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Amazon Prime, now with free, same-day deliveries

The e-commerce company announces free, same-day shipping on over 1 million items in 14 metro areas across the US.

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Here come the Amazon boxes. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Prime by bedtime.

That's a phrase millions of Amazon Prime members may start reciting, thanks to the online retailer adding free, same-day deliveries to the $99-a-year membership program.

For now, Amazon's new service, unveiled Thursday, will be a stripped-down version of Prime's current, free two-day deliveries. Over 1 million items will be available for free, same-day shipments -- a fraction of the 20 million available in the US for two-day deliveries. Orders must total more than $35 to qualify. The purchase must also be made before noon, or it will arrive the next day. The service will initially be available in 14 metro areas across the US.

Even with those limitations, the new service marks a big step forward for Prime pulling off a long-sought goal in the retail industry of offering cheap (or free) same-day deliveries. Google and Walmart are two other firms racing to create same-day networks. Prime members in a handful of cities were already able to order same-day deliveries, but had to pay $5.99 an order. (That fee will still kick in for items not listed for free, same-day service. -- or if the total order is less than $35.)

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An Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif. Amazon officially opened the 1.2 million-square-foot facility in January. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Amazon was able to offer the new service thanks to its huge investment over the years in its network of warehouse-and-delivery hubs that it calls fulfillment centers, Chris Rupp, vice president of Amazon Prime, said in an interview.

"We can get items closer to customers, get more items in stock and be able to deliver as quickly as possible," she said of the delivery network.

The new service may help Amazon retain and expand its tens of millions of Prime customers -- who pay $99 a year for free shipping, a streaming video library and cloud storage -- during a time when the e-commerce giant is staring down plenty of new competition. Walmart will test out a $50-a-year unlimited shipping service, eBay plans to pilot a buyer loyalty program in Germany, and startup Jet.com, which hasn't officially launched, is looking to offer a member-focused online marketplace. Also, Google has been developing its Express shipping service and Uber is dabbling in deliveries. Startups including Instacart and Postmates are also getting in the mix.

While none of those new efforts comes close to Amazon's size or reach, Amazon appears to be working hard to stay ahead of the competition and speed up its deliveries to make itself more desirable to consumers. Prime is an especially critical part of Amazon's business, since Prime users tend to spend considerably more with Amazon than non-Prime members, so the retailer is keenly focused on building up Prime's services.

The new same-day shipping for Prime members expands on two smaller rapid-delivery programs within Amazon. The company offers grocery deliveries around New York City, Seattle, Philadelphia and parts of California under the brand Amazon Fresh. In December, Amazon started Prime Now, a one-hour delivery service for tens of thousands of items that it's quickly expanded to Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dallas, Manhattan and Miami. Both services are available only to Prime customers, with Fresh requiring a special $299 annual Prime Fresh membership.

Amazon is also trying to develop delivery drones, but so far has been slowed as government officials weigh how to regulate such a service.

The free, same-day service is available seven days a week in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis, the Los Angeles metro area, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle and Washington, DC, as well as San Diego and Tampa Bay, which previously didn't have the option for same-day deliveries through Amazon.

Customers can find which ZIP codes are included in the new service at Amazon.com/sameday. They can find which items are eligible by looking for a free, same-day logo attached to products or by clicking on a new same-day filter in the Amazon.com search bar.

Same-day delivery pricing for non-Prime customers hasn't changed, and starts at $9.98 per order.

After studying customer behaviors, Rupp said, Amazon sought to add products to the same-day delivery service that consumers tended to need more urgently, including HDMI cables, batteries, water filters, baby wipes, deodorant and last-minute travel items such as sunscreen and towels.

"We believe this to be a real life-changer," Rupp said. "Having the ability to get your to-do list done in just a few clicks and have the rest of the day to yourself we think is going to make a big different in customers' lives."