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Amazon Prime Day evolves from goofy sideshow to Black Friday-esque phenom

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Mike Tetley, a warehouse worker, checks labels on boxes in March at an Amazon fulfillment center in Thornton, Colorado.


Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

For a lot of people, Amazon’s Prime Day started in 2015 as a punchline, described as a garage sale for the company’s leftover LED toilet night lights and 55-gallon tubs of lube. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, at least for now, is having the last laugh. 

Heading into its fifth year this Monday, Prime Day has never seemed stronger or more influential. Even Taylor Swift got in on the action, headlining an early Prime Day concert on Wednesday. And the deals (oh, the deals!) — a million baubles and gizmos as far as the eye can see, slashed to Black Friday prices and offered from Paris to Tokyo to Abu Dhabi.

There’s now clear proof that Prime Day has markedly changed consumer spending behavior and forced other retailers to march to the beat of Amazon (yet again), lest they miss a rare opportunity to catch shoppers shopping during the typically slow beach-read season. During the first Prime Day, just seven retailers offered deals. This year, RetailMeNot predicts 250 will take part, including Walmart, Best Buy, eBay, Target and Macy’s.

“Let’s face it, Prime Day is a thing. It’s become as important to American shoppers as Black Friday,” said Steven Barr, a retail analyst for PwC. “So to compete, retailers have had to step up with bigger and better deals to capture their share of attention.”





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Prime Day now offers another sign of Amazon’s growing retail dominance, with the world’s biggest online store controlling nearly 40% of US e-commerce sales, according to researcher eMarketer. Rival retailers will need to figure out ways to keep up with its ever-faster deliveries, growing assortment and invented shopping holidays if they want to hold onto your business. Prime Day also has managed to create a Christmas in July shopping day long sought by retailers desperate to fill the void between grads-and-dads season and back-to-school.

For customers, the obvious benefit is all these retailers have now come together for another big shopping day to offer lots of sales and fall over each other to get you to buy.

“All this competition, whether it’s good for other retailers or not, is great for consumers,” said Kelsey Sheehy, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet.

The game has changed 

Amazon announced Prime Day will run for this year for 48 hours, starting at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on Monday. The sale, available to the company’s over 100 million Prime members worldwide, has fallen in mid-July every year, but Amazon has shifted around the day, so it’s been as early as July 10 (in 2017) and run as late as July 17 (in 2018).

“We’re confident that there’s a great experience waiting for each and every Prime member this year,” Cem Sibay, vice president of Prime, told CNET in an interview last month.

The day often breaks sales records for Amazon and has become so big that it helps spike online traffic for other sites, too. Costco’s traffic jumped 27% last year, followed by 22% for Apple and 13% for Best Buy, according to PwC. Amazon saw a bigger bump, at 45%.

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Demonstrators protested at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, in December. Workers there are planning another strike on Prime Day.


Kerem Yucel / AFP/Getty Images

While other retailers get to ride the Prime Day wave, they are still stuck playing a game in which their biggest competitor is calling the shots and holds an unfair advantage. Amazon dictates the dates, how long the sale goes on and, of course, name of the day.

Prime Day serves as another example of Amazon putting its rivals on the defensive and forcing them to spend more money to compete, said Jon Reily,  executive vice president of retail and e-commerce at consultancy Publicis Sapient. He said the company already did that by raising its minimum wage to $15 and by offering one-day Prime shipping, putting more pressure especially on Walmart.

All this attention isn’t always a positive for Amazon. Workers in Minnesota are planning a strike on Prime Day this year to highlight their concerns about working conditions and firings. Also, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a regular critic of Amazon, raised concerns about overworking warehouse employees due to the longer sale and faster one-day shipping times.

“This year, the toll on Amazon’s workers will be considerably worse,” union President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement.

Competing retailers are also looking to emphasize Amazon’s weaknesses to lure in shoppers, like pointing out that Prime Day is only available for folks who pay for Prime, a $119-a-year membership. Others are highlighting the ability to pick up in stores and not wait for deliveries. eBay is poking at Amazon by offering a “Crash Sale,” noting that Amazon’s site and mobile app melted down for hours at the start of last year’s Prime Day.

“It would be silly for other retailers, considering what Prime Day has turned into, to not try to get some of that Prime Day pie,” Sheehy said.

Consumers have changed their shopping habits due to Prime Day too, Barr said. Anticipation for Prime Day deals has caused 52% of shoppers to hold off on purchases until then, according to a PwC survey. Plus, the consultant firm’s research found that spending on back-to-school and holiday have been pulled forward in the calendar, as more folks are buying on Prime Day instead, he added.

Experts say these deals can be a boon for disciplined shoppers and folks who’ve been waiting to buy big-ticket items that usually go on sale during Prime Day, like TVs. But these sales are certain to encourage lots of impulse buys, too, as people chase eye-popping deals for Instapots, Fingerling toys and Whole Foods’ organic air-chilled, no-antibiotics-ever whole chickens.

Sheehy mentioned how she had bought resistance bands for exercise during some past Prime Day that are still in their packaging. At least they were really cheap.

“It absolutely causes people to buy more stuff that they don’t actually need,” Reily said.

Don’t stop shopping

So, will Prime Day last? Well, it depends who you ask.

“I’d be really surprised if Prime Day disappeared,” NerdWallet’s Sheehy said. “This is a huge sales day for Amazon.”

Barr agreed that Prime Day has become a part of the consumer spending calendar, along with the holiday season and back-to-school, ensuring its existence as a shopping institution for the foreseeable future.

Reily, though, had a different perspective. Prime Day, he said, has only existed during good economic times, with low unemployment, rising wages and a soaring stock market. And even during these good times, Amazon keeps having to add more stuff to Prime Day — like that Taylor Swift concert — to maintain the public’s attention, he said.

Will people still want to open their wallets for a made-up shopping holiday during the next recession? Reily doubts it.

“Over a longer time,” he said, “it’s not sustainable.”


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