A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 29, 2018

What Were We Thinking? Why You Might Not Want To Review Your Amazon Order History

To say nothing of imagining how much they know about you and the artificially-intelligent implications of your purchasing habits. JL

Ars Technica reports:

"Looking over my Amazon history, I'm struck by how much Amazon knows about me. My purchases are mundane, but you could deduce a lot about me from this order history." "This makes me wonder if Amazon's robots look at my weird shopping history as an indicator of how I actually live and subsequently believe that my entire life revolves around plastic figurines, condoms  board games, and headphones." "Outside of my own convenience, my visceral reaction to decisions made by Amazon (and Google, Facebook, etc) is to shrug and say, "Who am I to pass judgement on the acts of gods?"
Ahead of the United States' Memorial Day weekend, Ars staffers were milling about the virtual water cooler when someone happened upon some intriguing data: their personal Amazon shopping history. This spreadsheet, which consisted of years of purchases and thousands of dollars of receipts, was easy to compile within the Amazon account interface, and it fit nicely into that day's chatter about other companies' issues with data privacy and GDPR compliance.
So, for funsies, a bunch of us reviewed our past decade-plus Amazon existence by grabbing a giant spreadsheet from our individual "order history" pages. As Americans who've spent many years ordering things off the Internet, we at Ars all have Amazon shopping histories in common, but that doesn't mean we all use the site the same—or feel the same about Amazon's reach, quite frankly. See below for examples of our first non-media (book or film) purchases at the site, and personal recollections about how Amazon has figured into our shopping lives over the years.
If you want to play along at home, by all means. This link should force you to enter your own Amazon credentials and then redirect you to an "order history" page. The first drop-down menu on the resulting page should already say "items." Confirm that's the case, then set the date range from January 1 of the earliest year on record to today. Then pick "request report" and you'll receive a CSV spreadsheet file that can be parsed by Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. You may need to split this into multiple reports (like, 2005-2009, 2010-today), should your shopping history be as big as some Ars staffers'.
Samuel Axon, senior reviews editor: $8,285.42 since 2009Most of my Amazon buying history is Christmas presents, as my family uses it for wish lists. Total dollars spent is also a misleading number, as my fiancée and I split some of the spending. That's not reflected here, as she has transferred money from her account to mine to cover half the cost of many of those gifts.
What aren't gifts are mostly purchases via killer deals I saw online through affiliate links on various tech and gaming sites. I generally try to avoid using Amazon as much as possible. Same-day delivery in LA is awesome, but I have concerns about one company basically owning all the retail infrastructure in the United States, which seems like where we're headed. Also, Amazon needs to pay its fair share of taxes in the United States.
I'm always impressed with what Amazon has accomplished—its success is not unearned. But the more a company looks like a monopoly either actually or potentially, the more disinclined I am to give them my money.
Beth Mole, health reporter: $4,262.51 since December 2006
My first set of orders were presents for family members—a DVD set and books—which was a theme until around 2014 when my then-boyfriend (now-husband) added me to his Prime subscription. My first non-book/DVD/CD purchase wasn't until October of 2007, when my brother and I went halfsies on a fancy kitchen mixer for my mom's birthday.
My (sparse) order history between 2006 and 2013 continued to be mostly an odd assortment of presents for family and friends—which is actually kind of fun to look back on. For instance, it includes the first things I bought my nephew when he was born: a tuxedo bib, Goodnight Moon, and a shark robe (you know, baby essentials.)
Since getting Prime (and becoming lazier about going to actual stores), I've strayed more into domestic ordering, such as paper products, allergy medicine, soaps, and toothpastes. Boring stuff. But the past year, I started going back and forth between Amazon and Target, which now has free, generally fast shipping and sometimes better deals.
Valentina Palladino, associate reviewer: $9,726.12 since 2009, "72 orders a year for the past three years"
Unsurprisingly, most of my first Amazon purchases were books. I have a couple of fond memories of a delivery truck rolling up to my family's home and its driver dropping off a single package for me containing the newest Harry Potter book that had just come out that day. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you view it), my Harry Potter reading experience wouldn't have been the same without release-day delivery from Amazon.
But my book purchases slowly took a backseat as years went by and as items like ink cartridges, HDMI cables, and two-pound bags of chia seeds became more important than the newest novel release. Today, I mostly turn to Amazon for necessities that cannot wait for my next IRL shopping trip, routinizing my online shopping and making most of my order history incredibly boring. It would be really easy for me to lean on Amazon for all of my purchases since I work from home, but I regularly try to take trips to retailers big and small for essentials, gifts, and home decor or other things that I want to have more personality.
Now it's rare that I even buy a physical book from Amazon, but that's because I'm an avid Kindle reader, so Amazon provides the reading material still with a some supplementation from my local library's digital shelves. But on the rare occasion that I do order a physical book, I still get as excited to receive that package as I did years ago—and those will forever remain my favorite Amazon packages to receive.
Sean Gallagher, IT editor: $2,373.03 since 2006
Most of my early Amazon purchases were books, and I only made a few purchases per year until around 2016, when we opted into Prime. Almost everything I've personally bought aside from books is a tech-related (Arduino, OrangePi, Raspberry Pi, replacement laptop batteries, phone cases, cables) or a gift (Shark Bite novelty socks for my daughter, for example). But I've also bought stuff for my other silicon-based activity: pottery. There are a couple of orders for "Speedball 001066 Underglaze, Black," as well as potter's tools and chamois cloths for use in throwing pots on the wheel.
John Timmer, senior science editor: $3,500 since creating an Amazon account (no date given)
A disturbingly large amount of my purchases came via rewards points generated by my primary credit card—over half the entries include the term "gift card"—so the actual total of my own money is substantially lower than that.
The entries are an extremely random set of electronics, bike stuff, and one of my odder hobbies: growing wildly inappropriate trees from seeds in small apartments. The very first item is a device from a dead platform, a Palm Tungsten TX. From there, my record shifts into more sensible purchases, like SSDs (both of which I'm still using), keyboards, mice, and hard drives for my NAS. It looks like, for many years, whenever space was getting tight for my backups, I'd simply grab whatever gift certificates I had around, buy the biggest drive they would get me, and throw that into the NAS.
Biking stuff was a slow trickle for many years, mostly replacing worn-out things, until there was a sudden binge when I bought my first new bike in 25 years a little while back.
Then there are the seeds. I currently have a very small giant sequoia on my balcony. It's a replacement for a coast redwood that I managed to get to my own height before it outgrew its pot and suddenly died. That's a pattern I've been dealing with for a while: the trees look great right up until when they commit to dying, at which point no amount of care or larger pots can dissuade them. So there's a steady stream of seed purchases, as I try to keep some new trees starting in case the older, larger one decides to give up; some buys happen just to deal with the fact that not every batch of seeds is good. The hope is, at some point, to get one of my trees that's still healthy to someone's house for planting. But it's been a while, and it hasn't happened yet.
Even more embarrassing is the knowledge that Amazon's not my only supplier for this.
Jeff Dunn, tech writer: $3,116 since 2011
I was just wrapping up college at the time I opened my account, but my first major purchase came a few months later when I bought a Sony Vaio S as my first "professional" notebook. It was a bit of a splurge at the time, but my adolescent desire to not carry a MacBook like everyone else, combined with the fact that I had just spent three years using a junky Gateway, was enough justification for me. I think I witnessed about four other Vaio owners over the period I used mine.
That purchase alone continues to make up a third of my total Amazon spending. Since then, I've pretty much exclusively used the site to buy (Hank Hill voice) video games and video game accessories, with a few books and board games thrown in. This reinforces a few things for me:
1. I am a young guy who has never been married, had kids, or lived in an exceptionally large apartment. (This will all change soon enough, but I've been frugal while I could.)
2. I have never lived close to a GameStop and/or rarely find its prices appealing.
3. I spent the first couple years of my career writing about the video game industry.
4. I generally don't like buying things online. Some deep-seated part of my monkey brain doesn't trust online stores with things like food or basic household items; if I need those things, I usually want them now, and I don't mind taking the walk or car ride to go get them. Getting away from the screen is healthy, right? I've made it a point to live within walking distance to a grocery store when hunting for my last few apartments, so that's helped.
I've also covered Amazon enough to know that, for the wrong person, Prime becomes an excuse to buy things more than a helpful tool for buying things you planned to get anyway. I'm probably the wrong person in that case, so I've stayed away.
Megan Geuss, staff editor: $2,565 since 2009
I opened an Amazon account in 2005, when I apparently purchased a number of books for my sister's high school language class. I have no recollection of this and no idea why I would have done this: I was already in college and living 350 miles away from home. But Amazon indicates that they were shipped to my sister, and they're titles you read in high school: The Importance of Being Earnest, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (uggggh, a blight on English Literature), Lord of the Flies.
Amazon won't give me prices for any of the books before 2008 for some reason, but I can tell you I bought exactly 10 books in my three first years as an Amazon customer. In 2009 I made my first non-book purchase: a heavy, red, 7.5-quart ceramic bowl. I had just moved into a proper apartment (I had been living in the basement of a house with six other people for a while), and I saved up to get something nice. I still have it, and I love it.
In total, I've bought 107 items from the retailer, and in many cases a group of items represents an order of several books before a school semester. I don't have data on the 10 first items, and my above tally includes every purchase after those. My spendiest year was 2017, which was the year a number of weddings and new babies happened in the family, so there were a lot of gifts to buy.
Mostly, looking over my Amazon history, I'm struck by how much Amazon potentially knows about me. My purchases are pretty mundane, but you could deduce a lot about me from this order history. With that realization, I'll probably try to buy less from the store in the future.
Sam Machkovech, tech culture editor: $5,549.92 since January 2006
I worked at a used CD and DVD shop through college, and my employee discount there persisted even after I quit. This shop was a few doors down from a book store where I also enjoyed a neighborhood discount. Thus, I saw little reason to order from Amazon when I was younger. My move to Seattle in 2007 changed that, and my first non-media purchase came that year: a pair of Koss KSC-75 clip-on headphones. (I still love the company's slightly upgraded KSC-35 model.)
My use skyrocketed thanks to Amazon Prime membership, which I decided to actually start paying for (as opposed to claiming repeat shots at one-month trials, during which I'd order a bunch of crap simultaneously) in early 2015. I ordered 44 individual items between 2006 and 2014; from 2015 to today, that's up to 146 items. This database doesn't include the two books I purchased at the world's first Amazon Books brick-and-mortar store or the 10 random things I bought when testing out the world's first grab-and-go Amazon Go grocery store earlier this year.
My Amazon use has revolved almost entirely around discount hunting, as I've otherwise lived close to plenty of convenient grocery and big-box stores since becoming a member. This fact makes me wonder if Amazon's robots look at my sporadic and weird shopping history as an indicator of how I actually live and subsequently believe that my entire life revolves around plastic figurines, condoms  board games, and headphones. Actually, come to think of it...
But looking at this spreadsheet—this slice of my consumption history—mostly reminds me how many shops keep these kinds of tabs on shoppers. There's a reason we all save roughly 73 cents per item when flashing a "frequent shopper" card at a given store: so that more users can cough up unified, predictable personal-shopper data. (I still use my mom's phone number when going to grocery stores, and I laugh to think of what the QFC/Kroger empire thinks of this apparent "family" account.)
Peter Bright, technology editor: $5,012.47 in the US, £3,724.72 in the UK, since January 2000
The most striking pattern in my Amazon behavior? Moving to New York. When I was in Houston, we did our grocery shopping at that Texas stalwart, HEB. But New York City, for all its innumerable virtues, is not blessed with the enormous grocery stores that are such a fixture of so many of America's sprawling towns and cities. Sure, there's Whole Foods now in Williamsburg, and we could probably make that work for us somehow, but it wouldn't be convenient.
Those New Yorkers that actually bother to cook for themselves (which, judging by the sorry excuses for kitchens in so many apartments, is only a tiny minority) instead have to make do with the oh-so-convenient but oh-so-expensive bodegas or the mid-size and still somewhat expensive supermarkets such as the appallingly named C-Town. As such, we rely substantially on grocery delivery services to buy our basic provisions. For reasons of choice and price, we do not usually use Amazon Fresh, with one critical exception. In Houston, I grew to love Coca-Cola Vanilla Zero. The Coca-Cola company produces many fine products, but this is surely their greatest triumph. Widely available in Houston's grocery stores, we'd just grab a fridge pack or three every time we went to HEB, Wal-Mart, or even Target. But here in New York City? I cannot find a retailer that offers it. My savior? Amazon Fresh. To meet the minimum order requirements, I'll have to order nine or 10 cases at a time, enough to keep me going for a month or so before I need to replenish my supplies. But it has become my lifeline, my only source for a product without which I will surely die.
Timothy B. Lee, senior tech policy reporter: $20,738 since 2004
I didn't start using Amazon until 2004, because prior to that I was boycotting the company over its extremely lax privacy policy. (The policy stated that "information that we gather now is subject to the Privacy Notice in effect at the time of use," which I thought was no privacy policy at all). But since placing my first order in 2004, my use of the service has grown exponentially. In the last nine years, I've ordered more than 600 items.
Two events have driven my increasing use of Amazon. First was joining Amazon Prime in late 2010. After I did that, orders jumped from 24 in 2010 to 39 in 2011 and 49 in 2012. Then, in 2015, we had our first child, and a friend pointed out that Amazon's Subscribe & Save service was a good way to buy diapers.
I needed to order at least five items per month to get the full 15-percent Subscribe & Save discount. And once I started looking around I discovered there were a number of items—oatmeal, cat food, protein bars, paper products, baby food—that were worth subscribing to. I'm now on a bimonthly Subscribe & Save cycle and get 12 to 16 items every two months. As a result, I had 125 orders in 2015 and 136 orders in 2016.
Ron Amadeo, reviews editor: Over $33,000 since 2009
Hi, my name is Ron, and I'm an Amazon addict. From what I can tell, my Amazon use shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
My first Amazon purchase was in October 2009, and of course it was cell phone
related. I bought an "auxiliary input converter" for my car's stereo system so I could hook my phone up to it! My car stereo had an "Aux" button meant for a factory CD changer, which I didn't have, but it did give me a way into the audio system. This little box would convert the (proprietary?) 9-pin input in the back of the stereo to a pair of normal RCA plugs, then I could hook a Bluetooth-to-RCA adapter up to that and wirelessly beam music from my phone (an aging Palm Treo 700w) to my car. Sending wireless music to my old-and-busted 2002 Chevy pick-up felt like living in THE FUTURE.
My Amazon usage only really spiked in the past few years when I bought my first house. I basically ended up furnishing the whole thing via Amazon, including having them deliver ludicrously large things like a mattress. I love Prime shipping.
Nate Anderson, deputy editor: $15,000 since 2008
In 2001, I was a Ph.D. student in literature, studying the English Renaissance in more detail than was advisable or, frankly, enjoyable. Which may be why my very first purchase on Amazon involved some Renaissance lit... and some sheer escapism. (Also, some Harry Potter. Rimshot!)
Since then, I have spent an unholy amount on Amazon. The company's report generating tool would simply not give me data before 2008, no matter how politely I asked. The above tally, since 2008, also doesn't include my wife's account. Prime was definitely a key purchase driver for both of us, shifting us increasingly away from bricks-and-mortar stores once we knew we would have our stuff in two days and at no extra charge. I now average 100 purchases a year, the majority of which appear to be books, board games, and household/kitchen essentials.
The sheer amount of time saved by not shopping and driving has made Amazon feel like an efficiency engine for my life, but over the last few years I have become increasingly aware that the site's ease of use leads me to spend more time browsing and buying than I would like. It also encourages a particularly malign form of consumption as I search out those little dopamine hits from a new purchase when feeling low, bored, or stressed; in the offline world, I would never have purchased anything at all. So I'm making an effort to be a more deliberative and conscious user of Amazon's many services. How's it going? I'll let you know next year.
Eric Bangeman, managing editor: $58,900 since the beginning of 2006
That's an eye-dropping number, to be sure, and it includes some big-ticket items. For
instance, in 2008 I bought an elliptical machine from Amazon for $1,700, because it was less expensive than I could find locally, there was no sales tax, and free delivery. Another $10,000 or so comes from Amazon gift cards I have purchased for the Ars staff on behalf of Condé Nast as a holiday gift.
My very first Amazon order was on May 22, 2002. I bought three books: one on Mac OS X and two theological tomes (I have a MA in theological studies, and they were on a topics of interest to me). I had a handful more book and CD purchases throughout the year, with my first non-book, non-CD purchase coming that December. I bought a wall calendar for my wife and a LeapPad for our then-almost-three-year-old daughter for Christmas.My wife and I were early adopters for Amazon Prime, and as Amazon expanded its inventory and made it possible to get the stuff we needed without leaving the house, we were hooked. Just this year alone, I've bought Soylent, a camera bag, rugby socks, a mirrorless 35mm camera, ferret food, and a cable modem (upgraded the home 'Net connection to 500mbps/50mbps). It's a far cry from the books and CDs of 16 years ago, and it illustrated how much Amazon has changed our shopping habits.
Lee Hutchinson, senior technology editor: (declined to add up total purchases)
While I cannot quite bring myself to confront the dark abyss that is my Amazon purchase history total, going back to my very first purchase is easy. On December 7, 1998, I signed up for an Amazon.com account (over dial-up, since I wouldn't have broadband until early 2001) and made one of the most stereotypically Ars-y purchases ever: a Babylon 5 paperback and a CJ Cherryh omnibus. The B5 book was the first in a trilogy that promised to reveal the fate of Alfred Bester, one of the show's most enduring villains (played with the perfect mix of panache and deadly menace by Walter Koening). I don't remember very much about it other than that it was a serviceable but pedestrian effort.
The other book, though, is special. I'd call CJ Cherryh one of the last great living masters of hard science fiction, along with Gene Wolfe. She is without a doubt my favorite author (a title she wrestled away from Arthur C. Clarke in my early 20s), and her Alliance-Union universe is a vast and forbidding canvas on which merchants brave the deep dark in family-run ships that carry generations of people while wars shake the pillars of heaven. Although she can spin a political intrigue with the best of them, Cherryh is at her best when dealing with aliens—she has an inimitable knack for developing utterly alien characters with utterly alien characteristics and then forcing her readers to confront the world through their eyes. Her writing is typically done in tightly-constrained third person, and she uses the limitations of that constraint to yank you into her characters' shoes—hard.
This particular omnibus, starting off with the can-be-read-as-standalone novel The Pride of Chanur and continuing with the next two books in the series, is far and away my favorite of her works and shows Cherryh at the absolute top of her game. The book focuses on a crew of merchants that is saddled with an escaped fugitive alien—except the "alien" is human. It is a measure of Cherryh's skill that the alien crew of The Pride is engaging and easy to like, while the human character, marooned in that part of space and unable to speak any of the languages, is convincingly portrayed as an almost un-knowable Other.I could go on for a few thousand words about Cherryh in general and this series in particular. It's absolutely worth a buy if you're in the mood to free yourself from the chains of modern skiffy and read something truly wonderful. Oh, and I guess Amazon is pretty cool, too.
Peter Opaskar, line editor
I followed my coworkers' instructions as best I could, but I couldn't get Amazon to send me a lifetime total of all my purchases. As for whether I approve or disapprove of Amazon, I have limited bandwidth for getting worked up over things I can't control. Now that I've been at Ars for a couple years, I should probbbbbbbably find the time to form an opinion. But outside of my own convenience or lack thereof, my visceral reaction to decisions made by Amazon (and YouTube and Google and Facebook) is usually to shrug and say, "Who am I to pass judgement on the acts of gods? Their might and godliness exist independently of our puny mortal morality." You know, like Schwarzenegger and Bennett in Commando.


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