People already use Amazon Prime. Facebook deals groups encourage shoppers to buy more from Amazon. | Getty Images

There’s an ecosystem of Facebook groups where the sole purpose is to shop on Amazon.

Almost every post on the Facebook group The Amazon Moms is a link to an Amazon product. To the average Facebook user (and certainly myself), a group that’s sole purpose is to sell you things might seem like spam, not to mention counterintuitive to Facebook’s purpose as a social network. Yet more than 2,500 people are members of this private group, with more joining daily or being added in by friends and family.

The Amazon Moms is a decent-sized group, but compared to the hundreds of other public and private shopping groups that exist on Facebook, it’s certainly not big or even unique. There are plenty more groups with tens of thousands of members, with names like “Amazon Online Shopping” (113,000 members), “Amazon PRIME Pantry Deals and MORE!” (11,000 members), and “Moms, Deals, Freebies, & Clearance” (73,000 members) where the focus is to shop online — more specifically, to shop on Amazon.

Admins and moderators inundate these groups with links to discounted items and promo codes, sometimes on an hourly basis. That can be overwhelming, but for those scouting for deals, especially during the holiday shopping season, these shopping groups are helpful. Instead of searching for discounts yourself, why not be part of a group that makes it easier?

Amazon, now the largest retailer in the world, doesn’t need influencers. However, the company has continued the affiliate advertising program it established in its early days as an online book retailer. Today, the program is capitalized on by Facebook product promoters and social media influencers, who earn anywhere from 1 to 10 percent commission from products purchased through affiliate links. (Amazon declined to comment for this story and directed me to its affiliate website.)

The current iteration of Amazon’s affiliate program isn’t like those launched by small startups or online companies, which are intended to expand brand awareness. Most people don’t need a lot of convincing to buy from Amazon: More than half of American households in 2019 (about 51 percent) already have a Prime subscription, according to the research firm eMarketer.

Rather, the program and how it’s being used by regular people exemplifies how Amazon has sunk its claws into our consumerist habits. We want things cheaper, faster, and easier, and so we’re more than willing to turn to Amazon for our purchases. We just sometimes need a nudge to buy something.

How Prime infiltrated the American household

Millions of Americans this decade got hooked on Amazon Prime at formative stages of their life — as college students (who are gifted a free one-year Prime membership), first-time parents (who are encouraged to sign up for Amazon Family for baby discounts), or new homeowners. For people who live in rural areas or those with disabilities and chronic health conditions, Prime makes shopping easy.

In 2019, what’s surprising about Prime isn’t its popularity, but how people still are adopting it into their lives, said Andrew Lipsman, a retail analyst at eMarketer.

“Prime’s current year-over-year growth is more than three times the population growth,” he told me. That expansion inevitably has to taper off some time, but that shouldn’t severely impact Amazon’s sales, since Prime members are “motivated to buy on Amazon to the point where it becomes consistent behavior.”

As a Prime member himself, Lipsman is fascinated by how key events in his own life — getting a dog, having kids, moving homes — influenced his family’s spending. When his first child was born in 2013, he bought 161 items on Amazon, compared to 68 items the year before.

Jason Del Rey, a senior reporter at Recode and host of the Land of the Giants podcast, said in one episode that his “life’s biggest milestones chart pretty identically with [his] Amazon Prime order history.” Many others I spoke to anecdotally also cited a big life event, usually having their first child, as what solidified their relationship with Amazon.

Even without the major life changes that drive people to buy more, customers love Prime because of free and fast shipping. Thanks to Amazon, it’s the norm now. According to a 2019 report by the National Retail Foundation, 75 percent of consumers expect free delivery, even on orders under $50, and nearly a fourth expect two-day shipping to be free.

With Prime, there’s no free shipping threshold to pass and payment information is already saved on the site, making the checkout process feel seamless. Facebook shopping groups like The Amazon Moms exacerbate this “Prime effect,” driving consumers to purchase day-of discount items they might not actually need.

People are already using Amazon. Shopping groups make it easier to buy.

I don’t have kids — nor am I an Amazon Prime member — but after a week of quietly lurking on The Amazon Moms, I felt compelled to buy something, even if that thing turned out to be a $10 4-pack of Colgate toothpaste. It’s hard not to, especially with the well-curated items and earnest captions posted by the group’s co-founders, Megan Chimento and Liz Zollshan.

Chimento and Zollshan, two stay-at-home mothers from Madison, Connecticut, aren’t influencers per se. They consider themselves casual product recommenders and self-proclaimed “Amazon addicts” who already spend a lot of time on the site.

A screenshot of a post on the Facebook group, The Amazon Moms, promoting a journal and pens.Facebook
A post from The Amazon Moms group by admin Liz Zollshan.

In July, they discussed creating a Facebook group to suggest products to their network of friends (who are also prolific Amazon shoppers) and earn a bit of side cash from affiliate links.

Affiliate links are typically used by media companies, bloggers, and social media influencers to generate a small commission from e-commerce purchases. These partnerships are becoming more common in the media world, usually through product review sites like Wirecutter, The Strategist, and Buzzfeed Reviews.

“Every single woman that we’re friends in town with orders everything on Amazon,” Chimento told me. “The closest Walmart in our town is about 15 minutes away and Target is at least 30. We don’t have a lot of big chain stores either, so it’s just easier to order online.”

Other Amazon shopping groups I’ve joined are also primarily women-run or specifically cater to women, especially mothers. Upon joining, I was tagged in a few welcome posts alongside other new members, notifying me of current Amazon gift card giveaways or short-term promo codes offered within the group.

There’s a cult-like devotion to Amazon Prime among moms, Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker in her analysis of mom merch: “For mothers, who are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic labor whether or not they work outside the home, Prime … can function almost as a second self, or a sister wife: saving money, remembering toilet paper, getting birthday presents just in time.”

It makes sense, then, that women would turn to Amazon’s affiliate program to generate additional income. There’s a low barrier to entry, and most product promoters are already Amazon users who spend time on the site (Chimento and Zollshan sometimes share personal anecdotes about products they own in the group).

“You can basically start as an affiliate if you have a website,” Chimento said. “We created the Facebook group after we got the go-ahead [from Amazon] and invited our friends. Soon, people were adding their own friends.”

According to information on Amazon’s website, interested affiliates can submit a formal application to join the program after signing up and generating at least three sales in the first 180 days. A team of Associates will then review a person’s website and social media to make sure they “meet [the] customer experience bar.” Basically, a person must own a website domain and have a public Facebook group or page that has organic followers.

Chimento and Zollshan schedule their posts ahead of time and spend roughly an hour every day tending to the group. As promoters, they never worry about running out of things to post, thanks to Amazon’s endless catalogue of products and sellers.

A screenshot of a post on the Facebook group, The Amazon Moms, promoting a felt hat.Screenshot from Facebook
Chimento and Zollshan sometimes inject personal anecdotes into their posts.

They aren’t raking in enough commission for the group to be a full-time job yet, but it is an additional stream of income. They’re aware of the potential to make substantial money from commissions. Currently, Chimento said she receives about 3 percent per item which “isn’t a lot.” According to Amazon’s breakdown of commission fees, how much an associate brings in depends on the category of the item they’re promoting.

“We joke that we’re doing it so we can shop on Amazon without feeling guilty,” Chimento told me, laughing. “Sometimes I feel like whatever we earn from Amazon, we’re giving it right back [to the company].”

Amazon’s affiliate program seems flexible and benign, at least compared to other women-targeted business pursuits. Multi-level marketing companies, which sell themselves as independent business ventures, are notorious for demanding sellers to meet intense recruitment and sales requirements with little payback. These companies often require workers to put in their own money before any sales are made.

Amazon groups encourage people to shop. That comes at a cost.

Chimento doesn’t feel like she’s forcing upon her friends a particular product or brand. These women are already Amazon customers; the group helps them find products they weren’t aware of or didn’t know they needed.

That is what’s so complicated about these shopping groups: They encourage members to buy things they don’t really need, under the pretense of scoring a good deal. In one group, members have made memes about being in a toxic relationship with 1-click shopping, posted photos of unopened stacks of Amazon boxes, and discussed gifts for their delivery person. This behavior exacerbates the biggest critiques against Amazon — how the company can afford to ignore the environmental and labor costs that comes with customer convenience.

Amazon workers in England protest over working conditions in England.Leon Neal/Getty Images
Amazon warehouse workers in Europe staged walkouts and strikes during the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend.

“Sometimes I buy things I don’t need because it’s about $2 or $3 and I’m getting free shipping anyways,” said Adelle Vasquez, a senior buyer in Melbourne, Florida who’s a member of several shopping groups.

When I asked Vasquez, a former retail buyer, about the environmental and human costs that comes with ordering on Amazon, she’s aware of it. “I’ve seen ways that Amazon is improving its footprint and pushing the industry and competitors like Walmart to do better,” Vasquez said. “I’m actually glad it’s trying to improve as a retailer.”

Amazon has made very public strides to appear more environmentally conscious: CEO Jeff Bezos announced in September his commitment to fighting climate change. The company has also touted itself as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional shopping, which isn’t always true. In recent years, Amazon warehouse workers have also spoken out — and protested — against the brutal working conditions that come with faster shipping demands.

Regardless, it’s easy for shoppers to extol the virtues of Amazon Prime rather than condemn it. After paying the annual $119 membership fee, customers are divorced from the complicated logistics and laborious exploitation it takes for a package to arrive in two days (or less).

As a mother of a young child, Vasquez said it’s difficult for her to time a quick trip to the store where an item might not be available anyways. It’s much easier to rely on Amazon and know that what’s ordered will be there the next day. Prime promises to make things easier and it has — as does these informal shopping groups hundreds of thousands of people are a part of.

When a cheery Facebook post harps about the “deals of the day” and advertises questionably cheap and useful items like yoga mats and non-stick pans, it seems like a smart decision to buy — just because you can. Placing an order now might save you a trip to the store in the future. It might save you some money on something you had your eye on but hadn’t bought yet.

That pattern of thought — of justifying random, small, potentially useful purchases — persists within these shopping groups. On one page, a member named Lisa recently posted about how much she’s saved on purchases made from group posts.

“All of the items I bought were purchased using discount codes,” she wrote in a post that was liked 402 times, comparing two screenshots of her mobile calculator. Lisa spent $472.98 this past month, on items that would’ve cost a total of $1,725.36 without the shared promo codes.

The group admin (the person receiving commission from these purchases) commented first: an enthusiastic “great shopping!!!” followed by three smiley-face emojis. Other members subsequently cheered Lisa on.

The purpose of this group, I soon realized, isn’t to just motivate people to buy things; it justified them.

“But how much stuff did you not need and buy because it was cheap?” one person wrote. “Because that’s what I do.”

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Author: Terry Nguyen

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