Amazon’s Subscribe and Save: Bait and Switch?

Is it me or Amazon?

I was an enthusiastic adopter of Amazon’s Subscribe and Save program. I vowed never to walk the aisles forming the inner U of my neighborhood grocer because everything in those aisles could be delivered to my doorstep by Amazon for the same money or a price reasonably close to that of the neighborhood store. This relationship with Amazon was going to last forever, or so I thought. I was smitten.

My education began when I received a notice from Amazon that my Accelerade subscription was going to be canceled as the product was no longer available. No bother — prices go up, supplies go down, I get it. I’ll buy it somewhere else. Like most education based on experience, I was about to get the test first, then the lesson.

The education began in earnest. First, toilet tissue. Then the body wash. Then paper towels. Toothpaste. Shampoo. Cocktail peanuts. Goldfish. Trash bags. Cat litter. The products disappeared, their prices changed. Over the next several months, many of the things that I loved not shopping for at my local grocery store that I had been buying from Amazon became unavailable at Amazon. Or if they were available, the prices increased markedly.

There were substitutes offered. Amazon does a fine job of remembering your past purchases and suggesting an alternative product when the original selection become unavailable. And each suggested alternative required me to re-shop, re-check prices and repeat the buying process for one or two products on my list every month. And without fail, everything was more expensive. Everything.

Let me reinforce this: there was not one instance where the suggested substitute was a better value than the original. Not one. I used the term value to be fair to Amazon. There’s more than price at work in my purchase decision. I value the convenience, the delivery, the easy online shopping and the other incidents of my commercial relationship with Amazon. But the value eroded rapidly, sometimes a month or two after I first selected a product.

I readily acknowledge that products and prices change at my neighborhood store, but I’ve never experienced such rapid changes over the same time period for these products. And I’ve never felt, as I began to feel with Subscribe and Save, like I was the victim of an algorithm bent on extracting the last dollar from my pocket, dime by dime. Maybe the local grocery store hides it better.

I’m an enthusiastic adopter of technology in many areas. Sometimes it turns out happily, like my smart phone, and sometime not so happily, like the stupid Kevo lock on my back door reminding me daily of its impotence. But my experience with Amazon’s Subscribe and Save has made me wonder whether I’ve gone too far in revealing to Amazon, and the formidable technology on which it rests, the breadth and depth of my preferences as a consumer.

American consumers, including me, can be suckers for a good pitch. With Subscribe and Save, Amazon has taken that pitch to a higher level. It combines its keen insights into consumer psychology along with powerful data collection, management and analysis tools for a result that is surely greater than the sum of its parts. Moving the consumer slowly and inexorably to increasingly higher price points is a dark art, one for which Amazon seemingly has the intention and ability in my experience.

I admit that I’ve been a pawn, albeit willingly, in other retailers’ games. I’ve gone into the bike shop for a $5.00 inner tube and walked out with a $300 pair of cycling shoes. And I once bought a car on impulse while on a quick trip to Sam’s. But those purchases had a common thread — my male weakness or affinity. if you will, for a bicycle, car and, in other historical contexts, motorcycle, sailboat or airplane. Those were toys. I wanted to spend money on toys. I didn’t need much convincing.

With Amazon I got suckered by Kitty Litter and toilet paper. Of course, it wasn’t the product that hooked me, it was the technology. And the aforementioned smart phone and its Amazon app made this slippery slope ever more slippery. What Amazon sold me was a lot of technology sizzle to go with a well-priced steak. And once I acquired a taste for the steak, the pricing model changed through the substitution of similar but higher priced merchandise. The similarity to other business models legal and illegal is not coincidental, I’m sure. Consumer psychology is consumer psychology.

Finally, I recognized that with Amazon’s Subscribe and Save program, I had let my guard down. It didn’t happen all at once, but it happened. And I’m convinced that my mistake, my behavior — dropping my guard as I did, happened just the way Amazon planned it. It was preordained. I am not saying Amazon is evil. I’m saying it is good at what it does; for a hapless consumer like me, maybe too good.

I’ll still shop at Amazon when it is in my interest to do so. For many products it is still a great place to shop. And I do owe it a vote of thanks for reminding me of something I had lost sight of in my dealings with it. Thank you, Amazon, for teaching me once more the most fundamental of consumer lessons: caveat emptor. I will.