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Amazon Prime Day: A history of the mega sale and its impact

How Prime Day became the most successful shopping event in Amazon’s history and shook the core of the retail industry.
Since the first Amazon Prime Day in 2015, the sale has become more successful every year and altered the present-day retail calendar, according to experts.
Since the first Amazon Prime Day in 2015, the sale has become more successful every year and altered the present-day retail calendar, according to experts.Kara Birnbaum / NBC News

Even if you’ve never bought something during the event, you’ve likely heard of Amazon Prime Day. The Prime member-exclusive sale is famously one of the biggest shopping moments of the year, and despite being around for less than a decade, it’s become fully embedded in consumer culture, says Dr. Ross Steinman, a professor of consumer psychology at Widener University. Members wait all year for the event, which has helped cement its place in the retail calendar among giants like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and established it as what Steinman calls “the pantheon of consumer holidays.”

Even while facing challenges like changes in shopping habits due to inflation, Amazon continues to scale Prime Day to record-breaking heights. Globally, the July 2023 sale brought in over $12.90 billion compared to less than $1 billion when it first began in 2015, according to estimates from Digital Commerce 360. The first day of July’s event was also the single largest sales day ever in Amazon history, according to the retailer.

Now, Amazon is expanding Prime Day’s reach even further by hosting another version of the event this fall — Prime Big Deal Days takes place on Oct. 10 and 11. Since it’s coming up, we charted the history of Prime Day to help you learn about its impact. We also consulted experts about how the event has grown and asked them to share their predictions for Prime Big Deal Days.

SKIP AHEAD How did Prime Day start? | Why does Amazon host Prime Day? | Prime Day results from July 2023 | What to buy during Prime Day

What to know about Prime Big Deal Days 2023

For the first time ever in 2022, Amazon hosted Prime Day-level events twice in one year: Prime Day, the retailer’s highly-anticipated annual summer sale, took place in July, and the Prime Early Access Sale happened three months later in October. Amazon is following a similar schedule this year. Prime Day took place on July 11 and 12, and three months later, the retailer is hosting Prime Big Deal Days on Oct. 10 and 11.

Hosting a second Prime Day in October is Amazon’s attempt to kick off the holiday shopping season, experts say. Early Black Friday promotions from other retailers have recently crept into October, giving shoppers extra time to buy gifts. Amazon noticed this trend and responded with a sale of its own.

Amazon did not disclose revenue information from its October 2022 Prime Early Access Sale. However, Bank of America analysts estimate it brought in $5.7 billion and in a press release, Amazon shared that tens of millions of Prime members shopped during the event. Compared to Prime Day, deals offered during the Prime Early Access Sale were generally lackluster, says James Risley, a research data manager and senior analyst at Digital Commerce 360. People also didn’t feel the same level of pressure to shop as they did during Prime Day. The summer isn’t filled with opportunities to take advantage of sales, which works in Prime Day’s favor. But shoppers know that Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals start as early as October across dozens of brands and retailers, so they didn’t approach the Prime Early Access Sale with urgency, Risley explained.

This fall, Amazon nixed “Prime Early Access Sale” and renamed its October Prime Day “Prime Big Deal Days.” Steinman suspects this is due to the types of items the event will be centered around. “From a consumer lens, this is the unofficial start to the holiday season, so we’re thinking about giftable products. A lot of shoppers want to give electronics, handheld technology, fitness equipment and kitchen gadgets,” he says. “The “big deals” name is reflective of the larger purchase price of the products.” Overall, experts say shoppers will see a lot of what they’re used to during Prime Big Deal Days: deep discounts across all product categories and some of the lowest prices of the year.

Amazon is also running its invite-only deals program during Prime Big Deal Days, which it first launched for July’s sale. Prime members can request an invitation to select deals that are expected to sell out and Amazon will notify them via email if they’re selected to shop. The invite-only deals program adds another level of exclusivity to Prime Day. It helps give Amazon a picture of what types of products people are interested in and what discount levels they tend to gravitate toward before the sale even begins, experts told us.

How did Prime Day start?

The first-ever Prime Day took place on July 15, 2015 as a way to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, according to Amazon. It lasted 24 hours and was available to members in nine countries: the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Austria. Since 2015, Prime Day has expanded its reach — Amazon now hosts the sale in over 20 countries and extended it to be 48 hours long.

One of the factors that makes Prime Day so unique is that it’s a manufactured event Amazon created, which is unlike Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both of which are tied to the holiday shopping season. Prime Day (the first one, anyway) is traditionally held in mid-July, which is a strategic decision on the company’s part: The summer is a slower period for retailers, and Amazon Prime Day is an attempt to remedy that. “Prime Day provides Amazon with a jolt during an otherwise dormant shopping season,” Steinman explained. He also says it’s no coincidence that Prime Day occurs during the week. Weekends are reserved for relaxing, sleeping in, leisure activities and traveling, but during the week, Amazon knows it will be able to capture shoppers’ attention.

By hosting Prime Day in July, Amazon altered the retail calendar and forced competitors like Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Best Buy and more to respond. Since the first Prime Day in 2015, many retailers have changed the timing of their own sales or created new ones — like Walmart Plus Week and Target Circle Week — to align with the dates of Prime Day. Amazon’s competitors hope that Prime Day shoppers will spill over onto their sites and make additional purchases.

Why does Amazon host Prime Day?

Amazon’s main goals for Prime Day are to attract new Prime subscribers and drive sales to its marketplace. Once Amazon gets shoppers in the door by offering them exclusive deals, the retailer can teach Prime members about what experts call the retailer’s “ecosystem of consumption,” meaning its network of platforms like Prime Music, Amazon Fresh grocery delivery, Prime Video, Audible, Kindle Unlimited and more. Prime Day, then, is positioned as an entry point to a Prime membership. The sale allows the retailer to accrue an army of repeat shoppers who want to take advantage of everything the loyalty program offers them year-round, not just during one mega sale.

“The more Prime subscribers Amazon has, the more likely they are to make more of their purchases from Amazon,” Steinman says. “Amazon’s goal is to be sticky. Once you’re in its ecosystem, it’s difficult to leave.”

As for driving sales to Amazon’s marketplace, brands big and small offer some of the lowest prices of the year on tech, apparel, toys, beauty products, small kitchen appliances and more. But the brands Amazon owns, like Fire TVs and tablets, Kindle, Ring and AmazonBasics, tend to discount their products the most. Selling Amazon-owned devices is particularly lucrative for the retailer because they’re designed to increase your purchases on Amazon, Steinman says. Much of this tech is equipped with Amazon Alexa, a virtual assistant who can notify you about deals year-round and even make purchases for you if you give her permission.

The number of new Prime subscribers Amazon attracts every year is reaching a saturation point, at least in the United States, Steinman says. In 2022, only 5% of Prime Day shoppers joined the retailer’s loyalty program on or shortly before the sale, while 78% were already Prime members, according to Digital Commerce 360. “This saturation point has led to an interesting crossroads for Amazon,” Steinman says. “Amazon now has to figure out, where do we go from here?”

Hosting a second Prime Day later in the year may be one way Amazon is trying to attract new Prime members and retain the ones they already have. It creates the idea that member-exclusive mega sales can take place at any point and plays on shopper’s fear of missing out on a great deal, Steinman says. However, a second Prime Day also takes away some of the novelty July’s mega sale became known for. “If consumers know there’s another Prime Day coming in October, they may say to themselves, “I’m going to spend my money on my vacation in July, and wait to shop Prime Day in October,” Steinman says.

There’s one more reason Prime Day is such an important event for the company: “It provides Amazon with an opportunity to do a test run and see if they need to work out any kinks as they get closer to the formal holiday shopping season,” Steinman says. Prime Day creates an artificial surge in orders, a similar increase to what the retailer experiences between November and December.


Prime Day results from July 2023

Amazon has not disclosed sales from its July 2023 Prime Day, but Digital Commerce 360 estimates that the retailer hit $12.90 billion globally. This marks an 6.7% increase compared to 2022 sales and is in line with the more moderate year–over–year growth Amazon has recently seen: Digital Commerce 360 estimates that Amazon saw a 8.1% increase in sales between Prime Day 2021 and 2022, and a 7.1% increase in sales between Prime Day 2020 and 2021. The last time Amazon saw a double digit jump in Prime Day sales year-over-year was between 2019 and 2020 — there was a 45.2% jump.

In 2022, inflation was one of the biggest challenges Amazon faced during Prime Day. Some shoppers were spending less on wishlist items in order to afford necessities like groceries and gas — in fact, 40% of shoppers say inflation altered their shopping behavior during Prime Day 2022, according to Digital Commerce 360. Economic concerns may contribute to why Amazon has seen modest year-over-year revenue growth recently. And while the high levels of inflation we saw around Prime Day 2022 cooled off before the 2023 sale, cutting back on spending was still top of mind. On average, people planned to spend $250 while shopping July’s Prime Day and other retailers’ simultaneous sales, down from $388 in 2022 and from $594 in 2021, according to a survey by RetailMeNot

Regardless of what their economic situation may be, shoppers are hungry for sales now more than ever. “To some extent, being frugal is cool,” Steinman says. “People are much more price conscious than they have been in the past.” Because of this, shoppers are paying extra attention to the quality of sales during Prime Day. They expect deep discounts, not 15% or 20% off, Risley says.

What to buy during Prime Day

There’s an inaccurate stereotype about shoppers during large sale events like Prime Day, Steinman says. “There’s this perception that somebody’s going to get swept up in excitement and engage in a number of impulse purchases,” he explained. “But by and large, that’s not what happens on Prime Day.”

For the most part, Prime members are savvy shoppers, Steinman says, and many compare prices across retailers to figure out if a deal is worth taking advantage of. Some use Prime Day to stock up on household basics and pantry staples, but that’s not to say shoppers ignore deals on pricey, luxury or big-ticket items like kitchen appliances, tech and high-end clothing and beauty brands. Generally, however, Prime Day shoppers are conscious about using Amazon’s sale to their advantage and spend strategically, Steinman says.

Shoppers don’t know exactly what’s going to be discounted on Prime Day until the day the sale occurs, which is part of the event’s allure. Best selling Prime Day products vary from year to year and from country to country, and that’s not just the result of different buying habits — Amazon’s Prime Day offerings in one country aren’t always reflective of another. But factors like a deal being well advertised or well priced can contribute to it becoming a bestseller during the event, as can Amazon’s agenda of selling as many devices from brands it owns as possible. Brands also use Prime Day as a chance to discount soon-to-be out-of-season, out-of-style or expired merchandise.

Some of the best Prime Day discounts are Amazon’s Lightning Deals, which are flash sales that give shoppers a short window to purchase limited quantities of specific products. Lightning Deals put shoppers in a competitive mindset and add what Steinman calls a “gamification” aspect to Prime Day. Shoppers don’t have time to think about whether they really need the item being sold as a Lightning Deal, so they impulsively buy it because they don’t want to miss out. 

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Ross Steinman is a professor of consumer psychology at Widener University. He also serves as the coordinator of an interdisciplinary minor in consumer culture. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the contextual, symbolic and experiential aspects of consumption. Dr. Steinman is a frequent contributor to media outlets on a variety of consumer behavior topics.
  • James Risley is a research data manager and senior analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

Why trust Select?

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor at Select who has reported about Amazon since 2020 and frequently writes about Amazon’s sales. For this piece, Malin spoke to two experts about the history of Amazon Prime Day and its impact on the retail industry.

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