Toothbrushes and Toilet Paper – from Amazon.com?

Photo (cc) by WaterHorse Media, LLC

I hate to admit it, but my little brother is smarter than I am. At least, he’s smarter about saving money. He’s come up with a clever idea that never occurred to me. And now I’m copying him, much to his pleasure and my disgust.

Basically, my brother David spends $80 a year to save hundreds, all on Amazon.com. Here’s what he does…

  • Since Amazon now sells everything from car parts to baby food, David tries to buy everything he can from the website – if the price is right.
  • Amazon has long touted its Super Saver Shipping, but that requires you to buy $25 worth of stuff at a time, and as David says, “You have to pool your orders, and you might get it in three days or three weeks.”
  • So David spent $79.99 on Amazon Prime, which offers free two-day shipping for one year or one-day shipping for $3.99. Now he scores deals and gets the item in a couple of days, guaranteed.

Obviously, Amazon created Prime to entice shopaholics to spend more on items they don’t need – as you can tell from customer reviews like this. But my brother is a careful consumer. “Last week, I placed an $8 order for a computer cable and got two days shipping,” David boasts. “All electronics stores make their money on accessories. So I never, ever buy a cable in a store. I always buy them online. I got a USB extension cable $8 instead of $35 in an an electronics store.”

Prime started in 2005, when Amazon’s offerings were just beginning to expand beyond media like books, music, and movies. So I’m not sure if Amazon executives expected it to be used the way David does. For instance, he bought a $4 vegetable brush and had it shipped to him in two days. I don’t think Amazon profited much on that transaction.

“I got my new iPhone on a Friday, and the Apple Store didn’t have any cases,” David says. “So I ordered one at Amazon on a Friday afternoon, paid the extra $4 for immediate shipping, and I got it the next morning.”

Jealous of my little brother, I signed up for Prime’s 30-day free trial offer. (If you’re a college student or a parent, you can sign up for special Prime programs that offer even more benefits, like deals on textbooks and diapers.) Here’s what happened…

Closer isn’t always cheaper

I’m not quite sure how Amazon can mail me toilet paper for less than I can buy it in the grocery store, but that’s what happened last week. Four 12-packs of Cottonelle Ultra cost me $46.04 – or $11.51 per dozen. At my local Publix, the price for the same thing was $12.39. Of course, I had to buy a whopping 48 rolls. But my wife goes through that stuff with such a blazing speed that a typical guy like me can’t quite understand it (and really doesn’t want to).

I also bought replacement brush heads for my Sonicare electric toothbrush, which was cheaper on Amazon ($21.29) than at Target ($29.99) where I usually get them. And I bought my wife her favorite eye drops: Blink Contact Lubricant for $20.33 for a pack of three, or $6.77 apiece. The price at our local Walgreens? $7.99 per.

More options further from home

Then there’s the stuff I can’t get at my local grocery store. For instance, I haven’t eaten much cereal since I was a kid, because I find it’s either too sweet or too healthy (it tastes like chewing tree bark). Then on a business trip, I tried Kashi Cinnamon Harvest and got hooked. But I can’t find it at two grocery stores in my neighborhood. Four boxes on Amazon cost $19.28 – about the same price per box as any other cereal I’ve seen.

As I was perusing Amazon with more scrutiny than I ever had before, something caught my eye: gluten-free food products. My step-mom, a close friend, and a coworker all suffer from celiac disease, which means they need to stay away from wheat and other grains. I know from them how tough it is to shop for gluten-free foods, and it occurred to me that they’d benefit from my brother’s Prime idea, because Amazon has an entire gluten-free section, and with Prime, they could get their food in 48 hours.

Sometimes, convenience matters

If there’s one item I hate getting at the grocery store, it’s bottled water for the wife. She works in a very old courthouse with cloudy water coming from ancient pipes, so she goes through plastic bottles like, well, water. But every so often, my old knee injury flares up, and both those joints creak and complain every time I haul the stuff home. (This is a question for another time, but still: Why do grocery stores stock the bottled water on the bottom shelves, where we have to bend down to get them?)

Anyway, I had Amazon deliver 30 bottles to my door at 48 cents a bottle, compared to 43 cents if I did it myself. For 5 cents each and $1.50 total, I’m willing to splurge whenever my knees demand a rest.

Credit where it’s due

This system works especially well for me because I have an Amazon credit card, which I love (and wrote about last week). While I get one reward point for every dollar I spend – which is pretty typical for reward cards – I also get triple points for every dollar I spend on Amazon’s website. Needless to say, I’m now racking up the points while saving both time and money.

You are not alone

Two other parts of Prime are fine: First, your family can participate for the same price. Or as Amazon explains it, “four additional family members living in the same household.” Second, you can have your purchases shipped to anyone you want, not just you. This comes in handy at holiday time.

Catches and caveats

Of course, no money-saving scheme is perfect. Here’s what you need to watch out for…

Not quite ready for Prime time: Many third-party items aren’t eligible for Prime, or even standard free shipping. While I knew that before just from being a casual Amazon shopper, my brother pointed out something else: “Everything isn’t on Prime, but a vast majority is – and I’ve noticed that something that’s on Prime on Monday might not be the next day.”

The price isn’t always right: “Not all things are really cheaper,” my brother David says. “For instance, I was looking at Excedrin, and it was cheaper at BJs than online. On the other hand, Unisol, which is the preservative-free saline for contacts, was 3 boxes for $20. If I were to buy those at Walgreens, they would be $30. So you have to do a little bit of shopping. But how hard is that to do from a computer?”

Know when to say no: If you try Prime free for 30 days and want to stop before getting charged the $80, you gotta say so. And if you want to stop after one year, same thing. “It’s automatic renewel, so you have to cancel it yourself,” David warns.

Use it or lose: “If you order three times a year, Prime isn’t worth it,” David says. But if you find enough items you’d buy anyway, it’s a deal and even a steal. Concludes my little brother: “This is the best $80 I ever spent.” For once, I’m happy to agree with him.

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