Dear Omar

Not Everything Is Cheaper on Amazon

Honey, Rakuten, and Capital One shopping could help you find a better price

A tip scale with one box on each scale. The box on the left of the scale is labeled “Amazon” and the box on the right is labeled “Honey.” The scale is tipped toward the Amazon box. Above the image is the “Dear Omar” column name.
A tip scale with one box on each scale. The box on the left of the scale is labeled “Amazon” and the box on the right is labeled “Honey.” The scale is tipped toward the Amazon box. Above the image is the “Dear Omar” column name.
Photo illustration: Save As/Medium. Sources: Getty Images, WikiCommons.

Welcome to Dear Omar, a weekly Debugger column from tech expert Omar L. Gallaga. If you have questions for Omar, send them to debugger@medium.com with the subject line “Dear Omar.”

My kids, who are 11 and 13, are too young to buy things online, so when it comes time to enter the credit card digits and place an order, they come to me, and I usually say, “No!” and on goes a cycle of parenting that will lead to decades of retail resentment on their part.

They’ve shopped at other online storefronts, but 99% of the time, it’s an Amazon order I’m going to find when I come over to see what they want to buy. To my children, there’s Amazon for buying stuff, and then there’s Everyone Else.

My kids aren’t the only ones feeling this way these days. Last year, Amazon was getting close to 40% market share of all U.S. retailers. That means that four out of every 10 sales of anything online in the United States were sold on Amazon. That’s incredibly significant for a company that didn’t exist 30 years ago.

Amazon’s market share doesn’t mean that we love the Amazon shopping experience or that Amazon has the best selection in every category. It doesn’t even mean Amazon is our favorite place to shop; it just means we’ve come to accept that the company’s breadth and size mean they are the most likely to have the item we want in combination with some of the best and cheapest shipping options of any online seller. A 2019 survey from the software company Episerver found that about 68% of online shoppers worldwide use Amazon as their comparison for shopping all the time or often. But that still leaves a lot of people who aren’t doing comparison shopping at all, and since 49% of shoppers globally default to Amazon, it could be that people don’t have the time or energy to seek out the best combination of price, shipping, and discount options, even when it’s probably in their best interest to do so. Many shoppers assume Amazon will typically have the best price for the item we’re looking for or at least a price that is close to the lowest amount we’d pay elsewhere.

What if I told you that’s not the case?

Or rather, what if I told you that even if you’re getting the best price on something on Amazon, say a 4K television or a packet of golf balls, that there are a whole range of other factors to consider before you decide Amazon is/isn’t your best deal? What if you want other options because you don’t want to give your money to one retailer so much of the time or what if you’re even boycotting Amazon, as some are doing this week?

You almost need to have a degree in advanced algebra to factor in all the ways you can chip away at the retail price of a product, especially a big-ticket item. And sometimes, Amazon is even competing with itself; something you want to purchase might be one price at one time of day during the week and much cheaper if you wait a few days.

So in the interest of seeing where the deals are, I asked friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook to tell me about their next planned online purchases. The answers were wide-ranging, from grocery basics to electric generators capable of powering through a powerful, rare Texas snowstorm.

I chose half a dozen items from this long list pretty much at random and then went and did some comparison shopping. Here is what I found:

  1. Twitter pal Leigh Ann Torres had a “Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Nail Coat” in a .5-ounce size in her Amazon shopping cart for $5.99. Can we do better than that? Walmart seemed like a sure bet at $3.99 for the same bottle, but from a third-party merchant with $7.99 shipping. Not so great! The same bottle goes for $6.65 from Walmart with free shipping, but still costs more than it does on Amazon. A website called Image Beauty had the bottle on sale for $2.99 and a discount from Honey brought it down another 29 cents, but shipping for it costs $6.95, bringing the total price to $9.65. In this case, Amazon probably has the best combination of shipping and price if you have Amazon Prime.
  2. In Texas, we’re still in snow shock. Susan Collier has on her list of camping and winter items a “Cheap snow shovel.” Instead of a name brand, I searched on Amazon for an inexpensive snow shovel that didn’t look like it would break on first use. Amazon’s sponsored choice with four and a half stars, the NASUM collapsible 3-in-1 Snow Shovel Kit, costs $23.99. This was an item that wasn’t available on many other retail sites online. But if you trust some of the dealers on Ebay, you could score this shovel kit for $19.99 with free expedited shipping from a seller with 2,024 positive reviews. Buyer be cautious!
  3. Garth Chouteau wants “A decent quality back massager” and after looking at a few options online and drooling a lot, I settled on the TimTam All New Power Massager, which sells for $249.99 on TimTam’s website. The price is the same on Amazon’s website, and TimTam offers free shipping as well, plus there’s a promo code you can find online, “SAVE5” that brings the price down by $12.49. After taxes, the massager would actually be cheaper on TimTam’s site, $257.09 total. Unless you have a gift card or other promos at a retailer that sells the massager, that’s probably your best deal.
  4. Chevaun McCray seeks a rowing machine. Without a specific brand, I went with the top pick from Runner’s World, the MaxKare Magnetic Rowing Machine. Amazon has it on sale for $259.99, $90 off the $349.99 retail price plus an additional coupon for $15 off, bringing the final price to $274.93, including an $8.99 shipping fee unusual for Amazon with no Amazon Prime option. But guess what: I scoured the web and couldn’t find this model for sale anywhere else. Beware articles that recommend products you can only get from one retailer: Amazon.
  1. My high school bud Aaron Williams is eying a Baratza Burr Coffee Grinder. The Encore model is available on Amazon for $139 in white or $145.99 in black. But you can get the black model for $139 at Walmart, or for $135.11 at Seattle Coffee Gear with an “UNLIMITED10” promo code and free shipping. That retailer also has a 10% off deal on one item if you subscribe to their newsletter. I’d go with that deal.
  2. Nasacort. Lots of it,” says Mary Alice Carnes. Allergies are bad here in Central Texas. You can get a six-pack of 24-hour dispensers (with 120 sprays each) for $82.20 on Amazon. If you’re a Sam’s Club member, you can get two 3-packs for $71.06 with free shipping.

Clearly, Amazon isn’t always the cheapest option, even when you’re just looking at base prices. In researching these products (and after years of online bargain hunting), here are the main takeaways I’ve discovered on getting the best deals:

Look at the shipping: You should never consider the price of an item until you know what you’ll pay in shipping. Amazon’s big advantage is that for many of its Prime members, the free shipping benefit means you can stop worrying about surprises at check out. And if you’re a Prime member like me, you tend to steer toward items that offer that fast and free option. But a good deal can turn into a terrible deal if, say, the cost of a small item is less than the cost of shipping that item.

Look for the real seller: Walmart and Amazon offer items from third-party dealers and they may not have the same shipping discounts, return policies, or low price as the retailer itself. You may even find duplicate listings of the same item on the same website with slightly different wording.

Look at cash back/discount apps and extensions: When you’re ready to really bring your costs down, apps and services such as Rakuten, Honey, and Capital One Shopping (formerly Wikibuy) can either give you cash back on purchases you’re already planning to make or automatically try coupon codes for you at checkout just in case there’s a discount you’re about to miss. I use Chrome browser extensions for all if these services, but they also have mobile apps.

Look local: As we are becoming a vaccinated nation and are more able to do shopping in person, it’s worth taking extra time to check in with local retailers to see if you can find what you’re looking for nearby. You’ll save on shipping costs, if that’s applicable, you’ll be supporting a local business, and you may come across special sales or even a store owner willing to haggle, an experience you’re unlikely to find online. And even if you’re paying a little more, you may feel a lot better giving your funds to a nearby shop than the world’s largest retailer, a company that’s not really in need of your money.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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