It was November 11, the very day Amazon announced free shipping to Israel for orders of over $49, and I had already been invited to join two Facebook groups promoting deals on Amazon.
The shopping site was recently translated into Hebrew, and the free shipping was clearly a promotion for Hebrew-speaking Amazon shoppers.
But these Facebook groups catered to Americans living in Israel, expatriates who keenly miss their Amazon Prime and were waiting with bated breath to take advantage of this opportunity.
I figured people would order Instant Pots and board games, as well as hard-to-find household items and electronics. I was right about the Instant Pots, the new incarnation of old-school pressure cookers. But what else were they ordering? Toilet paper and baby wipes, zipper storage bags, deodorant, lip balm and dry erase markers.
Huh? Can’t you get all that at a local Shufersal or Super-Pharm?
Within days, the Facebook page of Amazon Israel – Best Deals had more than 3,000 members and was flooded with elated threads about the contents of people’s shopping carts. They debated garbage bag brands and Hanukkah gifts for the kids, tennis balls and the efficacy of certain shampoos for curly hair.
Group members also discussed why they were so thrilled about Amazon’s current offer of free shipping in Israel, railing against the prices of Israeli imports and expressing their sense that local stores charge hefty prices just because they can. (Israeli consumers can avoid VAT on Amazon’s imported goods so long as their purchases total less than $75.)
In one thread, a consumer suggested that someone write a newspaper article about expatriates who are so desperate for reasonably-priced goods that they are ordering garbage bags and baby wipes through the online commerce giant. He blamed the Amazon fever on 17% VAT, Israeli price gouging and inferior products.
His fellow Amazon shoppers agreed and disagreed.
Miriam Lottner, an American Israeli who markets her Reveal Cards decks on Amazon, told her fellow Facebook group member not to hold his breath.
“This won’t last,” wrote Lottner on the Facebook post. “The delivery is costing Amazon an absolute fortune. They are doing this as market research to figure out what to encourage sellers to stock in the local warehouse once they open it and how to manage deliveries. They will then work out a way to crush the local market. When that happens, the local small economy will get hit just as badly as it has in the US. A lifetime of cheap ziplocks won’t balance out the long-term effects on the larger economy.”
Lottner said she was also taking advantage of Amazon’s free shipping to Israel, buying things she can’t source in Israel.
She figured the Amazon promotion wouldn’t last more than a month or two, just long enough for the online behemoth to “work out all the kinks” of what Israelis wanted to order from Amazon.
In the meantime, I had to wonder, was I missing out on some good deals?
The Best Deals group appears to be made up of mostly American-born shoppers, many of them in Israel for less than a decade and accustomed to a lifestyle of Amazon Prime shopping with same or next-day delivery.
It’s a shopping experience that many others, including myself, haven’t fully experienced, having moved here two, three or four decades ago, before Amazon’s prime.
Putting in Amazon orders from Israel isn’t quite the same as doing it from the US. It can take several days, sometimes even a week or two to receive that brown box at one’s door (or at a nearby corner store), but the overall attitude from local customers is a resounding “at long last.”
The Facebook group of Amazon Israel – Best Deals was opened by Izzy Rouimi and his friend, Ariel Geffen.
Rouimi, originally from Montreal, Canada, and living in Israel for the last 11 years, has been selling on Amazon for the last six years and consults about Amazon sales to other companies. Forming the group had nothing to do with his own business, and he does not get any personal gain from it, he said.
The moderators set rules about not posting too many pictures of Amazon boxes waiting at the door, and repeated warnings to remain within the $75 limit to avoid the value added tax. For now, the group is mostly about buyers wanting to share their knowledge and experience in finding the best buys.
“Most Americans who have come here more recently are hooked on Amazon,” said Rouimi. “They’re not used to having a day without Amazon, down to toilet paper. They want the quality and products that they know and are used to, and they want to have it here.”
Like Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning , as was discussed in one particularly heated thread.
“People are going crazy over scented garbage bags,” he said. “Israelis get small garbage bags or use supermarket bags because they fill up their garbage cans and throw it out in the morning. They don’t want to bother with things like this.”
It’s true that Americans are pretty accustomed to consumer products, part and parcel of the American dream, and it’s a lifestyle that has been fostered by Amazon.
Most native-born Israelis, however, aren’t typical Amazon shoppers, pointed out Rouimi. There are those who use it occasionally, for hard-to-find items or products that cost much less than they do locally. They’re also probably not the object of Amazon’s attention right now.
“Toilet paper we buy at the supermarket,” said Dvir Cohen, an Israeli entrepreneur who helps Israeli businesses start stores on Amazon with his company Amazon in a Click. But if free shipping remains, Israelis could also be persuaded to buy their everyday goods on Amazon, he said, and not just their electronics or Asics sneakers.
For now, when it comes to online shopping, many Israelis have turned to AliExpress.com, a Chinese online shopping platform that is much cheaper than Amazon and, often, offers products of lesser quality.
But Americans in Israel don’t want AliExpress, said Rouimi. They want the brands they know courtesy of Amazon (along with wholesale purveyor Costco and supermarkets Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods).
And that’s how Amazon may change the local market: with branded products, the items that American shoppers in Israel are in such a tizzy about, said Rouimi. They want the product and quality that they were used to buying, and they want it here.
There’s even the occasional non-American in the group, like Daniel Rosehill, 30, a writer who made aliyah to Israel from Ireland five years ago. He lives in Jerusalem, and was an avid Amazon and Amazon UK buyer back in Ireland.
Rosehill was so pleased about the free shipping from Amazon that he put together a petition asking the e-commerce giant to keep the free shipping indefinitely. He only has some 70 signatures so far, probably because everyone who would sign is too busy poring over their Amazon shopping cart.
Amazon has not said when the free shipping will end, though most customers and consultants assume the promotion will run out eventually.
During the five years that Rosehill has lived in Israel, he’s ended up buying most of his office products from AliExpress.
“The picture is pretty bleak here,” he said. “I’ve bought from Zap [an Israeli shopping site] and repeatedly stuff takes weeks to come and customer service is terrible.”
He buys his audio cables and computer parts from AliExpress, as well as from Ebay. It’s not that AliExpress has such great products, but in Israel everything is double or triple the price, said Rosehill. There’s also the time spent finding products and the miserable postal service that never gets items delivered.
Amazon is the king of the online shopping experience, and Rosehill wants to let the company know its initiative had been noticed and appreciated.
Still, he’s surprised by what people are currently buying on Amazon with the recent spate of free shipping.
As for Rouimi, he believes the free shipping is just a promotion that will help ease Amazon’s entrance into the Israeli market.
“I think Amazon chose very specifically what guidelines match free shipping, like nothing too large or heavy is included in the special,” he said. “They’re choosing for the American Israelis who want to stay under $75. ”