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Coronavirus has disrupted Amazon's usually speedy Prime delivery. Should subscribers get a refund?

Free and fast shipping is undeniably one of the main benefits offered to Amazon Prime members. While the subscription has turned into a robust enterprise offering streaming services and benefits associated with Amazon-owned properties like Twitch and Whole Foods, Prime started as a shipping-related benefit and it remains a top selling point. It is the first thing mentioned on the Amazon Prime landing page and the first benefit listed on Amazon's support page for the service. According to a survey conducted by The Diffusion Group, 79 percent of Amazon Prime users cite shipping as the primary reason for subscribing.

Yet as millions shelter in place and local stores remain shuttered, Prime customers are often unable to take advantage of Amazon's one- and two-day shipping due to the company's prioritization of essential goods. The decision to focus on essential items makes sense under the circumstances, but when asked if it will provide refunds, credits, or any sort of accommodations to consumers who are no longer able to get their goods in the shipping window promised as a part of Prime, Amazon has said no.

Rumblings of frustration with Amazon's inability to facilitate one- and two-day shipping for most products have been happening online for weeks now, essentially since Amazon made it clear in a blog post that it would no longer be able to fulfill the promise of Prime due to the extenuating circumstances presented by COVID-19. "We've adjusted our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third-party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering higher-priority items," the company told consumers on March 17. "This will result in some of our delivery promises being longer than usual."

While the company has continued to deliver household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products as quickly as possible, shipments of other goods are taking upwards of several weeks to get to buyers, according to some. On social media, Prime subscribers have complained that orders won't arrive until May, in some cases. Many of these products still bear the "Prime" label on the Amazon site, indicating they are eligible for free one- or two-day shipping. However, when users arrive at checkout, they are informed that delivery of the products will be delayed. Mic found that Amazon does provide indicators showing that items may take extra time to deliver before checkout, but many items still have the "Prime" label that would typically signify shipping in 24 or 48 hours. Now, it simply indicates free shipping — something that is often offered on products that are not part of Prime already.

In a tweet from its Amazon Support account, the company explicitly told one customer, "Unfortunately we are not providing refunds as there are many benefits with having Prime." Mic asked Amazon if it would offer any accommodations to customers who are no longer able to get non-essential goods in a timely manner. A spokesperson for Amazon noted that logistical challenges and prioritization of items as a result of the coronavirus pandemic "has resulted in some of our delivery promises being longer than usual." Rather than addressing the potential for refunds or credits, the spokesperson instead touted the other benefits of Prime membership, noting “entertainment benefits” like Prime Video and Amazon Music. When asked about accommodations to customers for shipping delays, Amazon declined to comment. Mic reached out to Amazon customer support to ask if the company is providing refunds or discounts for Prime membership and was told, “Amazon is not issuing discounts."

Despite Amazon's official position some Prime subscribers have reported success in getting accommodations. Per online accounts, this typically works only by calling Amazon customer support rather than using chat or other online methods. Some users have reported needing to elevate the call to a supervisor in order to get a refund approved. Others report getting refunded for the months remaining on their membership, but that requires canceling the Prime subscription entirely.

If Amazon customers should actually expect accommodations in a time of crisis is another question entirely. Larry D. Compeau, Professor Emeritus of Marketing and Consumer Psychology at the Clarkson University David D. Reh School of Business, tells Mic that while consumers have the right to be frustrated with Amazon's inability to meet Prime shipping promises, he believes "consumers need to take a chill pill" and recognize the circumstances. "Although I am not privy to top management deliberations, based on my knowledge and experience, I would be certain that if Amazon was able to provide one- and two-day shipping during these difficult times, they would," he explains. "It's obvious that at this time Amazon cannot provide that level of service, and so they acknowledge it in a banner at the top of their website."

Compeau notes that part of customer frustrations likely stem from concerns that they won't get the products that they believe are necessary and essential to their survival. "As we saw with panic shopping at physical stores, the same goes for online sales. They want their toilet paper and they want it now — well for Amazon, they want it today or tomorrow."

Christine Moorman, Senior Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, suggests that Amazon should ask consumers what is truly essential to them. "This might be a good idea so customers can help guide that judgment." This discrepancy can be seen playing out on social media, where users have complained that items they require have been deemed non-essential by Amazon. "I’m looking on Amazon for a grinder and all of the prime dates are for May 9th," one user wrote on Twitter. "I realize it’s not a 'essential item' but it’s super essential to my sanity."

So just what should Amazon be offering to its customers? Compeau said it's a tricky question. "In an absolute sense, they did not deliver as promised, so some compensation would seem appropriate. However, if we accept that Amazon is not at fault, nor responsible for the impact of COVID-19 which is causing these delays — which would be difficult not to accept — then compensation seems unnecessary and, in my view, a bit counter to what is happening right now." He notes that providing some form of compensation would suggest that Amazon isn't doing enough and is somehow responsible for the delays, rather than improvising in a time of an unprecedented global crisis. Similarly, Carmen Balber, Executive Director of Consumer Watchdog, tells Mic that "These are extraordinary times, and no one should fault Amazon for prioritizing delivery of food and other necessities," noting that rushing deliveries would cause Amazon workers even more risk than they are already experiencing.

That's doesn't completely excuse customer complaints, though. Moorman suggests that if Amazon doesn't provide discounts, then it could perhaps incentivize people to wait longer for non-essential goods. "If, in fact, the Prime membership guidelines can’t be fulfilled during this challenging time, they should ask for their customer’s help by accepting the delays or offer their customers some form of compensation." Balber says Amazon should be meeting customers halfway by offering "pro-rated refunds of Prime membership charges," until the previous delivery promises can be met. Compeau also concluded that it "wouldn't hurt" for Amazon to provide some sort of accommodation, such as "extending customers Prime subscription by a few months for free, or something like that, when this crisis finally subsides," similar to how Disney extended its annual passes due to park closings.