Illustration of packages being shipped to a house

Before heading up to my wife’s family lake house last summer, we decided it was time for a new grill. The rustbucket Weber I’d been making pulled pork on for the last 10 years just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

While the house is remote—so far north in New York’s Adirondack Mountains that we make dinner listening to Canadian radio—we weren’t out of reach of Amazon Prime. We found a grill with free Prime shipping and hit Add to Cart. 

There was just one odd thing: Instead of the usual two days, the site said it would arrive in three. 

Like many Amazon Prime members, I assumed that Amazon Prime entitled me to get millions of items in two business days, basically anywhere in the lower 48 states. Not that I’m complaining: It’s a modern shopping miracle that we’ve come to expect 35 pounds of steel grill to show up at the door just two days after we order it. Three days is still extremely fast.

But experiences like mine could spark your curiosity, especially around the holidays, when so many people rely on Amazon: Does the basic Prime deal vary depending on where you live? In brief, the answer is yes. 

Amazon’s page on Prime benefits says the company has “Over 100 million items that arrive two business days after they ship,” in "areas across the U.S.” But language seems to leave some wriggle room—it doesn’t say in every location across the country.

More on Online Shopping

According to a spokesperson, “For any item that is Prime eligible, we will pick, pack, and ship the customer order within two days.” How long it takes to get to your address can vary.

On an afternoon in mid-December, an Amazon’s Choices space heater, an LG OLED 55-inch TV, and a Nintendo Switch were available for free Prime two-day shipping to lower Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco.

But try shipping to Glasgow, Mont., the town that “best represents the ‘middle of nowhere,’” according to a Washington Post data exercise, and the items wouldn't arrive for three days. 

There are lots of places like that. 

Elana Kehoe lives on the island of Isleboro, Maine, a town with just over 500 full-time residents 3 miles offshore in the Penobscot Bay. The island has no full-sized grocery stores, and residents often take a ferry off-island to go shopping—which is difficult for Kehoe, a single mother of two boys. “The first ferry leaves the island at 7:30 in the morning,” Kehoe says, “and the last ferry leaves the mainland at 5. There's no way I can go and get stuff unless I take a day off.”

After the ferry hiked its rates a couple of years back, Kehoe and many other islanders turned to Amazon Prime for everything from toilet paper to cat food to dishwashing sponges.

For Amazon, the first leg of the journey is to get items to the town of Rockland, on the mainland. From there, Penobscot Island Air contracts with Amazon to transport the items to Isleboro, sending a van loaded with Amazon deliveries on the first ferry of the day.

The van driver has become a topic of conversation on Isleboro. “On the town Facebook group, you'll routinely see people say ‘Has Cindy come over yet? Has anyone seen Cindy? I'm waiting for a package.’” During the holiday rush, small Cessna planes will get in on the action if enough packages need to be delivered. “If I get my order in on a Monday night, I'm pretty confident it should be here by Thursday. And there've been plenty of times that I've been surprised and stuff has shown up the next day.”

Does Amazon lose money providing fast, free shipping to Prime members living in Isleboro? The company wouldn't say.


Go to 
Consumer Reports’ 2019 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider shopping tips, and much more.
 

Even shipping to centrally located customers is a complicated challenge, according to both Amazon and several consultants and sellers who rely on the company to make a living.

“When you place an order on Amazon, it’s processed through an extremely complex algorithm, so they can find the best fulfillment center that offers the fastest shipping to your door,” says Greg Mercer, CEO of Jungle Scout, an Amazon product research company, and a longtime Amazon seller. “Sometimes this is the center a few states away because one of their jets is leaving in 2 hours instead of the fulfillment center 20 miles from your home.” 

In recent years, Amazon has expanded out its “last-mile” delivery networks. (That explains why you may have seen more Amazon vans cruising through your neighborhood and heard about the backlash to ultra-fast deliveries that has joined concerns about working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers.) The effort has helped make deliveries even faster and more reliable.

“It's very uncommon—if you look at the numbers—that [an Amazon] package is lost or late,” says Anne Goodchild, Ph.D., director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington. ”They've got so much tracking and quality control. It’s really hard to do that at the scale that they operate. If you get half a percent of packages wrong, it's still a really big number for them.”

How can you ensure your gifts arrive on time as the holidays draw near? First, be careful to hit the cutoff dates for Amazon Prime shipping.

Then, because Amazon’s supply chain and shipping network are so complex, it may be worth comparing shipping times if you can receive packages at work.

“Each ZIP code could have different eligibility for Prime,” says Alison Held, a senior product manager at ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce software company. Particularly if your office or workplace is closer to an Amazon fulfillment center than your home, there’s a chance you may be able to get a package sooner.

But that might not be necessary for most shoppers. Places such as Islesboro, Glasgow, and my in-laws' lake house up near Ottawa are outliers. If you live anywhere else, you can pretty much just hit Buy Now on Amazon and count on your packages to get there the day after tomorrow.