Amazon Prime Ripoff – Or Not?

October 15th, 2007

Editorial Note: I had originally posted this entry in the midst of feeling rather angry and foolish for having suffered a financial hit for a service I did not want. After some reflection I decided I was being too whiny and should just accept that I made a mistake. But it was too late, I had already published and the post had already gone out on the news aggregators.

So now I feel it’s more problematic to have deleted the post than it was to just leave it up in the first place. People keep asking “Where’s the Amazon Prime post?” so … here it is, in all its original fury. I guess the fact that I was even able to have the reaction I did is a sign that something could have been handled better at Amazon.

Amazon Prime Ripoff

A couple years ago Amazon introduced a club called Amazon Prime. If you pay $79/year you get free 2-day shipping. There may be other perks as well. I don’t know, because I don’t really care about the club. I don’t shop enough at Amazon to make it worth the money, no matter what the benefits.

I do shop at Amazon from time to time, and I’ve been a satisfied customer over the course of many years. So when they strongly encouraged me to “try it free for 3 months” while I was checking out, I looked at the shipping costs and decided I would be stupid to pass it up. Sure, I’ll take free shipping and try something free for three months. I’m not an idiot!

But I was an idiot. Stupid for implicitly trusting Amazon. While I’m normally pretty defensive about “deals” from other, less reputable companies, Amazon had been a faithful enough servant to me over the years, that I figured I could trust it to let me know if I was going to be charged. I must have missed some fine print. Heck it could have even been large print, but the bottom line is I got hoodwinked into paying money for a service I did not want.

Sure, I should have noticed the fees showing annually on my credit card statement. I should have noticed the free shipping on my (very) occasional purchases. But Amazon seems to always be offering something or other for free. That’s part of the reason I like doing business with them. I just figured they had popped me into another free trial – never a dull day on Amazon!

Today I discovered the unwanted payments. While Amazon has earned an extra $158 from me over the past 2 years, what they’ve lost is their place in the part of my mind where I file “companies I can essentially trust.” That’s where companies like Apple live. Now, Amazon has moved over to the part of my head where telemarketers, used car salesmen, and Columbia House Music Club lives.

The first thing I did was cancel my Amazon Prime membership (it will take 1-2 business days to go through!). Second thing I did was remove any saved credit cards I have in my account. The reason they were able to get away with this was because I had decided to trust them with my credit information.

Will I stop using Amazon? No, it’s a compelling service. But for the price of $158 I have been converted from a passionate user to a grudging user. Whenever a competitor’s service is as compelling, I will favor it over Amazon’s. Hope Amazon can use my $158 to find another trusting customer.

Business lesson? Make it really, really obvious to users when you’re going to charge them for something, and what they’re going to get in return.

19 Responses to “Amazon Prime Ripoff – Or Not?”

  1. Mike Says:

    When I signed up for their trial, the web page was pretty clear that they’d charge me after 3 months unless I explicitly cancelled, so I sent a calendar reminder for a week before the time was up reminding me to cancel it.

    When you have a Prime memebership, every page you view in Amazon has the “amazon prime” buy it now logo and links displayed, and the main page of amazon shows you as a prime member….so it seems pretty clear to me that they go out of their way to remind you that you are “special” for being prime.

    I am all ready to get easily outraged at shady merchant behavior, but in this case, I think you might have just not been paying attention and just assumed you were getting goodies for free for no reason!

  2. Jonathan Johnson Says:

    I have previously done the Prime trial as well, but it was a little while ago. When I did it, they did say I would be charged $79 after 3 months, and that they would notify me by email before it happened. And sure enough, I did get an email stating that the trial was about to end. I canceled it, and never was charged.

    Perhaps the experience has changed since then. Or perhaps their messages about it went to your junk folder?

  3. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for republishing this. I understand your reasons for taking it down, and in fact, my response was going to be that you were whining about something that is a practice countless businesses..er…practice. The “free trial as long as you remember to cancel your credit card” is really common, and these companies must be making a ton of money running the promos from people (like you, unfortunately) who simply forget to cancel and then never use what they’re paying for, otherwise they would lose money giving out the free stuff.

    Given more time to think about your post, though, I think some of the anger and frustration comes from the fact that we are beginning to expect much better from some companies. Amazon’s service is so typically delightful and the customer service so good that for them to resort to a business tactic straight out of the [insert lame company here] playbook is jarring. Companies are making it easier to like them. But they’re also opening up the possibility of hurting us even more when we see them as being unfaithful. As the internet continues to force transparency on businesses, we’ll hopefully see less and less of these jerkish moves. Trust is really important, especially for companies like Amazon and Google, as so much of their business model is based on our willingness to provide them with information about ourselves. Here’s hoping things will get better soon.

  4. Christopher Bowns Says:

    I did the Amazon Prime trial for those first couple months, but, being an exceedingly stingy college student, I made sure to figure out what happened when the trial ended (they automatically charge you), and then figured out when I needed to cancel by, and set a Google Calendar reminder.

    It’s really on the fence for me with this. I know that it says, in more than a place or two, that it’s going to cost you when the trial ends. Possible fixes on Amazon’s end: automatic enrollment in Prime, but with email reminders three weeks and a week before it’s due to get charged to you.

  5. Jerome Says:

    Yeah I did notice a blurb about being charged at the end of the trial, kind of annoying because I had to setup an alarm on my phone or something to remind me to cancel it so I wouldn’t get charged, even with the warning I would’ve forgotten without some kind of reminder. Too bad they couldn’t do some confirmation thing. World of Warcraft is a subscription based service and trials don’t do this.

    I don’t think they did the email warning at the time I did it like previously mentioned in comments.

    They definitely could do this better.

  6. John Says:

    I was similarly surprised when I found that Amazon auto-renewed my Prime membership. At least .Mac warns you with an email when it is about to charge you. That being said, I’m very satisfied with Prime — it has been well worth the yearly fee, and I would have gladly renewed anyway, though I was a bit surprised to see it happened automatically without any notification that I saw.

  7. Manton Reece Says:

    Glad you decided to re-post it. Gotta stand behind those rants. :-)

    As already stated above, Amazon makes it pretty clear what is happening. I don’t think they are being deceptive. Perhaps they could send an email every year before you are charged, but otherwise I don’t see much room for improvement.

    I resisted signing up for Amazon Prime for a while, but when I finally did I was impressed with how much it improves the online shopping experience by removing the wait vs. shipping price dilemma. It’s a great service if you buy from Amazon often.

  8. Rob Says:

    You don’t even need to set a reminder: there’s a big button in your Prime preference page that says “Don’t autocharge my card” you can click the minute you sign up for your free trial.

  9. Ryan Ballantyne Says:

    Whenever I see the word “free”, I try to follow the money. What does this company get out of giving me something for free? How “free” is free, in other words?

    With Amazon Prime, it could be that they just want to remove the barrier to entry and let people who may be on the fence about it to try it out and hopefully get hooked. That’s the charitable explanation. The uncharitable explanation is that they’re hoping you’ll forget to cancel it.

    There may, actually, be elements of both, but I know that I don’t order enough stuff to make it worth my while, so I just didn’t bother even signing up.

    I know that I don’t owe Amazon my support, but I think they’re still one of the less-shady companies out there. They probably deserve to be on your “essentially trusted” list. Maybe you should send this post to their feedback group, maybe it will prompt them to make changes so as to avoid misunderstandings such as this one?

  10. Aaron Says:

    I also did the Prime trial and made a calendar reminder to cancel. However, I forgot about it & ignored the reminder. When I was charged, my wife almost immediately asked, “hey what the heck is this $80 to Amazon for?” — wives can be useful like that.

    So I emailed Amazon and said, look, I realize I missed the date to cancel, but I haven’t used any Prime benefits since the membership kicked in, so can I cancel and get a refund? And they did so. YMMV.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    When you’re enrolled in Prime, it says so on every page when you’re on the Amazon site. It tells you when you buy something. You can tell it not to renew at any time, you don’t have to wait till the last minute. And, well, frankly, if two years went by without you actually looking at your credit card statements, any residual sympathy goes right out the window there… :)

  12. Richard Says:

    I’ve been doing “Prime” for a while now and I do enough business with Amazon so it’s a great deal for me. Of course it also pulls me into doing more business with them as I know I’ve got free fast shipping on many things. Like flat rate land line calling with phones, not thinking about shipping is a nice thing. I’m in my 2nd year of it and my wife and I both love it. And, even big, heavy stuff comes in two days.

    However, I had a similar run in with Amazon over their credit card which I picked up when United went through their first bankruptcy and my mileage plus card’s value was in question. They made it near impossible to stop using their card for my orders on their site. I didn’t want to cancel the card, just change the credit card on my account and it took a few months to get it right.

  13. Corey Says:

    I signed up for an account a while back, and never used it past the initial trial, so I forgot about it. I did notice when they billed my account, so I canceled it, grumbling about how I was dumb for losing that money.

    Within a day or two Amazon sent me an email saying that they noticed I hadn’t made any purchases with it, so they were refunding the price – without me even asking for it. I was pretty impressed.

  14. Jim Lindley Says:

    Yeah, you can definitely take off the auto-charge the instant you accept the free trial, don’t wait and try to remember down the road. I fell in love with it though, and it makes me a much happier Amazon customer.

  15. Judi Sohn Says:

    The right thing is what some companies do…send you an automated email a week before the renewal saying “Your account will auto-renew on xx/xx/xx unless you click here to turn off auto-renewal settings.” If you are still getting value out of the product, you’ll leave it alone and will appreciate the advanced notice, leading to more brand loyalty warm fuzzies.

    Also, if you had caught the charge within 3 days (I think that’s the time limit) of hitting your card, you could have called Amazon and had them take it off. I’ve done that on a couple of “auto-renew” memberships I had forgotten about.

    Part of the problem is that you’re not checking your credit card statements carefully, which is really, really dangerous if you shop online. :-)

  16. Karl Quist Says:

    I love amazon prime. Use it all the time. I’ve found it frustrating that Amazon doesn’t give you a way to filter search results to only show prime-eligible items. Instead, I use http://www.iprimr.com which searches ONLY for amazon prime eligible items.

  17. Cat Says:

    Thanks for all of these comments– I spent a week or so figuring if I should sign up for Amazon Prime, ultimately decided to, and still have not bought anything (partly because I’m living off $3 for the next week). I’ve been wondering about the same questions, so thanks for answering.

    I bought five books at the beginning of the year, (Jan. 1), and one package just showed up yesterday. The two-day shipping sounded a lot more attractive when I realized my books took fourteen days as opposed to two to arrive.

  18. Steve Says:

    Whelp, I just discovered I’ve been fleeced by Amazon’s deceptive and underhanded business practices.

    Sure you can say it is my fault for not reading the fine print. But rather I believe Amazon should require that customers ask to have automatic renewal, as it is customers apparently have to read an email after signing up, which then notifies them they will be charged $79 unless they opt out.

    So my personal scenario is as follows:
    While purchasing college textbooks I was given the option for the free trial. I signed up, but to my error, I dismissed their follow-up email as spam. I believe it was touting all my “benefits as a Prime Member” …yeah I assumed my benefits = free shipping for 3 months. Little did I guess my free trial also included annual charges to my credit card of $79.
    I’d never been a regular customer of Amazon in the past, and after ordering those textbooks I don’t think I even used Amazon for any purchases throughout the next year.
    Of course I am at fault for not noticing the unexpected charge on my credit card back in May of 2010. But I would also think that any respectable and trustworthy business would provide their customers notice of pending charges.

    Now I do recall sometime around December or 2010, ordering a few items from Amazon I thought it odd that I was eligible for Prime shipping. I dismissed it as just a marketing ploy or temporary offer.
    So now, this last credit card bill (May, 2011) I receive has a charge that I do not recognize. Amazon’s manipulative business practice comes to light.

  19. Mike Says:

    Amazon Prime is a great deal for me. For those that did not cancel until it was too late, I hate to say it but there was nothing deceptive about it. When I signed up for the free trial a couple of years ago I knew exactly what day I was going to be charged. Fortunatley, because I had used the heck out of the service, I decided to keep the service. It’s very rare that I can say i am completely satisfied with a company and the services they provide but Amazon / Amazon Prime is certainly one of them. Heck, I even ordered my son’s books for college and they arrived at his appt 2 days later free of charge. No standing in line and the price was much cheaper than at the book store. Paid for half the membership price right there. I mean, when you can get something in 48 hours, there are very few reasons to pay full ripoff price at a brick and mortar store.

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