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Amazon Prime Pantry is a disaster

Aurelijus Valeiša

With a new baby in the house, I've been ordering a lot of stuff using Amazon Prime. And recently, Amazon has been trying really hard to get me to try a service called Amazon Pantry, offering me $5.99 in credit to try the service if I agree to take slower delivery of items. I didn't know anything about Prime Pantry, but $5.99 in free "pantry" items sounded like a good deal, so I took the offer.

But once I read up on Prime Pantry, I wasn't so excited anymore. Amazon Prime Pantry may be Amazon's worst service — indeed, it's almost an anti-service, taking all the customer-friendly policies Amazon customers are used to and making them worse.

Here are some of the key features of Amazon Prime Pantry:

  • You have to be a member of Amazon Prime to use it.
  • Shipping costs $5.99 per box, which can hold up to 45 pounds. Ordinarily, Amazon Prime members get free shipping.
  • Items are shipped in one to four business days. Normally, Amazon Prime members get guaranteed shipping in two — or in some cases even one — days.

So what's going on here? Before Prime Pantry, Amazon wasn't always a good place to buy the kind of bulky, nonperishable items people normally buy at the grocery store. In some cases, you could only buy items like cereal or toilet paper in large quantities. In other cases, Amazon would charge a significant premium for everyday household items.

Prime Pantry is Amazon's attempt to fix this. By bundling a bunch of items together and sticking them in one big box, Amazon keeps per-item shipping costs down. That allows Amazon to offer a wider selection and smaller package sizes. And adding an explicit $5.99 shipping charge helps the company keep the prices on individual items more competitive with what you pay at the grocery store.

This all probably sounded good in the Amazon conference room where Prime Pantry was dreamed up. But the service the company actually created just isn't very useful.

The slow shipping time means that Prime Pantry can't offer perishable goods like produce, meat, and dairy products, so customers are still going to have to go to the grocery store on a regular basis. Once you're already doing that, throwing paper towels and breakfast cereal into the cart isn't too difficult.

Prime Pantry's deficiencies are particularly baffling because another Amazon product, Subscribe and Save, does a better job of serving a similar type of consumer. Subscribe and Save allows busy and cost-conscious customers to get everyday household items delivered to their door on a regular schedule and enjoy discounts and free shipping in the process. Prime Pantry is also distinct from Amazon Fresh, a full-service grocery delivery service that Vox's David Roberts tells me is great.

Prime Pantry isn't a good deal

Slow shipping and limited selection might be forgivable if Prime Pantry offered excellent bargains. But it doesn't. For example, with Prime Pantry, you can buy this 17-ounce box of Honey Nut Cheerios for $3.52. Or you can go to Walmart's website, which has an identical box of cereal for an identical price — and if you buy $50 worth of groceries from Walmart, shipping is free.

Even better, you can go over to Target's website, where that same 17-ounce box is currently on sale for $3 with free shipping (Target's regular price is $3.52, like Amazon). Or you can buy it from Jet.com, a relatively new Amazon competitor, for $3.14. Jet offers free two-day shipping on orders over $35.

Prime Pantry items aren't packed well

Even worse, colleagues who have used Prime Pantry say that Amazon doesn't even pack the boxes very well. In an effort to pack as many items into a box as possible, Vox's Matt Yglesias told me, Amazon skimps on Styrofoam or other padding. And that can lead to damaged items or other disasters.

"They sent me a thing of Ajax powder that exploded on everything else I ordered," Vox's Dylan Matthews said.

Prime Pantry doesn't seem to serve anyone very well

The most positive reaction I got from Vox staffers who have used the service came from Jen Trolio. "My general opinion of the service is a shrug," she told me. She liked the fact that she can get normal-size items delivered to her door. However, she said, "If I need two things soon but am putting off buying them until I can fill a Prime Pantry box, it’s not really worth the mental energy when I can just pick them up on a Target run in between."

Pantry isn't cheap enough to appeal to bargain hunters. It's too slow and complicated to appeal to impulse buyers. It's not comprehensive enough to serve customers who want to skip going to the grocery store. All it's accomplishing is annoying loyal Prime subscribers like me who have grown accustomed to the more customer-friendly policies of Amazon's core service.