Science & Technology



Jennifer Van Grove: Sorry, Amazon, but your grocery delivery products are confounding

Jennifer Van Grove, San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

My husband's friend recently challenged me to explain the difference between AmazonFresh and grocery delivery from Amazon Prime Now. He wasn't testing me. He was genuinely confused by having two totally different apps for ordering groceries.

"Which one should I use?," he wanted to know.

Since he already pays for Prime, I told him to try the Prime Now app. In addition to offering a selection of Amazon products for delivery in a couple of hours, Prime Now lets you order on-demand delivery from a few local grocery stores. In San Diego, your choices are Sprouts, Bristol Farms and Northgate Market. There are no additional fees (unless you want faster, one-hour delivery), save for an optional driver tip, hence the recommendation.

AmazonFresh, by contrast, costs the Prime member another $15 per month, with deliveries typically available the next day. So it's slower, more expensive and you should probably still tip. Fresh might be the better option for someone who has a long or highly specific grocery list. Otherwise I'm at a loss as to why anyone would default to the pricier service.

Still, this family friend's inability to grasp the difference got me thinking. Two Amazon products with competing services and varying prices; it just doesn't make sense. Not from a consumer-friendly experience standpoint. And that's not even considering Prime Pantry, which is another more restrictive, but equally confounding, grocery delivery option.

Look, I am so deeply entrenched within Amazon's ecosystem of products and services that I can't see a way out. As such, I tend to explain away Amazon's inconsistencies as merely the temporary side effect of the e-commerce giant's commitment to constant experimentation.

But this is not OK -- not if Amazon wants to convince people to completely alter their behavior in an area known to be resistant to change. And we know it does. Just look at its $14 billion takeover of Whole Foods, with physical stores expected to extend Amazon's grocery delivery distribution potential.

The fact of the matter is that grocery remains a predominantly offline business. Just 0.1 percent of annual food and beverage store sales occurred online, according to CBRE's analysis of 2015 e-commerce census data.


When it comes to online grocery orders, you first have to get past the mental hurdle of feeling lazy for outsourcing the job, then you have to grapple with the idea of a stranger picking out everything from your eggs and milk to your fruits and vegetables. Surely, I don't have to explain why this matters given our own personal vetting processes for hand-picking produce.

It's a very real concern. AmazonFresh has let me down more often than not in the quality department. It's apparently let others down, too, what with Amazon scaling back on Fresh delivery areas in the U.S.

Plus, the redundancy of Amazon's grocery efforts is not lost on the audience tracking and analyzing Amazon's every move. During the company's most recent conference call with analysts, Scott Devitt with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., called out the obvious -- though using much politer language than a regular person would ever use.

"Prime Now, Fresh, Prime Pantry, and Whole Foods, they're all distinct offerings, but it does seem like there's natural overlap with the potential to be further connected," he said. "And I was just wondering if you could just speak to how we should think about those four as distinct product offerings in the future versus being more integrated and possibly even in some cases, eliminated to remove overlap from a customer experience standpoint."


In other words, what are you thinking, Amazon?

Here's the company's formal reasoning, as supplied by a company spokesperson:

"Each service offers customers something unique and different: Prime Now offers one and free two-hour delivery on our most popular Amazon items and daily essentials; AmazonFresh offers same and next-day delivery on all the groceries you need for weekly shopping; Prime Pantry offers low-priced household staples, in everyday sizes for a flat $5.99 shipping fee, customers can order as much or as little as they want.

Amazon continues to innovate on behalf of customers to make grocery shopping an easier and faster task so they can get back to doing the things they love. As a result, we've created a variety of innovative services that satisfy customers' different needs as it relates to grocery shopping. We have loyal customers who use each of these services, and some who use all three."

Another rationale, from Amazon's Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky, makes a little more sense. He said shoppers in the real world go to convenience stores, supermarkets and super stores, implying those behaviors carry over to online shopping depending on consumers' needs.

You almost had me, Brian. But I go to Amazon to skip the inconveniences of offline shopping -- think: visiting multiple stores, finding inconsistent prices and dealing with the overall time suck -- not replicate them.

About The Writer

Jennifer Van Grove covers e-commerce and digital lifestyle for The San Diego Union Tribune. Readers may send her email at

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