Low-Level Optimizations: A Year Without Amazon
This blog post will be split up into four sections:
- general concepts
- chronological list of purchases made outside Amazon
- chronological list of purchases made at Amazon
Inside those lists of purchases, I’ll try to sprinkle in some thoughts, opinions, and words of wisdom.
If you happened to read my previous post about the unseemly seller side of Amazon.com, it should have been immediately obvious that it’s pretty messed up. Nearly every aspect of the division is plagued with quality control problems. However, what you might not have taken away from that post was the fact that it’s also incredibly annoying!
How annoying is it? It’s so annoying that you start to resent the entire Amazon company!… Believe it or not, it’s so annoying that you start to actually enjoy the simple, mundane act of making purchases at other websites. I’m not kidding – the simple act of making a purchase at another website actually becomes strangely satisfying – that’s how annoying it is!
So to that end, I’ll be happy to show you a year-long un-Amazon diary of sorts. This won’t be a normal blog post. It will be a living blog post that gets updated every once in a while when new purchases of interest are made. For at least one year, and possibly much longer than that, I’ll be looking for better-than-Amazon deals and purchasing strategies. (And so far, it hasn’t been difficult.)
And on a side note, you either like this sort of stuff or you don’t. I’m not sure what it is, but I enjoy optimizing money management. It’s just the way I’m wired. For others, though, it’s their personal anathema. You’ve been warned. That said, I will also add that this is a very useful exercise for anyone, even if they’re not particularly annoyed by Amazon for one thing or another. First, it’s beneficial knowledge and it doesn’t require you to stop shopping at Amazon. Second, you might easily become annoyed by Amazon in the future. Third, it’s critical that these individual corporations never seize a monopoly in the marketplace.
For me, the unseemly experience with the seller side of Amazon was actually a good thing, as it prompted me to do what I should have done a long time ago. I had been a frequent Amazon customer since 2000. Now I can see that I had been on auto-pilot for too much of that time. These days there really isn’t much of a reason to shop at Amazon as a matter of habit.
And finally, the title implies I won’t be shopping at Amazon for a year. That’s not technically true. What I’ve been doing is shopping anywhere else whenever the price was better, equal, or just slightly worse. If Amazon has a much better deal, then I place the order there. (So far, this hasn’t happened often.)
The blog post will definitely wrap up after one year, but like I said, I’ll probably keep this up for a lot longer; most likely, indefinitely.
First, it might sound petty, for example, to spend 3 minutes to save $3 on a $300 purchase. But if you actually look at it, that’s an hourly rate of $60/hour, with zero risk. Usually the rate is much higher than that. Often times, it’s astronomical. It’s nearly often the easiest money you’ll ever make. That’s the general motivation.
The set-up work for much of this stuff (e.g. setting up a few new accounts) is where most of the time is spent, and truthfully it’s not really that much of an investment. (Think about how long it took you to create an Amazon account.) Then, after everything is set up, the purchases get done as quickly as ever.
General concepts to be keep in mind are levels of recourse, and levels of cash back. Ideally, you want maximum levels of both. For example, if I purchase an item on eBay, using PayPay, and I use a credit card as my payment method on PayPal, and I used a coupon from the online coupon industry when making the purchase on eBay, there’s multiple things going on.
First, I’m getting paid three times for my purchase: credit card cash back, coupon cash back, and eBay cash back (“eBay bucks”).
Second, I also have two (maybe even two-and-a-half) levels of recourse. If something goes wrong with the transaction, I would dispute the transaction starting with eBay, then with PayPal, and then with my credit card provider. (eBay has tried to make it so you can’t dispute a transaction with both them and with PayPal, but they’re separate companies, and so it’s kind of murky.)
(Note that Amazon is very stingy across the board. They don’t integrate with PayPal. The coupons they provide to the online coupon industry are extremely poor. They also have no internal rewards system.)
Moving on, what is the proper sequence of a purchase? Let’s say you want to re-order an item that you had purchased from Amazon in the past. First, find the item in your Amazon order history. Check the current price. Copy and paste the name of that item into your favorite search engine, and then see what the results look like. Chances are, you’ll find an equivalent or even better deal somewhere else… Now, if it’s an item you’ve never purchased before, Amazon is a good place to start in terms of evaluating reviews… but never assume those reviews are genuine. There have been various Amazon pay-for-review scandals over the years. I myself have had the misfortune of receiving awful products that had incredible Amazon reviews… Same goes for seller reviews. Amazon itself is implicated when it comes to this! Take a look at the below image. Amazon is currently erring on the size of voiding any and all negative reviews against sellers who partner with them via “FBA” (Fulfillment By Amazon). FBA is sellers partnering with Amazon, where Amazon will pack and ship their products for them (i.e. fulfill the order). Independent sellers rarely get negative reviews voided, but Amazon will look for any excuse to void negative reviews against Amazon-partnered sellers. Be warned!
Next, out of the entire online coupon industry, I’ve found that CouponCabin is very good. RetailMeNot looks promising, but I haven’t had a chance to use it very much. In both cases, I went in thinking it would be a super-sleazy experience, but it was just the opposite. You just need to create a password for your account, and then provide an email address that’s associated with your PayPal account. You get paid via PayPal, and they simply use the email address you provide. You can associate multiple email addresses with PayPal, which makes it even easier when you want to give one out to a site that you’re not that familiar with.
Other things to keep an eye out for:
- A ShopRunner account. I received this as a free benefit with one of my credit cards. If the website integrates with ShopRunner, you can log in to your ShopRunner account when making that purchase, and you’ll receive free 2-day shipping, free returns, etc. on that purchase. It’s kind of like an independent, decentralized, alternate version of Amazon Prime.† It’s a decent idea and I’m hoping more websites integrate with it.
un-Amazon Order List:
7/5/2017: Purchased a new laptop at HP.com. HP actually had the best value for the laptop I wanted. It’s been ages since I shopped directly at a manufacturer’s website! (Note that shopping for computers on Amazon is OK at best. It’s probably a decent reference point.) In the past, I’ve usually made this purchase at BestBuy.
7/25/2017: Purchased brand new bottle of my preferred vitamins at eBay. Better price than Amazon. Checkout very easy. Similar in nature to Amazon’s checkout.
7/26/2017: Purchased preferred vitamins at SwansonVitamins.com. They had the best price on these vitamins, and I’ve shopped here before. Checkout easy and painless since they take PayPal. Google Reviews was a handy thing that gave this website credibility when I first started ordering here. After this most recent order, I decided to finally create an account here.
7/29/17: Bulk order of toilet paper was ~1cent/roll cheaper at Walmart.com. Plus additional savings through online coupon industry.
7/30/17: Walmart.com had the best price for a particular chicken coop. It was the same price at Amazon, but I received additional savings through the online coupon industry at Walmart. I’m also thinking it will be easier to return this chicken coop to my local Walmart if necessary. It’s also worth noting that Walmart is very wise in leveraging their physical store holdings, and offering free delivery of many items, without a minimum purchase, to your preferred local Walmart. It seems unlikely that Amazon will catch up on that front.
8/7/2017: HomeDepot.com had the best value (that I could find online) for non-expired, name-brand (or at least semi-name-brand) AAA batteries. Beat nearest price by 50 cents per 100 batteries. Another 5% discount on top of that with online coupon industry.
8/7/2017: 144 pack of Dixon #2 pencils at Walmart.com is price matched exactly to 144 pack of AmazonBasics #2 pencils. However, I get an extra 2% cashback through online coupon industry at Walmart.
8/15/2017: Purchased an MP3 on iTunes. Same price as Amazon, but you do have to jump through a few more hoops, to say the least. (Buying MP3s is slightly convoluted on Amazon as well, just not as much.)
8/20/2017: Purchased mailing boxes at Staples.com. Actually, Amazon never has good prices on mailing boxes. In fact, I’ve never bought mailing boxes there. Additional 15% cash back through online coupon industry.
8/22/2017: Purchased custom soap from Target.com. Same exact price as Amazon, also free shipping, but I also received 8% cash back from online coupon industry. Integrates with PayPal, which Amazon does not. But really, the Target website is very smooth. It was fine the last time I used it, but now it’s very nice. It seems smoother than Amazon’s website… When I had ordered this from Amazon in the past, the soap had arrived busted open and spilled on other package contents. (What a surprise – I guess the crumpled wads of brown paper randomly placed inside a huge cardboard box weren’t enough to protect it.)
8/24/2017: Purchased three new bottles of my my preferred curcumin supplements on eBay. The price was $7.96 cheaper than the exact same order would have been on Amazon.
- In addition, I received $6 in eBay bucks.
- In addition, I’ll also receive 1% ($0.74) cash back through the online coupon industry.
- In addition, many eBay sellers also provide positive feedback to you as a buyer. Although these feedback ratings are ultimately dysfunctional, it’s still something small to weigh. Amazon doesn’t provide any sort of public mechanism that tracks your history and credibility as an individual in the marketplace. Said differently, out of the two dysfunctional feedback systems, I know which one I prefer.
8/29/2017: Read the reviews (which included custom tips and tricks) at Amazon, and then purchased new ignition spark tester at eBay for $1.38 less. Additional cash back through online coupon industry.
8/30/2017: My preferred potassium citrate supplement (it’s supposed to counter some of the negative effects of sodium, and at low doses there should at least be no downside) is at SwansonVitamins.com. It’s price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but with an online coupon, each new bottle is $0.51 less.
9/11/2017: Went to Amazon.com to read the reviews for a battery charger. Sifted through the reviews to eventually locate critical and definitive information that was copy-and-pasted straight from the product’s manual. Then purchased that new battery charger at Walmart.com; it was price matched to Amazon’s price, but it also provided 2% cash back through the online coupon industry… I also had a well-reviewed (and completely forgotten) residue remover in my Walmart shopping cart. (It had the lowest price online [and it was $3.57 cheaper than Amazon].) It was sitting there waiting for another Walmart purchase to round that order up to free shipping, and so this was it.
9/19/2017: Purchased my preferred supplements containing cocoa flavanols at eBay. The price for each new bottle (with an acceptable expiration date) was $7.08 less than the Amazon Prime price. Plus some cash back in the form of eBay bucks. Plus additional cash back through online coupon industry.
Reliability: Myths and Methodology
There may be a misperception that Amazon is a more reliable marketplace, or that eBay, for example, is less reliable. I can tell you without any hesitation that that notion is a completely false.
First, Amazon as a vendor and fulfiller of its own merchandise is not especially reliable. I’ve had just about the same number of issues with their orders as I have had with other big online stores. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the numbers. Amazon’s internal division, “Amazon Warehouse Deals”, regularly has a feedback score of less than 80%!
Now, you always expect a certain amount of phony negative reviews, but sub-80%??! That points to a serious lack of quality control.
As for it’s principal competitor eBay, you have to understand the actual issue at hand. In any marketplace where 3rd party sellers are allowed to sell, the critical issue is the 3rd party sellers themselves. Is the specific seller reliable? eBay has policies that facilitate more sellers selling more types of things on their site. Not surprisingly, a non-trivial percentage of those additional sellers have lower reliability. What it all boils down to on any site (including and especially Amazon) is the reliability of the 3rd party seller.
Below are some of my all-time favorite screenshots of sellers on Amazon. Not only does this illustrate my basic point, it also demonstrates how Amazon is absolutely negligent in addressing clearly unreliable (and even blatantly fraudulent) sellers on its site.
(For the record, I’ve never seen anything this shocking or ludicrous at any other shopping website.)
So, how does one best deal with uncertain reliability in the online marketplace? Obviously, form the best educated guess you can regarding the reliability of individual sellers. This will often times require probing beneath the surface and going beyond the tidy facade of previous seller reviews. Second, if at all possible, don’t order something you need at the last minute! If you need to re-order vitamins, for example, do so several months before you actually need them. This gives you plenty of time to deal with unexpected problems.
9/27/2017: Reviewed old order information at Amazon.com, looked up and confirmed an item to re-order through Amazon.com, but then purchased the new pressure cooker at Walmart.com. It was price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but I received free 2-day shipping with Walmart, plus $3.80 cash back via the online coupon industry… This is a very common workflow. Amazon currently has one of the better websites to find items. However, as I’ve demonstrated repeatedly, it’s almost always a better deal somewhere else.
10/22/2017: Ordered my second T-Fal Ultimate Hard Anodized Titanium Frying Pan. My first is still going strong after several years; it’s by far the best frying pan I’ve ever encountered. Despite the poor reviews on their own website, I would definitely recommend T-Fal’s “ultimate hard anodized titanium” line… Price was $2.43 less at eBay, plus additional savings through the online coupon industry.
11/2/2017: Purchased more 9V batteries at eBay instead of Amazon. 16 new batteries with a good expiration date was $2.08 cheaper at eBay, but after taking into account a credit card rewards promotion currently active with Amazon, the savings was slightly over $1. Additional savings through online coupon industry, and of course, some more “eBay bucks” were earned.
- I chose the best price on eBay for name brand batteries (Panasonic), and compared it to Amazon’s best price on a name brand or their house brand (Amazon Basics). So I suppose one possible additional advantage is I also wound up with Panasonic batteries instead of generic house brand batteries, but of course only rigorous battery testing can actually substantiate which brand is better.
11/2/2017: Purchased 6 new bottles of a supplement for vegetables. SwansonVitamins.com blew away the competition, including Amazon (which actually had a very good price). Saved over $5 by buying at SwansonVitamins.com, even taking into account the previously mentioned credit card rewards promotion currently active with Amazon. Additional savings through the online coupon industry.
- A supplement for vegetables may sound kind of crazy, but they’re cheap, and aside from the price, there’s no known downside to the particular product. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m willing to be a little loose with my money when it comes to vitamins and supplements, as long as I’ve researched the product to my satisfaction, and have a high degree of confidence that there’s no health downside to the particular product in question. Said differently, I’m willing to roll the dice and risk small amounts of money in exchange for possible health upsides – as long as there are no potential health downsides.
12/29/2017: Made my second-ever purchase at Boxed.com, and I’m very impressed with their website. It’s the smoothest shopping website I’ve ever visited. They’ve clearly invested heavily in it. Today I noticed my American Express credit card was offering $20 off any $75 order at Boxed.com, and so I checked, and their price on Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars 49 Count is still very unbeatable at $15. I re-ordered several boxes, and to round the order up to $75, I also purchased one Benefiber Fiber Supplement 26.8 oz, which appeared to have the best price online (except for Sam’s Club in this case; however, I don’t want to be in any fee-based shopping clubs†).
Within a few minutes I received an email from American Express informing me of the successful promotion redemption.
So, looking back, the purchase itself was roughly $5.00 cheaper per box. I apparently earned $0.84 in Boxed.com website rewards. I also earned 6%+ cash back from the online coupon industry. I earned standard American Express credit card rewards for the purchase (in this case, 1% cash back). And finally I earned another $20 in cash back from American Express.
- A higher-level analysis might be that since Boxed.com is a newer shopping website, you can expect their promotions to be sweeter. I can tell you that their prices are often times not the best. However, it’s clearly worth checking out.
2/13/2018: Purchased several tables at OfficeDepot.com. It had been a while since I had looked there for stuff. To my surprise, each table in my order was dozens of dollars less than the same table at the nearest online competitor – and way, way less than Amazon. An even bigger surprise was the single shipping option that I could choose from: Free 1-day shipping. And that’s exactly how they were shipped! I guess I still don’t understand their shipping philosophy for those tables, but I can’t complain.
5/15/2018: Purchased some new jars of Benefiber on eBay, and the prices appeared to be the best online. Due to an ongoing promotion, I received over $10 in eBay bucks, plus an additional 1% cash back from the online coupon industry.
- By virtue of buying in bulk, I received an additional promotion: a FREE Google Home Mini. Although I have no idea what it does, and I would never buy one of these talking devices, I’m guessing it has something to do with Amazon’s line of talking devices. It’ll be a small adventure seeing if it’s worth using or not. However, the bigger observation here is that eBay has clearly decided it’s in their best interest to make sure Amazon does not have a monopoly on little talking devices in your home. This is probably a very wise decision on their part, and it actually reminds me of the whole net neutrality debate.
Orders At Amazon
Order Placed At Amazon.com Since 7/5/2017: 9
7/27/2017: Purchased a sign. Merchant got the order wrong and sent me a magnet instead. They had to send me a second sign.
8/7/2017: Purchased 1080 count of Vanity Fair napkins. Just so you know, those are the best napkins I’ve ever purchased. Amazon’s price beat all other online prices, by far.
8/11/2017: Purchased the sign I actually wanted. (If you have a choice, buy from Highway Traffic Supply. They provide the correct quality. FYI, they’re also a seller on eBay.) Also ordered a cheap book by an independent author; book wasn’t really being sold anywhere else.
10/18/2017: Purchased a 32 oz. dishwasher rinse agent with “cosmetic damages” (presumably to the bottle) from Amazon Warehouse Deals. The price was significantly lower than any other price anywhere for this item. (Furthermore, I’m surprised this hadn’t been snapped up already… who would care about a dent in their bottle of dishwasher rinse aid?) At the same time I also purchased two new bags of dishwasher salt. They happened to be moderately cheaper at Amazon, at when combined with the rinse aid, my order reached the free shipping threshold.
10/19/2017: Purchased document repair tape from an independent seller at Amazon. It was $2 less than any other price online… It was also about 30 cents less than the Amazon “Buy Box” seller for that product.
- Amazon “awards” the Buy Box (basically the ‘Buy’ button for a product page) to vendors based on a secret algorithm. Unbeknownst to many, when one clicks ‘Add to Cart’ for a product, often times the vendor is not Amazon, but instead a 3rd party seller who has been awarded the Buy Box. You have to read the fine print at the top of the page to figure out if Amazon is the actual vendor or if it’s a 3rd party merchant… Regardless of which vendor is behind the Buy Box, often times there is another seller who has not been awarded the Buy Box, but who is offering the same exact product for a lower price. To view those sellers, you have to click on the ‘New and Used…’ link, also at the top of the page.
11/4/2017: Was looking to re-order dishwasher tablets. Target had set their price to Amazon’s price. (This has been a very common occurrence. Target is clearly setting out to compete with Amazon on price.) However, Amazon also offered one of those strange $2 coupons that you have to click on. Since those little coupon buttons are right there at the very top of the product page, I’m not sure why they don’t just lower the price…
- Actually, whatever the reason is, perhaps it actually thwarts price matching from competitors like Target. A human in charge of price matching might miss it, or ignore it. Or, a programmer writing an algorithm for automated price matching might miss it, or ignore it, and/or the UI format for the coupon could be modified much more frequently to thwart the algorithm (kind of like those “I’m Not A Robot” CAPTCHA tests). End result would tend to be competitors not price matching correctly.
12/1/2017: My online calendar sent me an email notification saying my last batch of Potable Aqua Water Tablets was about to expire. Amazon still seemed to have the best price, and so I re-ordered with them… The product “[m]akes questionable water bacteriologically suitable to drink”! Thankfully I’ve never had to use a single tablet. It’s the proverbial case of something you’d rather have and not need, instead of vice versa. I believe the next best alternative is a bleach solution.
2/9/2018: The freezes hitting Southern Texas with extreme wind chill finally motivated me to get better winter working gloves. The last straw was my hands throbbing in pain and then going numb while wearing my best winter gloves, and all this while working outside for only minutes. After searching online, the best reviewed gloves also happened to be cheapest at Amazon, and by just enough to motivate me to place the order with them.
2/24/2018: Amazon was the best marketplace for two additional purchases:
- I realized that the only thing better than space-suit-style bee gear is a second layer of protective gear underneath that. These extra-long head nets are perfect for the job. They’re plenty long enough to tuck into your shirt, and they’re also slim enough to fit underneath the space-suit bee gear. This gives anyone working with bees two levels of protection. You just need a regular fishing/bucket hat to go along with it, to keep the inner head net (and thus the bees) away from your face. (It really is kind of crazy to have just one layer of protection when you’re working with bees that could kill you if that single layer failed. And I’m kind of surprised I’ve never seen this simple $20 idea mentioned anywhere else.)
- Payphones are slowly fading away, but they say that payphones will never vanish entirely. To that end, I realized a $10 calling card with no expiration date wasn’t that bad of an idea. The idea is that in the event of a catastrophic sequence of bad luck (e.g. no phone, or no phone service), having the means to make calls could be pretty useful. I looked it up, and it’s worth noting that collect-call services are becoming more rare; it’s possible these services could eventually vanish. It’s also worth noting that calls at a payphone typically use a landline, and as far as I know, that system is completely separate from over-the-air cell service. In other words, it would be useful in the event of cell towers going down.
† For me personally, I have figured that the amount I would pay for an Amazon Prime membership, without hesitation, is $5. The reason is that I almost never need expedited shipping. I also know exactly what I’m looking to buy, and pretty much never buy random stuff just because it’s on sale. However, I still think the idea of ShopRunner is a good one. It basically decouples the major benefits of Amazon Prime from the Amazon company. The fact that my ShopRunner membership is a free benefit courtesy of my American Express card makes it all the more lucrative; I don’t even have to pay that hypothetical $5 to have it.