Last Friday, 16 Larabars and an 80-count box of Glad garbage bags arrived at my door. These items are unremarkable, except for this: I ordered them by pressing some buttons on or near my kitchen countertop. Online shopping — or we’ll-certainly-need-this-for-the-apocalypse impulse shopping — can now be done with a light press on a small, plastic "Buy Me!" dongle made by Amazon.
There are a couple different ways to look at Amazon’s Dash Buttons. The first, and most obvious, is that they are a gimmick. There is something ludicrous about spending money to spend more money. At least, I felt this way when I went to Amazon.com and loaded up my virtual shopping cart with buttons, my total coming to $16.29 for three of them (each one costs $4.99, plus tax).
This is it? I thought when the 3-inch dongles arrived a couple days later. Each one was housed in tiny cardboard, like Amazon boxes for the modern dollhouse. This is Amazon’s vision for the future of shopping? There are buttons for Bounty, and Smartwater, and Gillette, and Huggies, and Gatorade, and about a dozen other brands right now. These brands have reportedly paid Amazon real money to have their own plastic Dash Buttons. Every which way, Amazon is getting paid.
There is something ludicrous about spending money to spend more money
But these buy buttons also support a shopping experience that involves almost zero interaction, whether that means browsing store shelves (IRL!) or tapping a touchscreen to browse and buy virtually.
Sure, when you first set up a Dash Button, you'll have to go into the Amazon mobile app. You'll select the specific batch of product you want to order and reorder, whether it’s a three-pack of scented Clorox disinfecting wipes scented for $9.97 or a six-pack of the citrus blend variety for $23.82.
And when it comes to actually "shopping"? You just press the Dash Button. A tiny light flickers white, until it turns green, indicating your order is on its way.
The notion that the best interface may be no interface is not a new one, but in an e-commerce scenario, it makes a surprising amount of sense. Even one-click purchasing requires opening an app or website. This does not. Dash Buttons are also not the first product from Amazon to embrace this idea. Prior to this there was another Dash stick, one that works with Amazon’s grocery delivery service in Manhattan. You could speak to this wand, say "meat," and you would get meat.
Echo, a new wireless speaker from Amazon, is a voice-controlled virtual assistant packed in a black cylinder, one that will dim the lights, set a timer or play a Saturday morning music playlist for you. While the Echo’s music picks aren’t always the greatest, there is something immensely convenient about not having to open an app and search for something. The greatest irony of "smart" products is that they can make you feel dumb while you’re scrolling through an app.
Did I mention you can also buy things with the Echo? (You didn’t think Amazon would stray too far from that, did you?) "Alexa," you can say to it, "Reorder trash bags," and trash bags you shall receive.
Dash Buttons are a way to shop without shopping
The Dash Buttons, then, are another means to an end for Amazon. It’s a let’s-throw-these-at-the-wall-and-see-if-they-literally-stick attempt. To call these "hardware" would be a stretch, and it's not the hardware that really matters, anyway; it's getting you to buy stuff.
For consumers, the Dash Buttons are a way to shop without shopping. It’s easy to forget that you’ve spent real money, until you get the standard email receipt from Amazon.
"Can I press one?" three fully grown human beings asked me when they saw the Dash Buttons. Is it because they look like toys? Or because the idea of ordering something by simply pressing a button, as though it's a doorbell to an Amazon distribution warehouse, is just too tempting?
"I would prefer not to have 96 more Larabars show up at my front door," I would say, especially because the bars I ordered tasted more like an Amazon box and less like peanut butter and chocolate.
A doorbell to an Amazon distribution warehouse
I asked Amazon what would happen if a child, or a pet, or a fully grown human being were to press a Dash Button multiple times. It turns out Dash Buttons only respond to the "first press" until your order has shipped and arrived. Also, if you’ve opted into notifications, you will know if someone has placed six orders of Larabars, and can cancel orders if necessary.
There’s also the practical question of how often you’ll really use the Dash Buttons. Right now, I don’t plan to reorder the Larabars. Eighty trash bags should last me for awhile. So should three canisters of bleach wipes. Ideally, there would be more brands participating, or the buttons could be programmed to order different kinds of things.
But Amazon, not surprisingly, seems to have grander plans for this. Its Dash Replenishment Service involves partnerships with appliance makers — like Whirlpool and Brita — that can either have physical buttons or built-in sensors that would trigger a new purchase. In this scenario, shopping isn’t just interface-free; it’s based on behavioral patterns, such as how often you run out of printer ink, or how frequently you replace the water filter.
I did experience one glitch with Dash Buttons: I never got my Clorox bleach wipes. The order didn’t process after I first set up the Dash Button. Once I realized this, I walked into my kitchen and pressed the Clorox-branded Dash Button again. They should arrive by Thursday.