Summary:

Online grocery delivery services are usually fast and pricey. With Prime Pantry, Amazon is going for slow and cheap.

prime pantry

For most online grocery delivery services, speed and convenience are key. Startup Instacart, which recently expanded to New York City, promises same-day delivery. FreshDirect, which serves about 600,000 customers in the tri-state area, doesn’t have same-day delivery but lets customers select a two-hour delivery window. And Amazon’s Prime Fresh offers same-day or next-morning delivery.

What these services aren’t is cheap: You pay for the speed, convenience and ability to have refrigerated goods like meat and ice cream delivered to your door. I’ve recently started using FreshDirect even though there are a lot of reasons I don’t like it. Every time I place an order, I feel simultaneously relieved to have my grocery shopping done and guilty that I’m spending too much.

A new offering from Amazon, called Prime Pantry, aims to alleviate some of this guilt. The service, which launched Wednesday, lets Prime members fill a large box with up to 45 pounds of household items (automatically calculating how much space is left in their box as they shop) and get it delivered for $5.99. Eligible items are available “in popular pack sizes that are cost prohibitive to ship for free,” meaning you can buy one box of Cheerios instead of 12. The program means that Amazon now carries a selection of groceries that are only available to Prime members. A non-Prime member can’t buy that one box of Cheerios or one can of tomatoes.

With its emphasis on “everyday sizes,” Prime Pantry is suited to city dwellers who don’t have the space to store 500 rolls of toilet paper. But the customers it may help most are those who desire the convenience of online grocery shopping but don’t want to pay a premium for it — think middle-class families like the one shown in the Prime Pantry promo.

The Prime Pantry page prominently touts “Low prices and additional savings with hundreds of coupons.” All the items I looked at were cheaper through Prime Pantry than they are on FreshDirect, Instacart or in most New York City grocery stores, even including the tacked-on $5.99 shipping cost. (There’s also the Prime membership cost of $99 a year, of course, but this product is targeting people who are already Prime members anyway so it’s a sunk cost for them.)

Amazon doesn’t guarantee that Prime Pantry items will be delivered within Prime’s normal two-day window. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee when your items will be delivered at all — and it’s not exactly advertising that fact. Amazon says “most orders arrive within four business days.” Nonperishable items aren’t available so it’s not as if your box of Wheat Thins is going to go bad, but you will need to plan ahead if you want to stock your pantry. And a lot of items are not available yet. (No Triscuits, for instance.)

Nonetheless, Prime Pantry is a way for cost-conscious customers to tiptoe into online grocery delivery. By the time Prime Fresh rolls out in more cities, perhaps they’ll be sold on the convenience and will even be willing to pay a premium for it.

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