You might not think the Instant Pot would be at the top of your summer shopping list. Scorching heat doesn’t exactly put people in the mood for hearty stew. But Amazon managed to help make it a hot item to buy among consumers in mid-July each year thanks to Prime Day, its now 48-hour extravaganza.
As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come, which in Amazon’s case means poof! inventing a shopping holiday from scratch.
Amazon Prime Day was first launched in 2015, originally as a way to celebrate Amazon’s 20th birthday (as far as companies can have birthdays, I guess). It was a way to reward members of its Prime program, which began in 2005, and to introduce consumers to its ecosystem of products and services. It was also a way to increase sales in what is normally an off-season for the company. According to Amazon, consumers in nine countries purchased over 34 million items on the first day of the show, and only 24 hours later. It surpassed the number of items sold on Black Friday the previous year, the e-commerce giant’s biggest Black Friday at the time.
Today, Amazon Prime Day is one of the biggest shopping events of the year. In 2021, people bought over 250 million items during it. This year’s numbers haven’t been released yet, and it’s unclear how much of an impact inflation and changing consumer habits have had, but it’s still a big deal. Historically, Amazon says, “Jump,” as in “Shop.” Consumers across America and the world are asking, “How high?”
“People everywhere, but Americans especially, love sales; they like deals,” said Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “And if they’re told they’re going to find great deals, they’ll go and look.”
Even if that means searching for a glorified pot during one of the hottest months of the year. In 2015, 24,000 instant pots were sold on Prime Day. By 2018, that number was 300,000. In 2021, the Instant Pot was still a top seller on Prime Day.
I recognize that people make things that aren’t soups in Instant Pots, but still.
Christmas in July, but for myself
The idea of a shopping holiday isn’t unique to Amazon or something Amazon invented. Prime Day is inspired by Alibaba’s Singles Day, November 11, in China. All kinds of holidays, real and made up by merchants, became shopping. For some reason, we’ve collectively decided that President’s Day is the time to sell mattresses. Even Juneteenth has become awkwardly commercialized.
Greg Greeley spent 18 years at Amazon, including running Prime, and oversaw the early Prime Days. He explained to me that while Black Friday and Cyber Monday, for example, were always about giving gifts to other people, Prime Day had a distinct appeal. “I like to describe it as our gift to Prime members so they can give something to themselves.”
Prime Day occupies space that consumers don’t actually need to fill, but might just want to. It falls between shopping moments like the holidays and the back-to-school season. It’s also the moment when it seems a little more okay to buy just to buy, rather than for a purpose — and, perhaps, be a little selfish about it.
“Cultures have been inventing commercial holidays for a long time,” said Jason Goldberg, director of commercial strategy at advertising firm Publicis. “People are highly motivated by price, they’re highly motivated by bargain hunting, and when smart marketers get this perception right that there’s some special reason for the deal, it triggers some cognitive bias that we have.”
As Hilary George-Parkin outlined for The Goods in 2019, sales and deals make consumers feel like they’re getting something special even when they’re not, like they’re getting free money. People can be driven to buy out of FOMO and the belief that they will miss out if they don’t buy now before supplies run out or the deal ends.
“These deals are structured in such a way that the products that are on the deal are not going to be there forever,” said Kelly Goldsmith, a behavioral scientist at Vanderbilt. “Scarcity marketing tactics have been a mainstay of the marketing toolkit for a long time.”
Some consumers go into Prime Day with a clear idea of what they want and look for discounts on items they already intend to buy; if not on that particular day, then eventually. Others, however, just buy things because they see it and it’s there.
Prime Day is decent for Amazon, mediocre for many other parties
Regardless of the deals that consumers feel are coming out of Prime Day, the real winner here is probably Amazon. While, as Sebastian Herrera notes in the Wall Street Journal , Prime Day isn’t as big a deal as it once was, it’s still very positive for the company. It helps lift sales in the third quarter and bring in billions of dollars. It’s also a way for people to join Prime (although far fewer now than at the beginning) and for consumers to learn about and buy Amazon’s products and services.
“In the old days, it was mostly a deal on things that Amazon was selling, and Amazon could kind of curate that and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a super good deal for Alexa,'” Goldberg said. Now, he said, that’s reduced, and consumers have almost too many things to sort through when shopping, whether they’re Amazon products or not. “There are 10 million Lightning Deals on Prime today, and the vast majority of them are for crap that nobody wants.”
Prime Day can be a mixed bag for third parties on the platform, Goldberg said. They generally don’t get much attention on the exact dates, which makes the whole thing logistically challenging, and sellers sometimes end up discounting so deeply to make a sale that it hurts their margins. “The reason you would sell something at a loss on Prime Day is to meet a new buyer who might buy more stuff from you over time,” he said. Increasingly, this is not possible on Amazon, as people often just buy from the first listing that comes up instead of going back to a particular seller. “Sellers are learning more and more that you can’t get customers on Amazon; you rent customers on Amazon.”
An Amazon spokesperson said that Prime Day 2021 is the biggest ever for third-party sellers and that this year customers could buy more products from those sellers than last year. A spokesman declined to say how many Prime Day notifications retailers are getting, or to address speculation that the company might add another Prime Day at a later time in the year.
While third-party sellers may not always have a ton of visibility, Amazon is tracking every move a customer makes. “Every click you make on Amazon is probably something that someone somewhere is studying,” Goldsmith said.
Prime Day encourages consumers to pick up a ton of stuff over several days in a way that’s hard on Amazon’s warehouses and, ultimately, its workers. There’s a reason Amazon is worried it will run out of potential employees at some point, even though Amazon has said it’s adequately staffed for this season.
For shoppers, Prime Day can be even less than ideal — don’t save money by loading up on a bunch of stuff you don’t really want.
Maybe try to buy a mini a little less next year
Prime Day 2022 was July 12th and 13th, and if you got a good deal on some stuff you wanted, good for you! If you got a good deal for things you didn’t really want and maybe now regret it, hey, it happens to all of us. There are always returns. You might really like a plant stand that now requires you to buy a bunch of plants and a fedora you’re starting to suspect you’ll be too embarrassed to wear in public.
“We have so much crap in our lives, do we really need more?” Kodali said. “Many of these things come to the point of waste; it just ends up in landfills, contributing to our global warming problem.”
As consumers, we are trained to buy cheap things without thinking about the wider implications. Amazon and Prime Day are part of the problem. We don’t really need a new holiday to buy stuff.
Still, the whole situation is hard to resist. Not only is Amazon pushing Prime Day on consumers – so is the media and the entire internet. News about the best Prime Day deals gets clicks. I got an email from my bank reminding me that Prime Day is coming up. Other retailers, such as Target and Walmart, are also getting involved in these special events. Many parties are complicit in throwing the whole thing off, including the consumers themselves.
I didn’t buy anything on Prime Day this year. It’s not because I’m a virtuous consumer or anything, it’s mostly because I’m lazy and browsing through tons of stuff on Amazon’s website seems exhausting.
I started thinking a bit about the Instant Pot, which I’ve been told can be a nice thing to have and use, even in the summer months. I’m not even sure if I have room for one, but I kind of want one now. I guess that’s the point.
“Nobody needs an Instant Pot, there’s nothing you can make that you need to survive that you can’t make without an Instant Pot, so it’s not necessary. But it’s an aspiration,” Goldberg said. “When a $100 instant pot becomes $60, it opens the door.”
Maybe that’s how the Instant Pot landed in my kitchen on Prime Day 2023.
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