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Not a prime deal: Amazon appears to be burying the best price to benefit itself

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Jeramey Lende/123RF
Amazon makes quite a bit of money from Prime, its $99 annual subscription service, and it’s in Amazon’s best interest to make the deal as sweet as possible, while making the most money. It appears, though, that the online retailer is purposely altering search results to favor those products it either sells directly or on the behalf of a third party.

Nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica found evidence of potential tampering, seemingly by accident. A search for Loctite super glue revealed that while some Amazon partners were selling the tube for cheaper than Amazon, the results showed instead a vial sold by Amazon with a shipping cost that doubled its price.

The item was a 20-gram bottle of Loctite Liquid Professional super glue, which at that point was selling for $7.79 (Amazon has since dropped the price to $5.97). But shipping ended up costing $6.51, which bought the cost to $14.31. Two other sellers who don’t participate in Amazon’s fulfillment service, however, were listed in a place that wasn’t immediately accessible from search, instead pushed to the side on the page hawking Amazon’s bottle.

DigitalTrends was able to recreate what ProPublica found, both on individual product pages and through search — and for a variety of products. While Amazon was able to catch this particular one, and at least fix it for us Prime members or those who meet its free shipping minimum purchase, for a time it was even more expensive for us, too.

But like we said, this happened on several products we saw. ProPublica itself followed over 250 products across several weeks by the publication, and 75 percent of the time suggested products that were either from Amazon or shippers partnering with Amazon. The promotion occurred in cases even where that particular product was clearly more expensive.

Even in search functions supposed to give “price plus shipping,” 80 percent of the time Amazon-linked products got better billing. In this case though, Prime or free-shipping-eligible customers were seeing the correct ranking.

More worrisome is Amazon’s response to the matter. In a statement to ProPublica, spokesperson Erik Fairleigh claimed that the product listing methods used account for more factors than just price, saying “vast selection; world-class customer service; and fast, free delivery are critically important.” But at no place does Amazon make it clear in its search results that other factors are in play.

This means you need to check those prices carefully the next time you shop at Amazon — and make sure you’re seeing the best deal. On average, the difference is substantial: an average of $7.88 among those 250 products followed, generally a 20 percent premium, ProPublica says.

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