online retail in general, and how Amazon’s poor track record with worker’s rights and third-party seller relations have led some to shop at other online stores, even if that means a diminished experience.

Show Notes

Read Louryn’s full list of hidden Amazon Prime perks. Her roundup of the WIRED staff’s quarantine hobbies is here. Also, Louise Matsakis’ report about the risks faced by Amazon workers during the pandemic is here.


Louryn recommends the YouTube channels ASMRplanet and Dianxi Xiaoge. Lauren recommends the greeting card subscription service Warmly. Mike recommends the episode of the Broken Record podcast with Run The Jewels.


Louryn Strampe can be found on Twitter @lourynstrampe. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, what is the last thing that you ordered off of Amazon?

LG: Oh, this is a good question. Let's see. I'm opening my orders. The last thing I ordered … A few things. A memory card case for all my memory cards lying around. Some garden netting, so I could get my tomato plants under control, and some twine for a similar reason.

MC: That is charmingly esoteric.

LG: These are all really small items, though. And I had them delivered because we're living in a pandemic. And should I feel weird about that?

MC: Well, we are going to talk about that very issue right now on Gadget Lab.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

MC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED, and I am joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.

LG: Hello. I'm an orderer of esoteric things on Amazon.com.

MC: We are also joined by WIRED staff writer Louryn Strampe.

Louryn Strampe: Hi, thanks for having me.

LG: The Laurens are taking over the podcast. Very excited about this, Mike, and this is Louryn Strampe's first time on the Gadget Lab, so I'm really excited.

LS: Me too.

MC: Welcome. Well, today we are talking about Amazon. Amazon, of course, was one of the big tech companies that had to participate remotely in the big antitrust hearing at Congress this week, where some of the company's practices were questioned by members of a congressional subcommittee. But meanwhile, millions of people, including us, are still using Amazon services as a kind of glue in our lives.

Later in the show, we'll talk about how Amazon is doing in the pandemic and the ways that other retailers have been able to adapt better than Amazon has. But first, we're going to talk about the service itself, specifically Amazon Prime. If you're a Prime subscriber, you're probably familiar with a lot of what the service offers, but there are other hidden features, beyond the streaming videos and free shipping, that many people don't know about. So we are here to help.

Now, Louryn Strampe, you just wrote a story for WIRED about these hidden Prime perks. What is a good place to start?

LS: My favorite perk is called Amazon Day, and I think it's probably the least alluring perk, in terms of its description, but I find it really useful. Basically, with Amazon Day, you set one day a week, and that is when you get all of your Amazon packages delivered. So if you're like me and you order a Kindle case one day, and then the next day you realize, I don't know, you want a scented candle or something, and you place a separate order, Amazon Day just consolidates all of those packages. So you deal with less cardboard. It's a smaller carbon footprint. And I find it's a really big sanity saver.

LG: Louryn, where do you find or access Amazon Day?

LS: So on Amazon, you go to the top, and it'll have your account there. And you go down to your account and somewhere in this gigantic sea of links, you'll see Amazon Day. They don't make it easy, but it's really convenient.

MC: I think now they're also offering it as an option, when you're actually completing the purchase and you're choosing shipping, you can choose to claim an Amazon Day.

LS: Yeah. And it's nice, because if you do need something urgently, you can still select shipping speeds for individual items.

LG: This is such a great little feature. I never knew about this.

MC: Tell us about family sharing. There's something that Amazon offers called My Household. And I think for a lot of people who are, particularly now, stuck at home with somebody who has an Amazon Prime subscription, and they have an Amazon Prime subscription, they're actually throwing money away. Because if you have the same household, you can combine a lot of the benefits into one account. Is that right?

LS: Yeah. So if you use Prime Household, it'll share things like Prime Video and Prime Reading, and then digital content that you purchase. So if you get a movie, someone else in this account that's shared with you will also be able to see it.

MC: And is it adults and kids? How many people can you have in a household?

LS: The household lets you have two adults, and then up to four teenager profiles and four child profiles. And with those specific profiles, you can do things like let your teenager purchase something, up to a set amount. And then the parent account will be able to see that and approve it. But I know for my family, for instance, my mom will use that as almost an allowance. So if one of the teenagers really wants this new book or something, it's like, OK, do your chores. Then you find it on Amazon. You deal with finding the right one and purchase it. And then my mom just approves it.

LG: Louryn, what about gaming? Are there any perks for gamers that people might not know about?

LS: Yeah. Twitch Prime. It's probably my second-favorite Amazon perk. So they do a really bad job of advertising it, unless you go to Twitch, but with Twitch Prime, which is included with your Prime membership, every month you can get different game loot. Sometimes they have full game downloads. Sometimes they have trials or currency. And in addition to that, you also get a monthly Twitch subscription, which is worth $5, so it's about $60 a year in value there.

LG: So Louryn, one thing I've noticed is that over time, even if you subscribe to Amazon Prime and therefore you have Amazon Prime Video, there are still a lot of movies in the catalog that you can't watch without paying a rental fee. And it's really subtle, as you're scrolling through all of the different thumbnails for possible films to watch, but you will see a rental fee attached to some of them. Or once you start to watch one that appears to be free, it turns out it's offered through IMDB, which is a service that Amazon acquired and owns. And then with that film, you might actually be watching ads. And you're like, wait, I'm paying for Prime, why am I seeing ads?

So how would you describe the overall progression of the value of Prime when it comes to videos, Louryn? Has it gotten better or worse? Has it gotten more valuable, less valuable over time, as the library has changed?

LS: So Prime Video, to me, is kind of like some of Amazon Prime's other benefits, like Amazon Music, where it's this perk that you have, but you wouldn't necessarily pay for separately. So now that Prime costs about $40 more than it did at its inauguration, you have these benefits that are maybe secondary. For me, I never go to Prime Video as my main streaming source. I still pay for Netflix and Hulu. And Prime Video is I don't know what to watch, so I guess I'll scroll through this. And sometimes it's surprising. I just watched Midsummer on there for free. And I was like, "Oh cool. I didn't realize this was on here." But it's never my first choice. So value-wise, it probably depends on the person, but I would be OK with paying less for Prime, if Prime Video wasn't included.

LG: Right. I completely agree. I wish that there were more tiers for these kinds of things, because if you're not somebody who's utilizing a lot of the free shipping, and you're only sometimes watching video, that's a pretty expensive annual subscription to have.

LS: Absolutely, it is. And there's so much out there to watch, in terms of streaming services. There's probably a gazillion going up every day, depending on the network or the channel. And I just get by with Netflix and Hulu.

LG: And we should mention also that if you're curious about the specific benefits of Netflix, you should go back a couple of weeks in our podcast because we talked all about that and the economics of acquiring and making content for Netflix, all kinds of good stuff. So go back in the feed. But OK, back to Amazon Prime. Mike, you had a thought on this.

MC: Yeah. I think if I'm going to rent a movie or purchase a video stream, there's a lot of places you can do it. You can get it from Apple, you can get it from Google, you can get it from Amazon. I usually always just choose the one that's in Amazon, partly because the app on my Roku, anyway, makes it a very easy experience for me to go in and just say click, and then rent it and watch it. But also just because the way that it's billed, it shows up in the same billing stream as the rest of the purchases that I make on Amazon. So it seems like it's easier to manage, just because it's all run by the same company. And I don't know whether that's good or bad from a moral or ethical point of view, but for me, it's convenient. So I think if that's what they were going for, they succeeded. They gave me basically a one stop shop for all of my video needs, whether that's stuff that I'm getting for free with my benefits or stuff that I am paying for on top of that.

Let's talk quickly about eBooks. Now, whether you have a Kindle or not, Amazon Prime membership gives you the opportunity to read a lot more for free than you may be aware of. What can you tell us about that?

LS: So there are two different services that kind of go hand in hand with this. First is Prime Reading. So Prime Reading gets you access to, I believe it's two million books for free. And there's everything from Harry Potter to cookbooks to self help books. And it's not going to be the biggest bestselling list ever, but it is a good thing to peruse, if you are like the rest of us and just stuck inside your house, going crazy.

And then Kindle First Reads, which I believe you might have mentioned in a recent episode, Mike, that is around the first of every month, Prime members get access to, I think it's a selection of six books. And you can pick two of them for free. And every month, there's at least one children's book, so your kids can get in on it, too. But you basically just go to this dedicated page that you'll find in your account on Amazon. And you can just check out two eBooks.

Another thing I like that I mentioned in a recent article about quarantine hobbies, is the Kindle reading app, which is free for iOS, Android, Mac OS and Windows machines. And it lets you read Kindle books, even if you don't have a Kindle. So you don't have to deal with push notifications or distracting news feeds. You can just put your device on do not disturb and read a Kindle book.

LG: Louryn, when it comes to the First Reads, are those typically books that are brand new, hot off the press, the kind of stuff that ends up in the best seller list in the first week? Or is it a catalog of older titles?

LS: It sort of depends. So usually, it's early access, a lot of the time, from breakout authors or just Amazon editor picks. But usually, it is a pretty good mix of genres and sort of authors that maybe already had a breakout book or two, but it really just depends every month. Right now, there's memoirs and historical fiction and suspense, but sometimes you'll find romance and fantasy and thrillers. So it sort of depends on the month.

MC: I found it to be roughly analogous to what you get through Amazon Prime Video. If you look at the books that are on offer, there's a mix of things that you've heard of and people that you've heard of, and some things that are hidden gems, and then some stuff that's just junk that you can skip.

LG: Louryn, Amazon's website is not the easiest to navigate, and yet you have managed to find all of these little perks built into services that you've written about on WIRED.com. So I encourage everyone to go read the story. But what would you say is your best piece of advice for people who are trying to find their way around Amazon's website for these kinds of deals?

LS: So if you're looking for deals on Amazon, whether that is something that you can get only as a Prime member, or you just got some money in your pocket, and you're bored at home, and you just want to treat yourself, you can literally just go to amazon.com/deals, and there will be a gazillion things for you to sort through, all of which are discounted. And I know I'm biased, but the WIRED gear team also covers deals every weekend, and we have a newsletter that you can subscribe to, to find our picks.

LG: Wow, I did not even mean to set you up for all of these wonderful plugs for WIRED, and yet I managed to do that. Yay.

MC: Nice.

LG: Thank you, Louryn Strampe. That's incredibly helpful.

MC: All right, well, let's take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to take a look at Amazon's place in the pandemic era world of retail.


MC: All right, welcome back. Amazon has long been the great Kracken of commerce, its many tentacles snatching up smaller competing businesses and pulling them willingly or unwillingly into it's gaping maw. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed things. Amazon has come under fire for policies that critics say overwork employees and put warehouse workers at risk of being exposed to the virus. There's also just the way that Amazon does business. As the pandemic forces just about every retailer to beef up their online stores and to adapt to shipping products, stores like Walmart and Target have an advantage over Amazon. They have physical storefronts.

Lauren Goode, you had some thoughts about this. How does having an actual store help companies at a time when many people are avoiding going out in public?

LG: Yeah. This is a great question, and I can't promise to be as poetic as you were the first time around, Mike. But this is something that our colleague Louise Matsakis and I have had conversations about, because she covers Amazon as a corporation, as a business. Louryn Strampe covers Amazon in the consumer service side, which we're mostly talking about today.

But one of the things we've seen emerge during this pandemic is that importance of a storefront, which for some online only retailers, was long considered either unnecessary or too much of an expensive pipe dream to really consider. Or maybe a retailer would do a popup or have a couple of retail locations in very specific locations, essentially for marketing. But now, as the pandemic has disrupted shipping or just called into question the ethics of shipping, some people do want to go to the store and pick up things or pick up curbside.

So this has been beneficial for companies like Target and Walmart in particular, which are two of Amazon's biggest competitors. For Walmart this spring, same store sales rose as much as 10 percent because of coronavirus stockpiling. In the first fiscal quarter of the year for Target, same store sales were up by 7 percent. Both are seeing rises in digital sales.

And this is somewhat expensive for these companies, operations wise. And there's some data that show that people are buying lower margin items. Groceries, cleaning products, things like that, not necessarily big ticket items. But I think in general, this could set a really interesting trend pattern for the foreseeable future.

LG: I know my own shopping has been a lot more diverse since the pandemic started. I've been looking well beyond Amazon. I have used Target. I've ordered from Home Depot. I've gone to my local hardware store. I've ordered from bookshop.org, instead of Amazon. Have either of you changed your shopping habits to go beyond Amazon as well?

LS: I have been purchasing from other stores, and not even so much because I dislike Amazon, but because I can't find what I need on Amazon. I know that the pandemic threw a wrench in supply lines, but like paper towels, for instance, if they're even there on Amazon, they're super overpriced. So for me, it's easier to just venture out locally and deal with that, than trying to find something and get that two day shipping, especially if the cost offsets what I would be gaining there.

MC: Yeah, for me, I think I've taken to buying more things in person at my local grocery store that normally I would just go on Amazon and get, for that very reason. Just because it's like you're not really sure whether you're going to get exactly what you want, for some of those items that are harder to keep in stock. But I think that's something that Amazon has sort of… They've built up all of this goodwill over the years with people, that people trust that when you buy something on Amazon, you're going to get it for a very good price. You're going to get what you want. And you're going to get it delivered very quickly.

And I think that they started having problems fulfilling those sort of expectations this spring, but all the other stores did, too. You would try to buy some of the same items from another store, and they were sold out, or they can get it to you, but they can't get it to you until a week from Tuesday. And that was a very strange time because it was the first time that I started to panic that I was not going to be able to buy the thing that I needed off the internet and have it delivered to me in a reliable timeframe.

LG: Yeah. It's kind of remarkable how much the value proposition changes, when the shipping time goes from two days to five days. All of a sudden you're thinking, OK, well within that time period, I might have to go out and run an errand for myself or my family. So I might as well just add that to the list of things to pick up. Not to mention the fact that because we have all read the stories, and in some cases, our reporters have reported the stories about the way that workers have been treated in Amazon fulfillment centers and distribution warehouses. You start to think a lot more about the ways in which your on demand ordering is contributing to this economy, where workers aren't getting the protections they need in a time of the coronavirus.

Another thing that has made Amazon's website so robust over the years is its market for third party sellers. But that also brings up, I think, some concerns about potential counterfeits. Louryn, I want to ask you this because you follow this so closely. How concerned are you when you go to Amazon now about counterfeits or misleading products?

LS: I think that there are a lot of third party sellers who pop up to try to fill in these gaps that we've seen with the coronavirus. Back when it first started with the face masks and the hand sanitizer, you still can't buy disinfecting wipes on the internet. It's so hard. So you'll have these third party sellers pop up that say, "Hey, I have hand sanitizer," and come to find out it's made with methanol, which the FDA recently recalled. So in those instances, especially if it's something where you're trying to keep yourself and your family healthy, I think it's worth going out and venturing out to a store and trying to find something that will fill that gap, so you don't have to waste so much time doing research and spending money and waiting for shipping, just to have something come to your doorstep that isn't going to help you at all.

I also think that partially due to the pandemic and the economy, and partially due to the tension we've seen nationwide about racial injustice, more and more people are realizing that their money can be spent in a way that might be more helpful to their community or to causes that they'd like to support. So for me, when I've been shopping online, I have been trying to find small businesses or black owned businesses or a place where my $20 is going to go a lot farther for someone making their own products and shipping them out ,versus Amazon, which is just convenient, but it also comes at a cost.

LG: Yeah, that's a great point.

MC: So we are rapidly approaching the holiday shopping season, and we're going to be looking at a Black Friday that is very different than previous Black Fridays. And therefore, also probably looking at a Cyber Monday that's very different than previous Cyber Mondays. What are your thoughts on what's going to happen?

LG: Well, recently it's come out that both Walmart and Target are going to be closed on Thanksgiving this year. And I've been thinking about what that means for the biggest shopping holidays of the year, and I can't tell which way it's going to swing. I think either it's going to be a Black Friday like we've seen in years past ,where there are truly good deals online, and everyone's excited and purchasing things and getting good savings and stuff. But I think that more likely it's going to swing the exact opposite way, partially because very few people have extra money to spend. And partially because, are we even going to see our families for Christmas this year? Are we going to be buying gifts online and shipping them out? Or are the supply lines so clogged that even if you wanted to get your kid a Nintendo Switch, good luck getting it by Christmas.

LS: That's right. Nintendo Switches have been hard to find, for what it's worth. I looked. To that point, though, Lauren, Amazon has also been really good about creating its own holidays throughout the year, so that all of the buying isn't just concentrated around Black Friday. They started Prime Day, and then this year, Prime Day is not happening. How does that play into all of this?

LG: Well, I feel like it's got to be really difficult for them because Prime Day, historically, has been Amazon best shopping holiday. It's outperformed Cyber Monday for them adopt, it's outperformed Black Friday for them. And this year, if they do try to hold some crazy shopping extravaganza, I don't know if they can afford that PR. I feel like, more than ever, people are going to be like, "No, I don't want to buy your tchotchkes, Amazon. I need to pay my rent. It's just not going to happen."

MC: Well, it's certainly going to be very interesting rest of the year for many, many reasons, a lot of which have absolutely nothing to do with Amazon and online shopping. But thank you for coming on the show and elucidating where those two things intersect for us. Really appreciate it.

LS: Thanks for having me.

MC: Well, we're not going to let you go yet because we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to do our recommendations.


MC: All right, Louryn Strampe, as the guest, you get to go first. What is your recommendation for our listeners?

LS: I have two recommendations, and both of them can be found on YouTube. If you're into ASMR, there's a wonderful channel called ASMR Planet. And if you're into cooking, there's a channel called Dianxi Xiaoge and both of them are incredibly relaxing.

MC: OK. First things first, please tell us what we'll find on ASMR Planet.

LS: There are craft videos and applying makeup on mannequin heads and making glue peelings and all sorts of things that put me right to sleep.

And what's the second one? The cooking show?

LS: Dianxi Xiaoge is a young woman living in a province of China, and her and her gigantic fluffy dog Dao Wang, go around and forage and find ingredients and make really delicious looking meals out of them.

LG: That's amazing.

MC: That's amazing. Is it stuff that like you can make, or do you need to have access to the same things that they find in the forest?

LS: Well, I'm not going to go venture around my backyard looking for mushrooms like she does, but it has helped me out, my spice game, quite a bit. So it's both relaxing and informational.

MC: Nice.

LG: That sounds really cool. I always envision that cooking stars like that on YouTube are eventually just going to be sort of plucked up by mainstream media and actually bring that kind of diverse mindset and approach to cooking that I think a lot of publications need. That sounds really cool.

MC: Lauren Goode, what is your recommendation?

LG: My recommendation this week is partly inspired by a conversation that Louryn Strampe and others were having in one of our Slack channels. And that was about handwritten notes during the time of coronavirus. We were talking about stationery and pens and things like that. And one of the services I have loved during this time is a service called Warmly. Now in full disclosure, the person who launched Warmly is a friend of mine. She's a video producer. We used to work together on video projects, but I love this idea. It's a subscription service for greeting cards. And I know you're probably thinking we don't need any more subscription services in our lives, but one of the things I haven't really been inspired to go out and buy or spend extra time in the pharmacy for are greeting cards. You kind of want to just get in and get out and get the necessities.

And so this service will send you a handful of really unique and very cute greeting cards per month. And the service sends you the stamps as well, so you don't need to worry about stamps. And then there's a part of the service that offers free returns on any of the cards that you don't use. But I think that's just kind of a gamble and knowing that most consumers are not going to bother to return greeting cards, once they've arrived in their home, and I haven't returned any, but I have really found them to be useful. If it's your niece or nephew's birthday, and you forgot to send a card, you have a happy birthday card on hand or a congratulations card or a thinking of you card. And it's a really great little surface. So I recommend Warmly. The URL is warmly.press.

MC: They have one of those cool URLs.

LG: I think it's a cool URL, but it may have also been that warmly.com was already taken.

MC: Well, yeah, I just like that you can have dot anything now.

LG: This is true.

MC: Like Mike.nerd or Mike.coolguy or something.

LG: Both of those would be fitting.

MC: Coolguy.Mike. And then I get it printed on business cards and hand them out to people, like, "How do I find you?" "I'm just cool guy."

LG: I think now with coronavirus, the business card might officially be dead. Who's going to hand each other business cards now?

MC: But I just ordered 6,000 of them.

LG: Oh, all right. I'll take one of your cards.

MC: Because the break price was at 5,000. So, I had to do that. Anyway.

LG: Did you really order 6000 business cards?

MC: No, of course not.

LG: Oh, OK.

MC: I can't stand business cards. I'm really happy that CES is not happening in person in 2021 because it means that I will never have to accept another business card for the rest of the time that I am a journalist.

LS: I actually placed my first business card order ever for CES of 2020. And I was so stoked, and they are so cute, and I still have 500 of them. So maybe, Lauren Goode, you can send me a greeting card, and I'll just send you business cards because I don't know if I can ever use them again.

LG: I would love to receive your business cards, especially remotely. So that sounds great. I'm going to do it. I'm going to go through my stack of cards from Warmly, and I'm going to send you one.

MC: I want a business card sanitizer because we have phone sanitizers, face mask sanitizers. We need business card sanitizers.

LG: Mike, what's your recommendation, aside from ordering more business cards?

MC: Please do not. I'm going to recommend an episode of a podcast. It is the interview with Run the Jewels and Rick Rubin on the new episode of the podcast Broken Record. It's a podcast that talks to people in the music industry. One of the other hosts is Malcolm Gladwell. So, you've probably seen an episode of this fly by on your feeds or people talking about it on social media because they're big deal people talking to big deal people.

But this new episode is really good because it breaks down the new Run the Jewels album, which just came out. I think it's called four. RTJ4. And they have a lot of really interesting stories to tell about how they finished the record, because you can sort of guess by the timing that things were very different when they started it, than when they finished it. So it's a really fun, lively conversation. It's always good to hear Rick Rubin talk in depth about the process with the artists that he works with. So if you're at all interested in them or at all interested in how to make records, I highly recommend the new episode of Broken Record. And you can get it wherever you find podcasts.

LG: You say that so sarcastically. Is that a thing that podcasters say?

MC: Yeah, that's how you're supposed to say it. Well, I'm actually going to say that whole thing right now. How about it?

LG: That sounds great.

MC: All right. That is our show. Thank you to Louryn Strampe for joining us.

LS: Yay. I hope to be back again soon.

MC: Of course.

LG: It was so great to have you on, Louryn.

MC: Maybe we'll have you back on between now and Black Friday to talk about how even more dire things are going to be when we finally get to Thanksgiving. But also thank you all for listening, and thank you all for listening to Lauren Goode's new show that she hosts called Get WIRED, which you can also find wherever you get podcasts. If you have any feedback about this show, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. The show is produced by Mr. Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Mr. Alex Kapelman. Goodbye. Please wear a mask. We'll be back next week.

[Outro Gadget Lab theme music]

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