The Gospel of Amazon Prime

The Hunt for that Perfect Item at the Lowest Price has Become an Online Game of Conquest and Mastery

Todd Brewer / 10.1.20

Online shopping has exploded over the last few months, as more and more retailers turn to the Internet to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic. Etsy’s stock value has gone up over 300% since April, Walmart’s online sales nearly doubled, and food delivery is the new normal for the foreseeable future. But the biggest winner of them all is Amazon, the former bookstore that decided to ruthlessly take over the world. Whether it be AA batteries, pet food, or clothing, the two-day shipping is too convenient to pass up. Why stress out over adding things to a shopping list for the next Target run — they’re all just one click and a couple of days away.

But convenience is only part of Amazon’s appeal and probably not even half of it. The promise of two-day shipping is the lure on the Amazon fishing line, but the hook that gets you is the delayed gratification of online shopping—that’s how Amazon really makes its billions. A store will simply give you the kitchen gadget you want; Amazon will give you two to five business days of anticipation.

With its extensive catalog of items and millions of vendors competing for a place in your cart, I’ve found the hunt for that perfect item at the lowest price has become an online game of conquest and mastery. Star ratings, customer reviews, cost, and expected delivery dates are each evaluated with glee on my journey towards the perfect purchase. This optimization weirdly transforms the fear of not actually seeing the product in person into the thrill of a mystery novel. I already know it’s going to be exactly what I wanted, but perhaps it’s even better than advertised. The listing said the bed sheets were 600 thread count, but they will somehow feel softer than angel’s wings.

When the purchase is finally made, the real fun begins. Updates confirming my book order and shipping status build further anticipation. As the package magically travels from Tennessee to my doorstep, the extended dopamine hit of expectancy builds like a child waiting for Christmas morning. Tracking notifications gives way to peering out my window. When the brown and blue box finally arrives, it literally greets me with a smile that mirrors the delight I feel.

This wait for a purchase can become a greater source of gratification than the product itself. This imbalance is actually what online shopping is all about. As argued by the psychologist Bruce Hood, “We assume consumerism is motivated by the pleasure of acquisition, when in fact it is the pursuit that really compels us to constantly fill our lives with stuff […] Before we even take possession, our brains are savoring the prospects of gain” (Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need, p. 147). In the bizarro world of online shopping it seems that the feeling of hunger is more enjoyable than the taste of food.

As the weeks of the pandemic have turned into months, the online shopping experience has become one of the few rituals of our lives. The massive disruption to our lives has left little to distinguish the days of the week, making time itself feel suspended. Our online purchases number the days and mark the passage of time just as vacations and holidays did in 2019. Some days, the only thing we have to look forward to is the next notification on our phones, the squeal of the delivery truck, or the thud of a package dropped at our front door.

Like the slow melting of fresh snow, the excited newness of a product becomes mundane over time and our dissatisfaction can turn into remorse. This movement from joy to sorrow is an inevitable consequence of our fickle attention span. It’s also beside the point. Twenty dollars for that book you won’t read is a small price to pay for the intervening days of hope.

People do crazy things in the name of hope, which seems to be in pretty short supply these days. Buying another pair of shoes online is a pretty low-cost coping mechanism, particularly compared with the usual alternatives. Those toe-capped, brown leather boots might give you blisters, but they won’t ruin your life. So by all means: shop till your fingers ache from scrolling! And bonus points for subscription services.

But it’s also important to recognize what we are and are not buying when we click on the yellow “Buy Now” button. Like a cold beer at the end of a long day, the smiling boxes of joy can make daily hardships that little bit more bearable. The succession of packages delivered is a nice perk of the modern world, but that’s all it is — a perk. Amazon cannot bear the weight of our hopes in the long run.

My phone tells me I have another book coming today. The purchase is probably redundant — I’ve read much of it online and I’ve already quoted it in this post — but I still can’t wait for that doorbell to ring.

The online shopping rituals we practice might feel like an innovation that gives time a sense of order, like an Apple watch that tells you when to eat and exercise, but they are no substitute for enjoying the time we have. What makes life vibrant doesn’t have a delivery estimate. What transforms the mundane into extraordinary isn’t shipped by Amazon. The things that matter most in life aren’t things we purchase, but freely given to us: unconditional love, help amid despair, and undeserved divine pardon.

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5 responses to “The Gospel of Amazon Prime”

  1. Jonah Miller says:

    I don’t know, Todd … my Spiralizer 7-Blade Vegetable Slicer is pretty awesome.

    • Todd Brewer says:

      If only my kitchen was big enough to have such niche wizardry. For now, I’ll have to settle for my precision-forged, 8″ Wüsthof Chef’s knife.

  2. Mike Ferraguti says:

    Just bought the Wustuff kitchen shears. Can’t wait for that doorbell!

  3. Bill says:

    Enjoyed this very much, thank you!

  4. Blake Nail says:

    It’s true. I have fifteen books on my shelf that I HAD to order and loved opening, but haven’t read. Thanks for the post!

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