What is Amazon Prime Day? The history and impact of Prime Day

How Prime Day became the most successful shopping event in Amazon’s history and shook the core of the retail industry — and what to know about the 2020 sales event.
Amazon prime boxes with bestsellers instant pot tablet smart speaker nintendo switch fire tv stick
A history of Amazon Prime Day, including bestsellers from past events like the Instant Pot, Fire Tablet, Amazon Echo, Nintendo Switch, Fire TV Stick and more.Amazon; Getty Images

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In just five years, Amazon took its celebratory summer sale Prime Day to record-breaking heights, each year increasing its total sales, allowing access to more countries and dominating a usually dormant online shopping period — that is, until coronavirus came along. During a normal year, shoppers across the world would log into their Amazon Prime accounts in mid-July and scroll through Amazon’s offerings for the best deals during the annual Prime Day event. However, the coronavirus pandemic — among other factors — forced the retailer to delay Prime Day for the first time since it began the massive sales event in 2015. When is Amazon Prime Day going to start this year? The exact date of Prime Day 2020 has yet to be announced, but it’s rumored to take place in October, said CNBC’s Annie Palmer.

Quite frankly, it has completely altered the retail calendar.

Annie Palmer, CNBC

SKIP AHEAD Prime Day bestsellers in 2018 and 2019

Whenever it ends up taking place this year, experts like James Thomson, a partner at marketing agency Buy Box Experts, think the event will look different than it ever has before. Why? Amazon has experienced a surge in orders since March when stores and businesses began shutting down and people across the world began staying home, explained Thomson, formerly the business head of Amazon Services, the Amazon division responsible for recruiting sellers to the Amazon marketplace. The spike in orders is so large, he noted it’s as if “Amazon is getting Prime Day-level sales everyday.”

“I don’t think Prime Day is going to be as big of an event this year,” said Thomson. “Amazon can’t handle the Prime Day level demand on top of the current sharp increase in day-to-day online sales it’s currently experiencing.”

Amazon Prime Day: A force to be reckoned with

Since Prime Day began, Palmer said it has become an event shoppers plan for, some of whom wait all year to purchase anything from TVs and beauty products to Alexa-enabled devices like those in the Echo suite. Prime Day sales have historically surpassed those on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, making it the largest shopping event ever for the retailer. In just five years, in fact, Prime Day has become so big that it’s forced Amazon competitors like Walmart, Macy’s and Target to respond by changing the timing of their own sales and deals. Since Prime Day usually falls in July, for example, Macy’s runs its Black Friday in July event then. And with Walmart recently announcing Walmart+, its own version of Amazon Prime, the stakes this year could be higher than ever. “Prime Day is no longer just a day for people to purchase cheap items on Amazon,” Palmer said. “Quite frankly, it has completely altered the retail calendar.”

The most important thing Amazon can do is drive loyalty to the Amazon marketplace.

James Thomson, Partner, Buy Box Experts

But the coronavirus has already contributed to a delay of the sale — will it also upend its reputation as Amazon’s biggest shopping event of the year? We consulted experts about the growth of Prime Day and their predictions about how successful the event will be during the pandemic. We also looked back on the history of Prime Day, tracking how it has influenced other retailers to host sales or start their own loyalty programs. And, of course, we compiled some of the top-selling items during Amazon Prime Day events worldwide since 2015, from the no-duh Instant Pots to the compact-but-mighty Echo Dot.

What is Amazon Prime Day?

Prime Day is an exclusive sale for Amazon Prime members — shoppers who pay $119 a year to receive benefits like free expedited shipping on eligible purchases, free movies and TV shows through Prime Video (available on its own for $9 a month) and unlimited access to reading material on any device through Prime Reading, among other benefits. During Prime Day, select products from a variety of brands are greatly discounted, from Amazon-owned electronics to clothing and homewares. Additionally, while Amazon regularly offers Lightning Deals — short-term deals on specific products that could last hours or days — they’re exclusive to Prime members during Amazon Prime Day.

So again, when is Amazon Prime Day? The first ever Prime Day event took place on July 15, 2015 as a way to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, according to Amazon’s blog. The first Prime Day lasted 24 hours — you know, the length of a “Day” — and gave access to members in nine countries: the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Austria. Since 2015, Palmer said, Amazon Prime Day has grown “exponentially.” Its 2019 sale lasted 48 hours long and expanded access to members in 18 countries around the globe, from Belgium to China.

In addition to shopping on Amazon, [Prime members] can buy groceries from Whole Foods, listen to audiobooks with Audible, subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, watch Amazon Video and use Amazon Echo speakers.

Amanda Bourlier, Head, Global Retailing Research, Euromonitor International

Amazon Prime Day total sales have notoriously surpassed those on Black Friday and Cyber Monday for the company, Palmer said. But selling products isn’t the only focus of Prime Day. Amanda Bourlier, who oversees global retailing research at market research company Euromonitor International, said Amazon uses Prime Day as a way to attract new Prime subscribers, pitching to them Amazon’s “ecosystem of consumption,” meaning all of the services Amazon provides shoppers, like access to music and video streaming services and grocery delivery. “A Prime member probably doesn’t just shop from Amazon.com,” Bourlier said. “In addition to shopping on Amazon, they can buy groceries from Whole Foods, listen to audiobooks with Audible, subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, watch Amazon Video and use Amazon Echo speakers.” Prime Day, then, acts as a sort of doorbuster deal to get shoppers close to everything else Amazon Prime.

Palmer said Prime Day is unique in its scale because it’s a manufactured event created by the company. The sale does not coincide with the holiday shopping season, unlike Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Amazon Prime Day is traditionally held in mid-July, which is a strategic decision on the company’s part: The summer is typically a slower period for retailers. Amazon Prime Day is an attempt to remedy that. Additionally, Prime Day is positioned well before the holiday shopping season — usually, anyway. Thomson said Amazon wants to get non-Prime customers to buy a Prime membership during the summer, prompting them to handle their Christmas shopping — and even back-to-school and Labor Day shopping — through the retailer. “The most important thing Amazon can do is drive loyalty to the Amazon marketplace,” Thomson said. “The company wants to get consumers to say, ‘I’m not going to walk into a physical store because it’s so much easier to buy on Amazon.’” These days, of course, shoppers have other reasons to hesitate before attempting in-store shopping anywhere.

What you can shop on Amazon Prime Day

Although Thomson said Prime Day offers “legitimate discounts” on products, the sale does not offer customers discounts on “a smorgasbord of items.” At its core, he said the sale centers around Amazon products, whether that be a Kindle or a Fire Stick. However, Thomson said, brands big and small offer plenty of deals on other tech, fashion items, toys, beauty products, small kitchen appliances and more. But shoppers don’t know exactly what’s going to be discounted until the day the sale occurs. Because of this, Thomson said, shoppers often buy products spontaneously. Of course, online shopping guides and recommendations from publishers like NBC News Shopping and our friends at Shop TODAY aim to help you and shoppers at-large approach the sale as informed and prepared as can be.

The top selling item in the United Kingdom in 2018 was a Bosch Cordless Drill, while in Singapore, it was a 15-pack of Coca-Cola Zero.

Prime Day also serves as a trial run for small brands. “During Prime Day, shoppers will buy products that may not be from brands they’re familiar with because of big discounts,” Thomson said. “Amazon wants you to try that product for the first time.” Additionally, during Prime Day, some brands offer products that previously did not sell a lot of units, he said, enabling heavier discounts on those specific items. The same thing happens on Black Friday — brands ask themselves what they have a lot of and sell anything in surplus at a lower margin (a common trope for any sale at any time and by any retailer). For example, a brand may discount a TV on Prime Day but it might be an old model.

Amazon Prime membership 101

Amazon Prime launched in 2005. It offered members benefits like two-day free shipping, which, at the time, seemed like a pipe dream, Bourlier said. Fast delivery was — and still is — a factor that motivates people to become Prime members, in addition to the variety of products Amazon offers shoppers to purchase in one place. Over the years, Amazon has expanded the benefits Prime members get, to most recently include:

  • Prime Music: Members can stream more than two million songs, and different playlists and stations.
  • Prime Gaming: Members get free game content every month and a Twitch Channel Subscription.
  • Prime at Whole Foods Market: Members get exclusive savings and five percent back for eligible members with the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card.
  • Early Access to Deals: members get 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon.com.
  • Fast shipping: members can get free one-day, two-day and same-day delivery on select products.

As Amazon continues to add to the benefits Prime members get, Bourlier said it sets the bar for other retailers looking to start loyalty programs. Added benefits also “lock” shoppers into the Amazon ecosystem. “Amazon Prime wasn’t the first retailer with a loyalty program, but it was one of the first retailers to imagine how loyalty programs might look in an ecommerce landscape,” Bourlier said. “Amazon is also often the first retailer to offer specific features to shoppers, like free two day shipping.”

Bestselling Amazon Prime Day products

The bestselling products on Prime Day vary from year to year and differ from country to country, and that’s not just the result of differing buying habits — Amazon’s Prime Day offerings in one country aren’t always reflective in another.

For example, the top selling item in the United Kingdom in 2018 was a Bosch Cordless Drill, while in Singapore, it was a 15-pack of Coca-Cola Zero. Palmer said, “I don’t know what the secret sauce is to becoming the bestselling item on Prime Day,” but she points to factors like the deal itself being well advertised, or just that “it’s a good deal, plain and simple.” But, consistently, Amazon said they see record-breaking sales for their devices, from Fire tablets to Alexa-enabled tech. To give you an idea of some of the most successful deals during Prime Day over the past few years, we compiled them below by country.

Amazon Prime Day 2019 bestsellers

1. Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote (Worldwide)

The Fire TV Stick comes with an Alexa Voice Remote and gives you access to streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV, HBO and the recently launched Peacock (which is owned by NBC’s parent company Comcast). You can use the Alexa Control Remote to change the channel, search for a movie or TV show, or play music. The Alexa Control Remote can be connected to other Alexa-enabled devices like thermostats and video cameras. While bestselling Fire TV Stick is sold out on Amazon, you can shop the upgraded 4K Fire TV Stick.

2. 23andMe Health + Ancestry Service (Canada)

After mailing a saliva sample to 23andMe, you’ll receive a comprehensive digital report about your ancestry and family tree. The report also includes information about whether or not you’re a carrier for genetic variants linked to health conditions like Cystic Fibrosis, and about predispositions you may have to diabetes, Celiac Disease and more.

3. Nintendo Switch (Mexico)

This gaming device connects to Wi-Fi and allows multiple people to play together, either at home or on the go. The Nintendo Switch comes with a Nintendo Switch console and a Nintendo Switch dock, as well as left and right Joy‑Con controllers that can be detached from the console for dynamic gameplay.

4. Sony PlayStation Classic Console (United Kingdom)

Sony Playstation’s Classic Console lets you play 20 pre-loaded games and comes with two wired controllers, as well as a virtual memory card. It can be connected to computers or TVs with HDMI ports. Sony’s current generation gaming console, the PlayStation 4, is also highly popular.

5. iRobot Roomba 671 (France)

The iRobot Roomba 671 loosens, lifts and suctions dirt, dust and hair from hard floors and carpet. You can schedule and monitor cleaning sessions through the iRobot Home app, and it’s compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, so you can also use voice commands to control cleaning.

6. JBL Bluetooth Speaker (Germany)

This wireless speaker can play music for up to 12 hours on one charge. You can connect it to Bluetooth-enabled devices like phones, computers and tablets, and the speaker is water-resistant for up to three feet deep.

7. Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance Light (Netherlands)

After installing these lights and connecting them to the Philips Hue Bluetooth app, you can control the brightness and color of the lighting in your home. Choose from 16 million colors and connect voice assistants like Alexa to control the lights with your voice.

8. Tefal Jamie Oliver Stainless Steel Pan (Luxembourg)

When this pan gets hot, it turns fully red to let you know it has reached an ideal cooking temperature. The pan has a non-stick titanium-coated interior, which provides extra scratch-resistance. The Jamie Oliver Tefal Pan was also Luxembourg’s 2018 bestselling item on Prime Day.

9. LifeStraw Personal Water Filter (United States)

Bring this water filter with you while traveling, hiking or camping to filter up to 1,000 gallons of contaminated water. You can purchase the water filter in one, two, three or five packs.

  • Spain: Yobola Wireless Bluetooth Headphone
  • Belgium: Osmart Smart + Plug Zigbee Switchable Light Socket

Amazon Prime Day 2018 bestsellers

1. Instant Pot Duo Pressure Cooker (United States)

This pressure cooker has seven functions, including acting as a rice cooker, steamer, saute pan, yogurt maker and food warmer. Its 6-quart large capacity can feed up to 6 people, and many parts of the device are dishwasher safe.

2. Amazon Basics USB Lightning Cable (Mexico)

This cable connects to a variety of iPhone, iPad, and iPod models and charges them quickly. You can purchase the cable in two lengths — 3 ft. or 6 ft. — and as a one or ten pack.

3. Bosch Cordless Drill (United Kingdom)

This drill weighs about two pounds, so it’s great for those who have to do overhead drilling or drilling while standing on a ladder. It comes with two batteries, a charger and a carrying case.

4. Braun Grooming Kit (Italy)

This trimmer is waterproof, so you can use it while in the shower. One charge will give you up to an hour of cordless use, and it comes with seven attachments to use on the face and body, as well as a handheld razor.

5. Kasa Smart TP Link Wi-Fi Plug (France)

Add this plug to an outlet and connect it to devices like lamps to fans, which you can then control using the Kasa app. You can turn electronics on or off whether you are at home or away, and set timers on devices, too.

6. Sandisk Ultra 128G Memory Card (Belgium)

Ideal for Android-based smartphones and tablets, this memory card quickly loads apps and allows you to take more pictures and full HD video. The memory card is waterproof, temperature proof, shockproof and X-ray proof, so they can be used in extreme conditions.

7. Philips Hue LED Spotlight (Netherlands)

Connect to the Philips app to choose millions of colors and shades of white light to brighten up your home. You can also sync light to music, games and movies through the app, as well as connect it to Alexa-enabled devices.

8. Philips Sonicare Toothbrush (China)

One charge of this wireless toothbrush will give you up to 14 days of use. It gives you brush head replacement reminders, and has pressure sensor alerts that go off when you’re brushing too hard.

9. Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 Smartphone (India)

This sleek Android cellphone has a large screen that’s ideal for watching videos, and a dual camera that takes high quality pictures. The phone’s openings are all sealed with custom rubberized material which doesn't allow any liquid to seep in.

10. PS4 Pro Console (Australia)

This game console optimized games to look sharp and detailed on screen. You can connect to friends and play together, and share your game with them in real time, letting them join in or take control.

  • India: Boat Rockerz Sports Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
  • Spain: Cecotec Conga Robot Vacuum
  • Germany: Osmart Zigbee Smart Plug

Amazon Prime Day 2020

Amazon announced that Prime Day will be postponed in late July, a few months after it experienced a “huge spike in online orders” during March and April, Palmer said. She thinks the surge in orders “caught the company off guard” because the spring and summer are usually slower seasons for Amazon. Palmer said Amazon is trying to meet the new and increased demand, and she thinks the situation has significantly improved, evident by shorter delivery windows. But even in May, Palmer reported that Amazon shoppers saw delivery delays and higher prices for some items. Additionally, Sucharita Kodali, a retail industry analyst at research and advisory firm Forrester, said some items on Amazon have been consistently out of stock since mid-March, a signal that Amazon may be struggling with getting access to merchandise from vendors. “Companies have had a lot of supply chain issues throughout the pandemic that they’re still grappling with months later,” Kodali said. Together, these issues contribute to why Thomson does not think it would be wise for Amazon to host a “full blast Prime Day” this year. “Why would you artificially put more pressure on your logistics network when it’s already struggling?” said Thomson.

Another obstacle that might dictate how successful Prime Day will be this year is the current economic downturn in the U.S. Thomson said those who are Prime members typically come from higher income households, but unemployment related to the pandemic has hit everybody, regardless of economic standing. Palmer agrees, noting that a lot of the current online shopping activity is centered around essential goods and groceries ― necessities. “It’s unclear whether people have an appetite for non-essential items and expendable purchases right now,” said Palmer. “People are tightening their belts, unemployment is at record levels, there is a lot of economic uncertainty, and the United States is clearly not out of the worst of the pandemic yet.” That aside, Palmer said categories that seem to do the best on Prime Day are, most often, laptops, TVs and luxury beauty products, which people are still buying during the pandemic, despite their budgets being in flux.

However Prime Day takes shape this year, and whenever it occurs, Thomson said shoppers should expect shipping to take three to four days instead of the typical one or two. He doesn't see longer shipping times being a problem for Amazon, however, because if shoppers get a really good deal, they’re probably willing to wait an extra few days — Bourlier expects Amazon to offer more discounts on products useful for staying entertained and comfortable.

How Amazon’s competitors have responded to Prime Day

Palmer said the success of Prime Day has caused Amazon competitors like Target, Macy’s, Best Buy and eBay to respond to the event in recent years by offering their own specialized sales. “All those guys wouldn't have normally offered deep discounts during the summer months,” said Palmer. “But because Prime Day has become such a sought-after event for many shoppers in the United States, it has forced them to offer deals around the event.”

Now, since Prime Day 2020 has been postponed, Bourlier said Amazon’s competitors have to change how they respond to the sale this year. Already, Bourlier said, Best Buy and Target announced that they’ll begin their holiday sales earlier this year. She predicts that whenever Prime Day occurs, it will “unofficially” kick off holiday shopping, and create a longer holiday shopping season than usual.

Experts are also considering how the success of Prime Day may be impacted by taking place closer to Black Friday. But Thomson said he doesn't think “the kind of person who goes to a door-crasher special at a physical store on Black Friday is the same person who shops online on Amazon during Black Friday.” He predicts Amazon will see “big sales” on Black Friday since people who didn't shop online before the pandemic now do, and may take advantage of discounts during a national shopping holiday. Thomson also said retailers will offer Black Friday deals online even if they close their physical storefronts, so Amazon’s competition will still be present.

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