Amazon Fresh first look: Just Walk Out, then wait for the receipt and hope it’s accurate

Friday morning started with me driving to a grocery store in a neighorhood in which I’m sure I’d last bought milk in the 1990s, and it was all Amazon’s fault. The tech giant opened one of its Amazon Fresh stores in Crystal City Thursday–and while technological curiosity alone would have pushed me to try this establishment’s Just Walk Out surveillance-checkout system, the analog lure of a $10-off-$20 coupon mailed to our house sealed the deal.

Plus, that mailing promised an Amazon gift card, from $5 to $50, for the first 50 customers in the store on the first three days. How could I not?

Alas, finding a street parking spot–more of an issue then when I lived in a less lively Crystal City from 1993 to 1994–ate up too much time for me to get that Amazon bonus. But the shopping trip was enlightening in other ways.

After waiting in line to enter the store after its 7 a.m. opening (during which my 11-year-old and I each got a free bag of “chocolate truffle snacks” from a cheerful greeter), I authenticated myself to the store by opening my phone’s Amazon app and showing its QR code to a turnstile scanner that could have fit into any cutting-edge subway system.

(Amazon also offers Amazon One palm scanning as a store check-in method. But while I accept the inevitability of governments collecting my biometrics at national borders, I don’t have to help every for-profit company build its own biometric database.)

At about 16,000 square feet, this Amazon Fresh location was even smaller than the compact Safeway in the Crystal City Underground that I relied on in a previous century. Its selection made me think of a miniaturized Whole Foods that had gone to the dark side by stocking such forbidden-at-WF items as various flavors of Coke–a more useful Whole Foods, if you will.

The place also soundly beat Whole Foods in some categories by stocking Amazon house-brand “Happy Belly” items. For example, while a gallon of 2% milk at Whole Foods now goes for $4.99, Amazon Fresh matched the Trader Joe’s price of $3.69.

After checking the prices of everything I’d deposited in a reusable shopping bag to verify that I’d cleared $20, I checked out. By which I mean I did not “Just Walk Out” but instead scanned the QR code in that paper coupon and then scanned the QR code in the Amazon app for a second time at an exit faregate of sorts.

And then I waited for a receipt to arrive. That documentation did not land until more than five hours later, when it reported a total about $10 more than I’d expected. Somehow, the cameras and machine vision that drive Just Walk Out had decided that my picking up four individual kiwi fruits really represented me picking up one of what people once called a Chinese gooseberry, followed by two bundles or packages of those fruits.

Amazon’s app provides a “Request item refund” option for Fresh shoppers that lets you select “item not taken” as the reason why. But selecting that on my phone–and then in the Amazon app on my iPad–yielded a “We’re sorry” dialog. It apologized: “An error has occurred, but rest assured, we’re working to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

I resorted to a common coping mechanism when dealing with indifference from a giant multinational corporation: tweeting about the problem, then diverting my attention to other things. And then about four hours later, I got an e-mail from Amazon saying (“Reason for refund: Item billing error”) that they would refund the sum in question.

Will I return to that store? Absolutely! There’s a $20-off-$40 offer for Amazon Prime subscribers who shop there Tuesday and Wednesday. I may, however, use an old-school checkout on my next visit.

E-mail like it’s 2012: revisiting my Gmail filters

Several months ago, I spent too many hours hacking away at the 18 years’ worth of messages piled up in my Gmail account–because while I could live with paying for extra storage for Google’s backups of my own photos, I’d be damned if I was going to pay to warehouse random companies’ marketing pitches that were eating up far more of my free storage.

Screenshot of Gmail's filter, showing a menu of options that

That experience evidently wasn’t enough fun for me, because over the last couple of weeks I’ve dived into a corner of the Gmail interface I hadn’t spent any sustained time in since… 2012? Fortunately for me, Gmail’s filter interface hasn’t sustained any notable changes in at least that long, judging from how rarely it’s earned a mention in Google’s Gmail blog over the last decade.

Much as in 2012, this dialog lets me choose a message by factors like sender, recipient, subject, content, size and the presence of an attachments. Its next pane allows me to amplify the message’s importance by starring it or marking it as important, apply a label or file it under a category tab, or forward it to to an outside address registered with your Gmail account using an even more fossilized interface.

Those are the basics of e-mail management, and they did suffice to help me craft updated message rules that make my Gmail inbox less chaotic and keep my more consequential correspondence filed away neatly. Less e-entropy is a good outcome.

But the limits of the filtering user experience loom large among Gmail’s missing features. The one I keep coming back to is an equivalent to the “sweep” function in the Microsoft’s Outlook.com that automatically whisks matching messages into the trash 10 days after they arrive. But it’s also crazy that the entire filter UX is imprisoned in Gmail’s Web app–you can neither create nor edit nor view filters in Gmail’s Android and iOS apps, as if the last 10 years of mobile-first computing never reached whatever Googleplex building houses the Gmail developers.

Compare that thin gruel to the thoughtful mail-management tools surfacing in apps that actually have to win customers–I’m thinking here of a new Gmail front end called Shortwave that a team of former Google developers just shipped, but also of the Hey mail service. It’s not hard to think that Google could do a lot more with Gmail if it put serious effort into that work. It’s also not hard to think that Google must feel as comfortable in the e-mail market as Microsoft and Yahoo did before Gmail showed up in 2004.

The two annual fees I pay to shop for stuff

Thursday’s news that the cost of Amazon Prime will go up from $119 to $139 reminded me that, yes, I do pay this annual fee just to be able to spend more money buying stuff. And then Friday I went on this month’s Costco run, which reminded me of the other annual fee I pay to be able to spend more money buying stuff.

We’ve been paying for these memberships for so long that I had to look it up–we added a Prime subscription in 2012 after free introduction to Prime via the old Amazon Mom promotion ended, while my wife’s Costco membership dates to 2001. Over that time, the cost of Prime has risen from $79 to $99 to $119. The cost of Costco membership, meanwhile, has gone from $45 to $50 to $55 to the current $60 during our tenure, and this pattern of a $5 increase every five years means it will probably hit $65 later this year.

The Costco membership is easier to justify. While not everything in its warehouses will save you money compared to shopping at a grocery store, we easily save enough in purchases like 25-pound bags of King Arthur flour, two-pound bags of yeast, three-liter bottles of Kirkland-brand olive oil and the absurdly-cheap booze at the D.C. Costco to recoup that fee within six months.

The math is more complex at Amazon, since Prime now folds in so many different services and features. Free two-day shipping is supposed to represent Prime’s core value, but most of our purchases don’t require that; meanwhile, I do save enough in Amazon Prime discounts at Whole Foods (as in, the closest full-size grocery store to our house) to offset a large chunk of Prime’s cost. Amazon Music now factors heavily into our household value calculation by virtue of the use it gets on our Echo (as in, our kid asking Alexa to play the Encanto soundtrack), but even as Amazon has invested heavily in creating original movies and series for Prime Video, our viewing hasn’t kept up.

These value equations get even woolier when you factor in the conduct of these companies. By which I mean, Costco is an easy company to like–it’s paid its store employees so well that some Wall Street analysts have whined that it’s too generous–while Amazon is not. The Seattle tech giant has real problems with fake products, fake reviews, occupational safety, and its treatment of third-party sellers and third-party delivery drivers. It collects vast amounts of data about its customers yet barely documents how it responds to government requests for that information.

(You may have noticed that all but the last of those links about Amazon’s issues point to stories in the Washington Post–which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spent $250 million to buy. That speaks to the character of my old shop and that of Bezos. The other local angle with Amazon is its HQ2 rising in Arlington a few miles from our house and already helping to elevate its value, meaning my wife and I are both personally wealthier and pay higher property taxes.)

But Amazon’s wage increases for warehouse employees, combined with its massive size, have resulted in the firm doing what Washington apparently can’t–elevating the minimum wage across a large swath of the country. And in his last letter to shareholders as CEO, Bezos wrote that his new mission for his company was to make it “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”

Realistically, we’ll almost certainly keep paying what I’ve called the “Amazon citizenship tax.” But I want to know that some of this extra $20 a year will go towards making those goals happen.

Repairability FTW, or how I bought an old laptop some new life by replacing its battery

My four-year-old laptop now feels a little less ancient and my bank account still only has one new-computer-sized dent in it for this year, thanks to one replacement component that proved to be harder to shop for than to install.

This 2017 HP Specte x360 shouldn’t have needed a new battery at all, given how infrequently it’s left the house or even been unplugged from a power outlet since March of 2020.

But over the last 18 months it had exhibited increasingly bad battery life, to the point that I could not reasonably expect it to last more than hour away from an outlet. HP’s hardware diagnostics app outright labeled the battery “failed” and advised a replacement–even though its logs showed this component had only gone through 387 charge cycles out of its design life of 1,000 and still had a capacity of 25 watt-hours instead of the original 60.

Photo shows the replacement battery on top of the original one, with part of the laptop's circuitry visible behind both.

(Then again, my old MacBook Air also began reporting battery issues well short of that 1,000-cycle mark.)

For a while, I considered toughing out this problem until I could buy a new laptop. But between the chip shortage bogging down laptop shipments and my trip to Web Summit coming up next week, I decided it would be stupid to keep limping along.

Annoyingly enough, HP’s parts store did not carry a replacement battery for my model. I checked the company’s list of authorized vendors next; only one, ITPAS, seemed to sell the battery I needed.

They listed a $99.80 price for the battery, which seemed a bit steep. I found other vendors selling what was at least identified as a compatible “CP03XL” battery on Amazon and NewEgg’s storefronts that advertised much cheaper prices. But none had nearly enough good and at least not-obviously-fake reviews to make me want to trust them all that much. I tried asking on Reddit for further guidance, but this usually reliable source of crowdsourced tech support did not come through here.

So I decided to go with the most-legitimate retailer, and after a pleasant chat with an ITPAS customer-service rep that cleared up some details left vague on the site (notwithstanding the “Available to special order” note on the battery page, they had it in stock, and “FedEx Home Delivery” would mean only a few days), I placed my order Friday and hoped to see the battery arrive before the middle of this week.

It arrived the next day, before I’d even received a shipping-notification e-mail–and then a few days later, a second battery arrived, a generous glitch the company couldn’t explain when I reported it but quickly responded by e-mailing a FedEx shipping label with which I could return the duplicate.

The bigger delay here turned out to be me, in that I didn’t think to ask a friend to borrow his set of Torx screwdrivers until he’d already left for the weekend. Arguably, I should already own my own set, but the last time I needed these tools was when I replaced my old iMac’s hard drive with a solid state drive in 2018.

Anyway, with the right implements at hand, HP’s maintenance and service manual revealed the battery replacement to be a fairly simple procedure. Shut down the laptop, remove six screws holding the bottom lid (two of which were underneath a strip of plastic on the underside that once held its rubber feet in place), and pop off that lower lid. Then detach the old battery’s power cable from the system, gently tug the speaker cable out of the bracket at one end of the battery, undo four more tiny screws to free the battery. and lift it out. 

I did those steps in reverse to connect and secure the new battery, then found myself struggling to get the bottom lid to close up properly. After a second try with the six outer screws, there’s still some flex at its front, underneath the trackpad. Was that there all along? I can’t tell, not having thought to take beforehand photos to document this laptop’s condition as if it were a rental car I’d need to return later to a nervous agency.

The re-empowered laptop them rebooted into an screen reporting a CMOS checksum error that I could fix by resetting it to its defaults, I did, and the laptop has not complained further. That HP diagnostics app now reports the the battery state as “passed,” which is nice–and when I set the laptop to run a battery-life test in which it would stream NASA TV via YouTube, it ran a full five hours and 40 minutes.

I’ll take that–at least as far as Lisbon next week and Las Vegas in January, but maybe even for a few more months after.

Yet another way to overthink shopping: discounted gift cards via AARP Rewards

Late last year, I hit the half-century mark and then, several weeks later, made my advanced age quasi-official by getting an AARP membership card. The discounts and benefits touted by the nonprofit once known as the American Association of Retired Persons seemed like they would justify the small cost of a membership that I’d already reduced by prepaying for five years (quite the vote of confidence for me to cast in late January!) and getting a cash-back deal on it from my Citi Double Cash card.

It took me a little longer to realize that the real payback would come from AARP Rewards. This program, partly open to non-members, offers points you can collect by completing such simple tasks as answering quizzes or just visiting the Rewards page, then redeem for gift cards as well as magazine and online subscriptions. The return on those points hasn’t been good for me, between the high number required to procure a gift card (for instance, 25,000 points for a $10 Spotify card) and the low odds of picking up one for less in an instant-win or sweepstakes entry (I’m batting .000 there after nine attempts, but at least I’ve only burned 450 points this way).

But AARP Rewards also sells a wide variety of gift cards at good-to-excellent discounts, some of which cover common if not unavoidable expenses and therefore amount to free money. For example, you can get a $15 Google Play gift card for $13, a 13.3 percent savings, while Home Depot, Safeway and REI gift cards come at 8% off. (All of those examples but Home Depot require an AARP membership, which younger people can get at an “associate” level while full benefits are reserved for my new demographic of 50 and older.)

AARP Rewards also sells a limited number of daily-deal gift cards at a deeper discount; for example, last month I picked up a $15 Crate & Barrel gift card for $10. But deals from the best-known retailers vanish almost immediately, as I’ve learned in multiple failed attempts to snag a Home Depot gift card at 30% off.

So far, I’ve racked up $24 in savings this way–although since I haven’t used all these gift cards yet, the savings are somewhat theoretical. The downside is that I now have yet another place to check after credit-card sites and miles-and-points shopping portals before I make an online purchase. And I now have yet another reason to feel a little dirty if I forget to do that and later realize I missed out on a chance to save a few bucks.

Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

How not to order online for in-store pickup

As a student of online retail, I’m occupationally obliged to try a newly-touted shopping option from a big-name retailer. And as one of the least efficient Home Depot shoppers ever born, I’ll do a lot to avoid walking up and down aisles for an hour to find a particular widget.

So when I realized I had an intersection of limited time for shopping with a growing to-do list of home repairs, I decided to take Home Depot up on its invitation to let the employees at the nearest location grab the items on my shopping list. I’d pay in advance, and then I could pick up my purchases on the way back from another errand I already had on my schedule.

Of course, none of that happened as I’d hoped.

The promised same-day pickup came and went, which I’d accepted upfront as a risk given the generalized logistical hell of life in the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

But after 48 hours with no update on what Home Depot had done with my money, I thought I should try to get an update. Texting the number on my e-mailed receipt, however, yielded this disheartening and unexplained auto-reply: “To support the high volume of help requests resulting from COVID-19, we have temporarily suspended messaging services.”

I tried calling next. After spending 25 minutes on hold, most of that featuring recorded reminders that I could order online and pick up in store, the call dropped. I also tried calling the store directly; after 11 minutes on hold, that call also went into the bit bucket. I tweeted my annoyance at this display of botched customer relationship management and moved on for the day.

Two days later, I must have been in a mood for more punishment, since I tried calling the Home Depot customer-service line again. This time, I only had to sit through 17 minutes of hold music before my call got dumped.

My tweet about this latest fascinating development drew the attention of one of Bernie Sanders’ more devout fans, and I spent the next few hours getting roasted for my alleged selfish disregard for the plight of Home Depot’s workers.

I thought I’d been pretty clear in trying to complain about a broken CRM stack that took customers’ money and offered no hint about when they’d get the items they’d tried to purchase. But I have been on Twitter way too long to be surprised to see context crumble there.

The next morning, Home Depot e-mailed to say that my same-day pickup was ready, a good five days after I’d clicked a purchase button. My receipt of this message was my cue to remember one item that I’d forgotten to put on this order, a short stretch of water hose to replace the leaking connector on a hose reel.

And then I waited until the next afternoon to stop by Home Depot’s Seven Corners location to pick up my purchases. On arriving there, I realized that the window-screen repair kit I’d ordered did not include the screen itself, just the frame. I could have known that in advance by, you know, reading the kit’s description online–but instead I had to spend a little more time meandering around the place.

Anyway, here’s the important part of the story: The employees in this store were great, as usual.

Here’s why I have trouble buying things quickly online

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a fair amount of online shopping. But I’ve probably been much slower at it than most of you.

Not “slower” in the sense of taking forever to pick one product over another (although my indecision-making there is considerable), but in the sense of deciding how I’ll pay for it and which third-party site I should click through before making the purchase.

Picking a credit card is the easier part even if I’m not buying stuff for my job (work expenses go on a separate card to ease my accounting). Most of the time, the 2% cash-back rebate on the Citi Double Cash Mastercard makes it the obvious choice. It’s been an even easier call when Citi’s offered extra cash back in promotions with various merchants.

But other card issuers have their own extra incentives. American Express and Chase offer extra cash back and do so much more often, but you have to sign up for each such offer on their sites or in their mobile apps. So I need to consult both before any purchase–and then hope the merchant in question doesn’t drop one of these deals the week after my purchase.

(Note that Amex and Chase also have tiered cash and points rewards for categories outside of online retail; a proper discussion of them would require a separate post.)

Not too many years ago, my shopping decisions would have ended there. But then I had to start considering shopping portals, the points-for-purchases sites most frequent-travel programs provide for members. By itself, a mile or a point for a dollar spent somewhere is barely worth thinking about. But that incremental addition does deserve your time if you’re nearing an award-redemption threshold or have miles or points that will expire without new activity in your account.

These portals don’t all offer the same rate or each offer the same rate over time. To verify which one offers the most return, I use a site called Cashback Monitor that tracks these deals and lets you set up a custom page with your favorites. (For more details, see this concise how-to by One Mile At A Time’s Tiffany Funk.) JetBlue consistently offers some of the best earn rates; fortunately, TrueBlue points have not seem the same deflation as other frequent-flyer currencies in recent years.

You may find no future-travel benefit for a potential purchase. Best Buy, Target and Walmart recently seem to have dropped out, while I can’t remember seeing any travel incentives for Amazon. In those cases, I’ll go to one last site before starting a purchase: my client Wirecutter, which often tells me what to buy and makes a decent chunk of its money off affiliate payments from Amazon and other retailers. If I can’t treat myself to a little kickback on a purchase, helping one of my favorite clients seems like a decent fallback.