Gaming your grocery shopping with Amazon Prime Pantry

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On Wednesday Amazon launched "Prime Pantry," a new service that lets Amazon Prime members do some of their grocery shopping (non-perishable goods only) on Amazon. Since Thursday is shopping day around here, I figured I'd give it a try.

Here's how it works. You fill up a box that can hold 45 lbs or 4 cubic feet, and Amazon delivers it for a flat $6.99 shipping fee. Wait, what happened to that free 2-day shipping for Prime members? Well it doesn't apply here. And yes the service is only available for Prime members.

So you start shipping and as you add items to your 'box' you get updated on how much space you have left. A 12-pack of toilet paper takes up about 13% of the box. A 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of soda takes up 23%. A 200 tablet bottle of Vitamin B takes just .6%.

It doesn't take long before you start turning Amazon Pantry into a game. Prices were generally better than they are at the local store (that 12-pack of Coke was $3.99) but you have to balance those savings against the $6.00 delivery fee. You're paying $1.38 in shipping for that Coke (23% of $6), bringing the price to $5.37 which suddenly isn't a great deal. But delivery of that jar of Vitamin B is less than 4 cents. Amazon Pantry sells it for $13.65. Drugstore.com charges $14.99. Your local shop probably charges more. So vitamins seem like a good choice for your Prime Pantry shopping.

Prime Pantry has coupons too. Sticking with the Vitamin B, there was a coupon that cut the price by a further $2.25. All you have to do to use a coupon is click a button so even those of us who normally can't be bothered clipping coupons will probably use them here.

But here's the real catch. Once you've purchased everything you need and you see you have 15% of your box empty...well if you're anything like me you're going to buy more stuff to fill it up and get maximum value from that flat shipping fee. In fact in some categories you can actually filter products by % of your box they'll take up (tea was the one I found). That's the sign of an evil genius at work and how I wound up buying a 4-pack of Starbucks Double-Shot Espresso and a tin of Planters nuts, neither of which I needed! But they filled my box so I saved money! Right?

Filling up my box this first time was kind of fun, but I think the novelty of figuring out the best deals may wear thin over time. My other complaint is that the selection isn't great. My local grocery store has a whole aisle devoted to soda, but Prime Pantry has 26 listings under "Soft Drinks" and 9 of them are a variation of Coke (Classic, Diet, Zero, and various container sizes)

My last gripe is shipping time. Since it's Prime I assumed I'd get my stuff today (I ordered on Wednesday, April 23rd and today is the 25th). And I might, but I might not. My delivery estimate is April 25th - 28th. It's not a huge deal and now I'll know next time to allow a few extra days. Oddly it's coming in two shipments, not one. That doesn't matter, it's just strange given how much emphasis there is on the single box metaphor.

I'm not sure we'll use Prime Pantry again. At first glance I thought it'd be a great way to get bulky items delivered cheaply, but as I've shown big bulky items are the least economical things to fill your Pantry box with, unless you're getting a substantial savings over local prices. The best deal would be filling the box up with small relatively expensive items like vitamins, beauty care products and so on.

I think what Amazon needs to do is set up a separate Amazon Pantry shopping cart so whenever you realize you're getting low on something, you can toss it into your box, and whenever the box is full you hit the order button to get it shipped. I think that would suit me more than sitting down and spending an hour filling up the box in one sitting.

Oh, and I ordered some chips, just to see how well packed these boxes are. What do you think I'll get? A bag of crumps, or nice big intact chips?

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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