How to Use Amazon for Economical Purchasing- Part 2, by Sarah Latimer

How to Locate/Shop for Items

The main principle here is database searching functions. There are literally millions of products available through Amazon, and it would take almost forever to read through their entire list of product offerings, especially since there are duplicates made available by multiple vendors. You want to find exactly what you are looking for as quickly as possible and find the best value, however you define that in your particular situation. Sometimes, it is for a disposable in which case the least expensive item may do the trick. Other times, it is critical that the item endure over a long time. Regardless, you need to get started by finding the items that meet (or exceed your specifications and need). Here are some ideas of how I hone in on items fairly quickly:

  1. Search Specifically in All Departments. If I have a pretty good idea of what I am looking for, I start off by using the search window within the drop down “All” departments. By searching all departments, I am performing the largest sweep for an item. If I am shopping for a men’s hooded rain jacket, for example, I could simply type in “men’s hooded rain jacket” and drop down to search within “Clothing”, but then I might miss the jackets listed in the “Sports & Outdoor” category. So, initially, I type in the most specific description of what I am looking for and searching for those items within “All” departments. However, if you are looking for 99% isopropyl alcohol, you may not want to search in “All” departments. Instead, you may want to search for “isopropyl alcohol” within the “Health and Personal Care” department so that you don’t find every product containing alcohol, or you may want to be specific by searching “99% isopropyl alcohol”, which would be a more precise search and could be searched within all departments. I would follow the latter options and search using the most specific description. In doing so, I still get 440 product options to browse through. The results include a lot of alcohol options– everything from quart, gallon, and 5-gallon size containers of 99%+ alcohol to individual alcohol swabs and disinfectant wipes in dispenser canisters and more.
  2. Search and/or Browse in Categories and Sort to Target Item. If you are shopping for a men’s lightweight hooded jacket, but you don’t know what kind or color of jacket you want, you might just want to browse. While shopping for a man’s hooded rain jacket, you could find the options in a variety of ways. You could go to the search window and type “men’s hooded jacket”. If you know that you want a “men’s navy, waterproof, lightweight, hooded rain jacket”, then you could type all of these keywords into the search field and come up with dozens of options. Alternatively, you could browse by department. You could go to the “Clothing” category and select “Men”. Then, select “Clothing” (versus accessories, uniforms, et cetera) and “Jackets”. From there, you can either browse or refine your selections again by selecting “Trench & Rain”. At any point in this process, you can also type some description into the search window to refine the options shown. At the time of this article, we are shown 166 mens trench or rain jackets to choose from. That’s a pretty large selection! Now, you can just browse through in the order that Amazon has listed them, or you can choose to reorder them to your liking, using the “Sort by” field. I like to use this field to help me find the highest quality and best prices. I will search by lowest to highest price and also by average customer review (rating). I personally am not interested in the newest arrivals, as I am not one to jump onto the latest and greatest fashion fads. I want tried and true items, especially when it comes to my prepping supplies! The new arrivals usually haven’t had enough buyers to provide good feedback on the products, and this feedback is very important information to me.
  3. Use the “Refine By” Options to Get More Specific with Customer Rating, Maker, Size, et cetera. The “Refine By” options are down the left column on my computer. (I don’t use know where they are placed on a Smartphone or iPad, since I like to use the computing tool with the largest screen and multiple tabs when I’m shopping and comparing prices.) When I do a search and come up with thousands of options, I often refine my search by looking for only those products that have been reviewed highly. To do this, I refine the search to items with only four or more stars. If I’m looking for clothing options, I also look for items available in a specific size. On certain types of products, it is also important to me to have an item made by a certain maker. When it comes to knives and blades, Hugh has a few favorite makers, so I look for knives or blades from specific makers that fit my search description. One of my sons is a big fan of Cold Steel knives, so when I’m shopping for a knife for him, I search for the type of knife he wants and then use the “Refine By” option to select Cold Steel as the maker option. This way, I don’t have to scroll through a lot of knives that are not from Cold Steel to find the one I want to buy for him.
  4. Read the Reviews! Now, while I just above stated that I sometimes refine my searches based upon customer ratings, those are not always trustworthy as the basis for making your final selection between two or more products. I highly recommend that you always take some time to read a sampling of the product reviews, unless the item is so standardized that you don’t worry. For example, there probably isn’t a lot of difference between the quart size bottles of 99% isopropyl alcohol, so you can just pick one with a high rating and go with that fairly confidently. However, there may be some difference in packaging and shipping. This is one of those rarities, since it is fairly consistant as a single ingredient. Most other products can be “duds” presented as something better or different than they are. While a product may have a five-star rating, you may read that all of the reviewers say is that it “arrived as described” and none have used it. That five star rating has little meaning, other than that the supplier ships it in a timely manner. Down the road a bit, that won’t mean a thing. What matters is whether the item satisfies its purpose or not. You may alteratively read that all of the reviewers of an item who rated it with four stars received the product for free or at a reduced price in exchange for their “fair evaluation and review”. You may also see that just over half of the handful of ratings are five star ratings with very favorable comments by people who have actually used the product over time and the other nearly half are one star ratings by people who didn’t like the color or didn’t read the description and bought the wrong thing or said it wouldn’t do what they wanted it to do (which was something other than what it was designed to do). These one star ratings skewed the overall rating significantly, but it doesn’t mean the product isn’t a five star product. I saw this in the case of a coffee/spice grinder once, where people were trying to use it to grind nuts and were frustrated when it gummed up and quit working. It was’t designed to grind soft, oily sunflower seeds and almonds! Yet, these folks gave the product one star ratings, while those who used it for coffee and hard spices gave it five stars. I bought it in spite of its low three and a half star rating, and our family successfully used it for the purposes it was intended, and we still use it years later. You need to read to find out what the strengths and weaknesses of a product are. Just note that more and more vendors are offering their products for free or at reduced prices in order to get reviews because the vendors recognize that a large number of high ratings is helpful to moving their product forward and giving buyers confidence, but the reviewers are required to note this at the end of their reviews, which I appreciate. I read those reviews but consider them a little less reliable than those from consumers who paid full retail price for the product. Since the reviewers didn’t pay full price, they may have a lower expectation of the item. Their detailed information about the product is still valuable, and I have pleasantly seen some good critisms come for these reviewers. Basically, the star rating is not adequate in and of itself to use in choosing between two products. You must read the details in the reviews from actual buyers! Honest feedback is quite valuable in comparing products. I have even been surprised and pleased to read some interesting recommendations on how to use items for survival purposes and have seen SurvivalBlog articles referenced and linked within Amazon product reviews! They can be quite informative and helpful in selecting and also in utilizing products.
  5. Look for the “Frequently Bought Together” Suggestions. If there is a companion product that is helpful in the use of some item, down below the item’s description there is usually a list of other products listed as “Frequently Bought Together”. This can make it easy to find appropriate items, too. Even if you want something different, this may give you the specifications/sizing information you need to help you begin your own search.
  6. Search for “Bulk” when Buying Disposables. When shopping for disposables, such as paper towels, household cleaners, food items, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and even items that store a long time, like essential oils, it is often more economical to buy large volume items or multiple items in a purchase pack. So, I often search for the item I’m looking for along with the word “bulk” behind it to help me locate these larger items and compare pricing. For example, a four pack of toothpaste may cost $29, while a single tube of the same toothpaste is $8, including shipping. However, a twin pack of the same toothpaste may only cost $9.47 when part of Prime Pantry. Let’s talk about how to get these values in the next section.

Getting a Good Value

Think about what you really need in a product and use that in your search parameters. Then, look for prices and, most importantly, read rating reviews. I want to obtain a product that performs its function well and will continue to do so for an extended period of time in exchange for my family having to part with the least possible amount of money. I will pay for quality over junk, but I don’t want to waste a dime. Remember my mom’s lecture to me: “a penny saved is a penny earned”. I take my job of being a frugile buyer for our family seriously. It is one of the ways I can make a great contribution to our family and is an area others recognize I have skill, thus I do a good deal of shopping for multiple families.

I never had the opportunity to meet my maternal grandmother. Folks say she was a shrewd business woman, and back in the late 19th and early 20th century people came from multiple counties to ask her to accompany them to the livestock auctions, as she was very good at selecting livestock and negotiating deals on their behalf. My mother was an accountant and watched every penny she spent. I supposed I may have come by my skill through some geneology and observation, as my mother was the most frugal woman I ever met, but we ate well, dressed well, and always lived in a very comfortable home. I had no knowledge of any struggles. When I look back on what my parents were able to build and save on their meager income, even durig the Depression, I know that they were conservative spenders and wise with their money. I hope I am teaching my children and grandchildren the same.

Search Products and Read Reviews to Find Quality and Get Educated Before Hunting Best Prices

Amazon offers a number of ways to save, but first you have to make sure you aren’t sacrificing on quality. While some products may only have three stars, once you read the reviews you find that the few reviewers simply were not good shoppers and ordered the wrong color or didn’t read the description of the product and ordered the wrong size, yet scored the product low even though the mistake was their (the buyer’s) error rather than anything to do with the quality or functional of the product. I’ve seen this time and again where buyers didn’t read descriptions and then blamed the manufacturer or the product because it didn’t perform a function they wanted. Still, the buyer was angry over their mistake and took out their frustration in the rating and review rather than realizing their own error and just returning it. Those who bought the item for the function it was designed to fill gave it five stars, but those who gave it one star brought the overall rating down to three stars. It deserved five stars. I’ve also seen some four or four and a half star items that were only rated by people who had been given the product in exchange for a review. I don’t have any problem with products being given to people for review or sold at reduced rate, but I am some how a bit suspicious that those reviews are slanted more favorable than they might be by someone who paid full price. I look for reviews from those who paid full price to validate any others.

Read about the products and specifications. Many reviews are detailed and will discuss applications and situations where the product works best and where it does not. Sometimes, knowing how it fails is very useful. Consider your intended use and then adjust your search accordingly. Find good quality products first and make sure you know what you want and are well-educated on how to tell what is the best and what is not.

Searching and reading before making a purchase, particularly a significant purchase, it very important. I read even on small items, because then I will know what to come back to reorder confidently the next time. If I did my homework up front, I can be confident that my family is eating, using, wearing, drinking, and enjoying the best I can afford to give them. So read up before hunting those deals, because what looks like a deal may not be a deal if the product is junk.

Shipping and Prime Membership

Prime membership is $99 a year and offers free two-day shipping on many products, plus the membership includes some additional free services, including Prime Amazon video/movies ( similar to Netflix) and Prime audio/music. Also a once-a-month free Kindle book download from the lending library of over 500,000 books is part of the membership. I have not used the lending library, so I cannot comment on the quality of this service, but the Amazon video and audio has been useful at times. There is also a photo cloud storage service, but I strongly caution against using this! Since all cloud storage is always actually on someone’s server, you can lose control of whatever you upload to “the cloud”. Should someone (i.e. government or a hacker) access your cloud-stored photos and use facial recognition software to identify someone in your photo library, they will now know that you are one of their associates also. Alternatively, if you are targeted because of your patriotic, survivalist, and/or political position, or for any other reason, then your family and friends could also be at risk because they appear in pictures with you. Hugh and I simply recommend that you do not use cloud storage service, period! However, it is my opinion that the shipping benefit of Prime membership alone is worth the membership fee, and then the free video and audio downloads are just icing on the cake.

With shipping costs at other websites ranging from $5 and usually much more per package, regardless of how small the item, I estimated that all I needed to do was make more than 16 small purchases a year to find Prime membership profitable for the shipping benefit alone. That comes out to just a little more than one per month, and I do a LOT more than that! Even when I did a comparison of web stores that offered free shipping on $100+ orders, I found the Amazon products we frequently purchased were priced considerably lower than other stores, so shopping Amazon and using Prime made the most sense for our family. Sure, we also shop the warehouse, like Costco, for items, but it is a long drive and takes almost a full day of our time. There are the occasional times when Amazon is less expensive than Costco or other sources, and it is far more convenient to have items dropped at my doorstep than for our family to make the drive to the big city.

Also, with the Prime membership you have some advantages with third-party sellers also, including free returns on defective products and so forth that are not quite so clear cut or expedited without the Prime membership. When I got the membership, I saw an immediate across-the-board improvement in services.

If you only make a few purchases a year on Amazon and don’t want to invest in Prime membership, wait to accumulate enough items in your cart so that you are spending at least $25 (though this amount may have gone up) on Amazon-inventoried items (items not shipped from third-party providers) in the same order. You will have the option for reduced shipping charges. While this shipping option is slower, it can help you save money.

Prime Pantry for Your Everyday Grocery Store Items Delivered to Your Door

For $5.99 per box, those with Prime membership can order the heavy, bulky, or otherwise grocery store items and have them delivered to their doorstep at prices that often rival the big box store and grocery store prices. I have bought my share of Prime Pantry boxes. For survival food, a box of long grain and wild rice rice-a-roni, a can of meat, and then a can of cream of mushroom soup offer an excellent one-pot casserole that can be brought to a boil in a cast iron dutch oven over a rocket stove and then put in a wonder oven and left for only an hour or so to make a wonderful casserole dinner. I got the boxes of rice-a-roni for under $1 per box on a Daily Deal, which I’ll talk about a little later in the article.

Prime Pantry boxes vary in size and are allowed to hold up to 45 pounds of product. Amazon says, “Your order will be packaged in an appropriate-sized box, based on the dimensions and weight of the items. This box could be anything from the size of a shoe box to as large as a suitcase.” While shopping in the Prime Pantry category, you are told what percentage of the box the product fills. Amazon says, “A percentage is calculated for each item, based on its maximum dimensions or weight. For example, a 12 pack of soda and a 6 pack of paper towels are each approximately the same percentage. While the soda is heavier, the paper towels take up more room.”

If you don’t fill a Prime Pantry box, the items you have purchased will be shipped in an appropriately sized box, though Amazon is famous for excessive packaging and over-sized boxes. If you sign up for Prime membership, be sure you have a means for disposing of or repurposing lots of boxes. BTW, there are some great uses for cardboard boxes. I use strips of cardboard, written on with a Sharpie marker and covered completely in packing tape, placed on sticks that serve as almost-free garden markers. They sure aren’t the prettiest garden markers I’ve ever used, as I have used some beautiful copper ones, but those got bent and lost over time. When the cardboard ones get destroyed, it is no big loss; I have lots more Amazon boxes at my disposal.

Hunting the Deals

Amazon often offers good prices on products. I’ve found at times that Amazon’s price on a particular product is lower than the manufacturer’s price; I suppose this is the case because shipping is factored into the final price. Once again, the prime membership or free shipping for higher priced items is a big advantage to shopping on Amazon. However, there are also some ridiculously high priced items for sale on Amazon, too, though usually by third-party vendors. You must shop wisely and do some comparisons to be sure you are paying a reasonable price! Usually, the items listed highest on the search list are reasonable and popular deals, but “the buyer should always beware”.

In addition to their regular, competitively-priced products, Amazon offers some limited time and limited quantity deals, identified under the heading “Today’s Deals”. Today’s Deals include:

Deal of the Day– This is a limited quantity item or items that are significantly reduced in price for the day. It is worth checking these items each day, as there are some great tools and big ticket items sometimes marked 40-50% off!

Lightning Deals- Usually well over a hundred items, many with four or five stars, offered at discount. These have quantity and time limits. You have to watch the clock, as they expire throughout the day and tell you the percentage claimed. The problem is that someone can order a quantity and it close fairly quickly. Don’t dilly dally on these!

Prime Early Access Deals– These are deals that are not yet available but are upcoming. As a Prime member, you get advanced viewing and can watch these items for when their sale price becomes active. It’s great to be able to investigate a product ahead of time, and then snag it at a significant discount within the next 24 hours. Sometimes, what I see with these is that the lightning deals become deals of the day when they are closing them out for whatever reason, whether there is a new model or Amazon just isn’t carrying it for awhile. It’s like a clearance sale and you get advance notice, if you are a Prime member. I’ve been able to buy some awesome equipment, household and camping supplies, high-quality jewelry, and awesome gifts for a fraction of their original price using the early access deals and lightning deals.

Buyer Beware

While there are some great deals on Amazon, there are some ridiculous ones, too! Be careful to read the quantity, size, ounces, and descriptions. You may assume that toothpaste offer that is priced at $36 is for multiple tubes, when in fact it is for one travel-size tube. I’ve never been caught with this situation, but I have seen many of these offers listed and read a few reviews from people who didn’t notice the description size. Don’t be one to be caught expecting one thing and getting another. If the description is different than what you receive, you have a claim. If not, you are the loser. This is just another reason to read the descriptions and the reviews. Fortunately, if it seems odd or that there is a mistake in the listing, you can ask a question about the product and wait for an answer before making your purchase.

Don’t Forget Your Specialized Mom and Pop Stores, Especially SurvivalBlog’s Advertisers, Too!

With over 41 million Prime members, Amazon is a huge and convenient source of product for many buyers are looking for convenience, selection, and competitive pricing. Just be sure you don’t forget the mom and pop sellers out there also, especially your local sources who keep your small-town economy alive, and our faithful SurvivalBlog advertisers, who keep the blog coming your way day after day! Amazon truly is a wonderful, convenient tool, but there are just some things that can’t be replaced by an efficient giant like Amazon– friendly, personal customer service and specialized products. The SurvivalBlog advertisers offer both of these and more!

Enjoy shopping from the comfort of your home, whether from Amazon or another online retailer, like one of SurvivalBlog’s advertisers. I’m much happier getting my goods from the UPS driver than fighting the crowds and standing in lines at the big stores. Maybe you will be, too.