America’s largest Internet retailer, Amazon has stayed on top with stellar customer service and convenient return policies, and by constantly increasing its selection. Its efforts have resulted in a company with worldwide sales in 2010 of $34.2 billion, triple that of its nearest competitor. But just because you can buy anything on Amazon — and we’ll get to some surprisingly great purchases in a minute — doesn’t mean you should. Here are several products that for reasons of price, quality, or environmental impact you’d be better off getting somewhere else.
Whatever you purchase, keep in mind that not everything you buy on Amazon.com is actually sold by Amazon. Read the fine print to see if an item ships from an external vendor (it’s noted on the item description). If an item doesn’t come directly from the Internet giant, you’ll be subject to the policies of that other company — which might have longer shipping times and less helpful service, says Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, a retail consulting firm. Their prices are also likely to be less competitive than on items Amazon sells itself, according to an Amazon spokesperson.
You can now order everything from cereal to canned salmon through Amazon Grocery — but filling a virtual grocery cart can cost more and force you to buy more than you need. If you have children, then yes, you may go through a lot of Heinz Ketchup — but that’s all the more reason to be price conscious. A 20-ounce bottle costs $2.85 on FreshDirect and $2.39 on Peapod, but more than twice as much — $5.99 — on Amazon via an external vendor. A 28-ounce can of Bush’s Original Baked Beans sells for $ 1.84 a can (sold in a four-pack) at regional grocery chain Meijer, but $2.75 a can on Amazon — and you have to buy a dozen. And aren’t your reusable shopping totes far better for the environment than all those cardboard shipping boxes?
2. Hardware and Hand Tools
Pliers and socket wrenches and drills are usually bought on a need-to-use basis by weekend DIYers who have a short work window. So even though Amazon’s prices are generally good, is buying online worth the wait when Lowe’s is open until 10 p.m.? More importantly, a hands-on approach is often best for evaluating tools. “I need to see the quality and the heft of the implements and how they fit in my hand,” says Richard Brandt, do-it-yourselfer and author of “One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com.”
3. Home Furnishings
Tools aren’t the only products that benefit from being held and seen. Whether you’re buying water glasses or a lamp or throw pillows, heft and feel are important. And then there is the issue of taste. “Amazon has a lower price point, but there’s a lack of style and a lack of point of view,” says San Francisco interior designer Martha Angus, of Martha Angus Inc., voicing an opinion shared by many other designers. “I’ve never bought there.” Instead, when Angus uses the Web, her go-to sites include CB2, West Elm, and Jonathan Adler, where she can count on sight-unseen quality. Cost-conscious design professionals also love style-savvy sites such as OneKingsLane, RueLaLa, and GiltGroupe, which offer designers’ own unused inventory or overstock in one- or two-day flash sales with up to 70 percent off.
4. Cleaning Supplies
Stick to your warehouse club or supermarket for cleaning supplies. Even with free shipping and Subscribe and Save, Amazon just isn’t competitive in this category. For example, All’s Small & Mighty Free Clear 32-load liquid laundry detergent costs $6.99 in Albertson’s supermarkets versus $12.75 on Amazon via a third-party seller, while a 32-ounce bottle of Murphy’s Oil Soap that sells for $4.99 at Albertson’s will run you $5.85 on Amazon. And the brick-and-mortar stores have a real strongman in Mr. Clean: Amazon sells a 28-ounce bottle of Summer Citrus cleaner for $8.61 — while Albertson’s sells 40 ounces of the same thing for just $3.99.
Plus: 4 Surprising Things to Buy
While you can get just about anything you want on the site, what are the standouts you may not have thought of? We spoke to analysts, retailers, and shoppers themselves to discover some surprising categories.
1. Auto Parts
Easily searchable by make, model, and year, Amazon’s Auto Store offers more than 4 million car, truck, and other vehicle parts to DIYers, enthusiasts, and professionals. “Many of the products offered by Amazon are fulfilled and shipped by brick-and-mortar automotive parts stores and warehouses,” says Richard White, senior vice president of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.“That is how they are able to offer such a vast assortment of product.” There are 3,800 parts for the 1968 Pontiac Firebird alone, for example, and nearly 2,000 for a 1990 VW Cabriolet.
Members of Amazon Mom, a free program aimed at parents and caregivers, get 30 percent off selected diapers and wipes when they use Amazon’s Subscribe and Save purchase option. “That can make Amazon’s price-per-diaper pretty hard to beat,” says Angie Wynne, who tracks the best deals at BabyCheapSkate.com. Signing up for Subscribe and Save means you’ll receive regular delivery of an item — every one, two, three, or six months — but you can cancel a shipment at any time. A 192-count package of Huggies Snug ‘n’ Dry for Size 1-2 recently cost $30.65 at Wal-Mart.com, but the Amazon Mom Subscribe and Save price was $20.90, with free shipping. Assuming you purchased about a dozen packages a year for a typical 1-year-old, you’d pay about $250 at Amazon Mom versus $367 at Wal-Mart over the course of a year.
3. Computer Peripherals and Accessories
Cables, thumb drives, external hard drives, and other computer accessories aren’t routinely evaluated by computer magazines. But they are amply and (sometimes) succinctly “reviewed” by thousands of Amazon.com shoppers. That critical mass of opinion saves you the time and the energy of doing the research yourself. “If there are 150 four-star reviews, that’s big information you can go with,” says Scott Stein, senior editor at CNET.com. And that same review crew flushes out subpar products and vetoes them just as concisely. Plus, Amazon’s prices on these items are typically 10 to 20 percent lower than competitors. A recent study by Internet analyst Mark Miller of William Blair found that Amazon and Best Buy’s retail stores have a merchandise overlap of nearly 70 percent, and 87 percent of those items sell for less on Amazon.
4. Gluten-Free Foods
The demand for gluten-free foods is growing rapidly as an increasing number of people are diagnosed with celiac disease, and told to avoid eating the protein. (Tennis star Novak Djokovic even attributes his standout performance this year to eliminating gluten from his diet.) The gluten-free section at Amazon Grocery offers thousands of such products, including breakfast items, baking goods, baby food, and boxed meals. Amazon began offering the goods in 2004 and has seen sales triple in the past two years, according to Anya Waring, a spokesperson for Amazon.
“While more and more stores are carrying gluten-free products, there are still places in the country where there isn’t a Whole Foods or a grocery store that has embraced them,” says Kendall Egan, director of marketing for “Gluten-Free Living” magazine. “You can also find products on Amazon that you usually can’t find on store shelves, like Food Tek microwave cakes.”