Does Amazon 'Subscribe and Save' really save?

Amazon 'Subscribe and Save' ships household goods like toilet paper and shampoo directly to your home. It's a huge time saver, but the money savings are probably no better than your average wholesale club.

Rick Wilking/Reuters/File
A box from sits on the porch of a house in Golden, Colorado. After shopping the numbers, Hamm found that savings for goods delivered through Amazon's Subscribe and Save program were decent, but usually not better than a wholesale club.

When I buy household products, I look at the cost per unit before everything else. I try to figure out the cost per ounce, the cost per bag, and so on whenever I examine an item.

Usually, my comparisons end up looking at the cost of the item at our local warehouse club versus the cost of the item when it’s on sale at our local grocery stores. Usually, the warehouse club is cheaper on most household goods, but sometimes a great sale at the grocery store can bump that cost lower.

Lately, though, I’ve been looking at the Subscribe and Save program offered by Amazon. This is a program where you can choose to “subscribe” to household goods and, then, once a month they’ll package them up and ship them to you based on your subscription.

So, let’s say you “subscribe” to diapers on a monthly basis, shampoo every other month, and toothpaste every three months. On the first, fifth, seventh, and eleventh months of the year, you’d just get diapers. On the second, fourth, eighth, and tenth months of the year, you’d get diapers and shampoo. On the third and ninth months of the year, you’d get diapers and toothpaste, and on the sixth and twelfth month, you’d get all three items. Their system handles all of this scheduling for you – all you have to do is subscribe to the individual item you want.

If you subscribe to just one item, you get a 5% discount off of the price. If you subscribe to five or more items, you’ll get a 15% discount off the price. It’s at that 15% discount rate that the price of these items becomes really comparable to what I can get around here.

So, I started shopping their “Subscribe and Save” section to see what I could pick up that would actually beat my warehouse club at the 15% discount level.

I just moved through our list of household supplies that we buy regularly – shampoo, toothpaste, garbage bags, and so on – and I compared them directly with the price at our local warehouse club. If I couldn’t find an exact match, I’d calculate cost per unit using the calculator.

As I looked, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the items were cheaper at my warehouse club even at the 15% discount level – but not all of them. The problem is that it takes five items to reach that level – and without that 15% discount, I couldn’t find any items that I couldn’t get at a lower price locally.

Another challenge is the need for refills. What if you run out of something in the middle of the month? You can request that they ship the item early, but then you have to pay for shipping on that faster item. To avoid that, the best route is to simply get them a bit more frequently than you’d use them, but then you build up a bit as they arrive faster than your consumption rate, meaning eventually you’ll have to de-subscribe.

Still, after a long period of searching, I did find five items that we use regularly that are less expensive on Amazon with the Subscribe and Save discount than I could find locally, so I subscribed.

Once the subscription was in place, it was really convenient. The items arrived like clockwork, so I had no need to pick them up at the grocery store. I did end up building a backlog of some of the items, so I had to change the delivery schedule, but that was easy enough.

Overall, I saved money, but on occasion, I would see local sales that would trump the value of the “schedule and save” system. I would have saved money waiting for those sales. On the other hand, watching for those sales takes time, as you have to watch flyers every week to catch those sales.

So, what’s a person to do? The most time-effective route (while still bringing down your bills) is to just do a big comparison of prices between “Subscribe and Save” and your local warehouse club or grocery store, then subscribe to anything that’s cheaper than the regular price and not sweat the sales. However, you can certainly invest more time into the plan by comparing weekly flyers – you will absolutely save more money, but it won’t be a lot of money and it will require some time (the amount of which is really up to you).

In the end, I think “Subscribe and Save” really comes down to time. It’s an extremely fast way to get a pretty good price on household items and just have them show up on your doorstep. However, the prices are generally trumped by a warehouse club and, sometimes, by sales at your local grocery store.

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