The Perils of Amazon Prime

by Kendall Clark

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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".

How embarassing!

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!


2005-02-07 11:30:24
limited to the USA
Amazon Prime will never work for me since I don't live in the USA. Amazon knows my only shipping address is somewhere between 6 and 9 hours apart from the US timezone-wise, the Prime advertisement nevertheless was prominently featured on my supposedly personalized Amazon welcome page.
2005-02-08 01:13:50
limited to the USA
same here.
And it did even get to the order page without giving any warning it would not work for me (didn't intend to order, just to look at some more details).
Had I not read the terms and clicked the order button I'd have been charged for a service I could never use (had the system worked at all of course).
2005-02-13 10:05:26
Amazon Prime
I felt somewhat coerced to buy Prime because I noticed that the shipping dates for the Free Shipping had stretched to almost a month from the customary 5-8 business days.
This sudden elongation of ship times coincided with Amazon's launch of Prime.
Anyway, I signed up for Prime this morning and also discovered I couldn't use it. Something about "possible failure to accept credit card". Does anyone know an actual customer service help phone number at Amazon so I can speak to them directly? Thanks.
2005-02-15 18:57:53
This is severely broken for me - I signed up _immediately_ upon hearing of the program. Since then, I've shifted numerous buys to other retailers because I cannot log into Amazon Prime - despite being charged my fee.

There's a continuous loop where I log into my account, click on 'My Account' - then Amazon Prime settings, which then prompts me to log in, then tell me that I'm not signed up!

It seems like a major stumble - why roll out such a program without testing?

2005-02-16 05:31:14
Yeah, this is precisely the bug I was trying to report in my weblog entry. I saw that exact error for the first week or so; now lately it's switched to a generic error report, but I still can't use the service.

One thing I did was call them up and tell them I was going to buy stuff from someone else unless they offered me Prime shipping rates by hand, which they did.

But since then I've just bought other things from other online retailers.

I agree that this is a MAJOR stumble and I'm surprised they haven't drawn more heat from webloggers for it.

2005-02-16 15:47:33
Bah! - an update!
Looks like Amazon Prime link works for me now - wonder if others are seeing the fix now?

What really remains though is a very interesting question, and perhaps object lesson for anyone rolling out a major web app - what was their use forecasting, testing, and deployment plan? It would be interesting to have a debrief on what went on behind the scenes at Amazon!

Thanks bloggers for support and help!

2005-02-17 18:21:55
Prime follow up
I did get access 3 days after my attempted signup, however my Prime membership was dated back to the day I first tried to sign up.
I wonder if anyone else has noticed a slow down in the delivery period under the old "Free Shipping for purchases over $25" program.
2005-02-26 21:19:34
Amazon Prime is REALLY Broken
Well - incredibly - after rolling out a blatantly broken web app, I'm finally able to manage the account, invite family members, etc. But now, when I actually go to BUY something???? No mention of Amazon Prime services at all - they are trying to charge me the regular rates.

They took my Amazon Prime money fast enough, but are really slow to fix the application.

I still can't believe this is - the site that we had all trusted all this time. Jeff Bezos - what happened?

2005-04-04 18:35:31
prime broke my email login
I stumbled on this thread whilst searching the web for solutions to my prime-related problem. Tonight I had been clicking around amazon and finally tried to sign up for prime, and upon clicking "sign up" I noticed my email address was written in the little text box as "". The alarm bells started going off, since I had been putting things in my cart and doing reviews and such just before I decided to click to buy "Prime". Well, I erased the "fraud" part of the email, and lo and behold, now my email doesn't work at all. I can't log in anywhere on the site. I can't get my password emailed to me because my email does not exist. I call Customer Service and they tell me someone will call me back in 4 business days. This is maddening.