After a year-long pilot, Amazon just introduced the new Dash Wand, a basically free product which is a mashup of two existing Amazon product: the Echo (or "Alexa") voice-activated assistant and speaker, and the Amazon Dash Button, a small electronic device that is branded to a particular product such as Charmin toilet paper or Cheez-It crackers or Iams pet food. Pressing the button on the Dash Button automatically orders the item, which is convenient for common repeat purchases such as toilet paper and cat food.
The Dash Wand combines the two: It's a non-branded small hand-held device that you can talk to as though it were an Echo. It's magnetic, intended to stick to your refrigerator. Like the Echo, you can tell it to order items, and unlike the Echo it can also scan the barcodes of items you might want to buy. It also has some Alexa skills, so you can ask it for recipe suggestions or questions such as how many fluid ounces are in a cup. You can probably also get it to tell political jokes and do some other fun Alexa stuff. (I once asked mine what the life span of an opossum is and it knew the answer.)
Unlike the Echo, it will not play music. It's also only available to Prime members. And, frankly, if you don't order from Amazon often enough to make a Prime membership worthwhile, you probably don't want it anyway.
The Dash Wand is "essentially free" as Amazon says because, while it costs $20 to order with free shipping, you will receive a $20 credit into your Amazon shopping cart. You can't use the $20 for digital content such as books or videos or music, nor can you use it to buy products from third parties who sell in the Amazon Marketplace. But, again, if you don't regularly buy products from Amazon already, the Dash Wand may not make sense for you. It also comes with 90 days of the Amazon Fresh service, which normally costs $14.99 per month. I'm happy to note that the service won't auto-renew at the end of the 90 days so you won't get stuck with it through forgetfulness.
The logic behind the freebie?
Why is Amazon doing this? "Just because" guessed CNET reporter Scott Stein. But I've been using the Echo to order products for a few years now and I think something else is going on. It used to be that I would call out, "Alexa, order coffee filters," or "Alexa, order toilet paper," and it would tell me what brand I ordered last, how much ordering the same brand and quantity would cost and ask: "Should I order it?" If I said yes, it would be on its way. It only worked with products I had already ordered so it could use my order history to figure out my preferences, and it would only offer me those items.
Recently, things have gotten more complicated. I'll say, "Alexa, order toilet paper," and it might come up with "Amazon's Choice" for a different brand from what I've ordered in the past. These days, I can also order items I've never ordered from Amazon before. When I experimented with things like, "Alexa, order laundry detergent," the Echo came up with suggestions based on most popular orders or else something called "Amazon's Choice."
What the heck is "Amazon's Choice" and how does the company pick items to recommend? Information about this is scarce, but Amazon spokesperson Kinley Pearsall explained it this way to the Wall Street Journal: "Amazon's Choice offers are selected with a variety of factors in mind, ranging from rating to shipping speed."
The Huffington Post's Damon Beres asks a very logical question about that last factor: "Doesn't Amazon Prime guarantee the same shipping speeds across eligible products?" As for ratings, that's a system that's known to be vulnerable to manipulation via fake positive and/or negative reviews. Indeed, one vendor on an Amazon forum complained in January: "10 years of solid reviews and excellent customer service down the drain in one week. My sales have fallen 90 percent to an Amazon's Choice vendor that used fake reviews and has lower ratings."
As far as I can tell, suppliers cannot pay to get that Amazon's Choice designation, which is probably a good thing. But I'd have to guess that Amazon pays attention to the wholesale prices it gets from suppliers and the profit it makes on each item when considering items for Amazon's Choice. (I've reached out to Amazon for more information on this point and will update this post if I get it.)
You can see why the company might want to back away from the original Dash Button to something that gives it the ability to encourage you to buy what it wants you to buy, instead of just re-ordering what you've bought in the past. And given the fake reviews issue, you might want to check a product out independently before letting Amazon's Choice decide for you what product you want to buy.
Nevertheless, the Dash Wand sounds like a lot of fun. Its best feature may be this: If you don't have an Echo and wonder if you would like one, the Dash gives you an easy way to preview its non-music features. Even as an Echo owner, I'm wondering if I should get one (although maybe that would cause confusion if I say "Alexa" and both devices respond). But what the heck--it's essentially free.