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Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 at 10:10 am

How Amazon Lost Me (and My Money)

By Peter Lee
October 26th, 2007

One word: Fulfillment.

I recently purchased a set of Sony Ericsson earbuds from Amazon.com. I already knew the type of earbuds, which color, and even the model number I wanted to order. (That’s what we call a “late-stage” visitor.) Amazon didn’t have to do much to convince me to buy. All I wanted was a clear product image, showing what I could expect with my purchase.

Amazon product pageI didn’t just want a new set of earbuds; I wanted the Sony Ericsson brand earbuds, since they’re specific to my phone. The product image confirmed that I was receiving a genuine Sony Ericsson product, and I was further convinced by the product title and description. As a repeat Amazon customer, I expected to receive what I was shown (see thumbnail pic).

You’d think Amazon fulfilled my expectation, but no. Here’s what happened…

The headphones were delivered in a flimsy envelope — not quite the bubble wrap-protected box I imagined. The shabby packaging, held together by a piece of tape that looked 10 years past its prime, was an unwelcome surprise. Where was the original Sony Ericsson packaging I saw on the site? It took me about 15 minutes just to be sure this was actually what I ordered (“Is this even an authentic Sony Ericsson product?”). These types of situations are what have kept me away from online auction sites.

No Sony Ericsson boxGranted, this was a small, $10 purchase. But imagine ordering an expensive watch or handbag online, or even a gift delivered to a loved one. How can you be certain that the product is authentic or will be appropriately packaged and well-presented? We can’t. Instead, we rely on past experiences, product images, and brand recognition to do the job..

I’ve been spoiled by some great e-commerce sites, including Amazon, over the years. They’ve made my shopping experience delightful from start to finish by delivering the product as I imagined it, almost every time. And I’m a loyal customer to those sites. But now I’ve got a strange feeling about Amazon. They’re the industry leader for a reason. They revolutionized online order fulfillment. In fact, they’re supposed to be the gold standard of e-tailers.

Am I expecting too much from e-commerce sites? I don’t think so. In fact, I’m verbalizing what all people who purchase online are thinking — no, expecting. Consumers demand an easy and delightful shopping experience, from the first click to the time the order is in our hands.

I won’t give up browsing on Amazon just yet — they still have great product details and customer-generated reviews — but they’ve lost me as a paying customer for now. And regardless, I don’t see myself buying electronics from them anymore.

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Comments (16)

  1. You are surprised that a $5.46 item, listed as an OEM unit, comes in OEM packaging?

    Yes, the description could be better, by dropping the [Retail Packaged] snippet.

    The item you bought was also not fulfilled by Amazon but by A1 Accessories using the Amazon store front.

    Yeah, Amazon has its issues, this one’s a non-issue.

  2. Jack,

    I think a better way of framing this would be to say that Peter was shopping in a fast-paced, competitive mode, and was disappointed because his product didn’t appear as pictured. You’re right about the “Retail Packaged” bit in the web copy, but I the picture is actually the more deceiving element.

    That being said, I agree with you; this isn’t the biggest issue for a company like Amazon. (It won’t stop me from shopping there, just because my co-worker’s disappointed.) They do SO many things, so well, that it’s easy to call this nitpicking unless you’re the customer it happens to.

    Did Amazon disclose who would be delivering it? Absolutely. But the company selling it through Amazon (Eforcity) apparently didn’t show the actual product on purpose. So, it’s not Amazon’s “fault” but it is Amazon’s problem.

    I’ll bet this happens to people all the time; certainly to people less web savvy than you or Peter. The problem isn’t that Amazon didn’t disclose enough, it’s just that the experience FEELS so similar to buying anything else direct from Amazon that a customer in one of these fast-paced modes (Spontaneous or Competitive) will gloss right over those details, then feel like they’ve been duped once they get the goods.

    Last week, Bryan Eisenberg did a screencast on appealing to different buying modes and personality types. Hopefully that will clarify.

    As Peter’s editor, I’d hate for this post to be taken as petty rant. I know he didn’t intend it that way.

    Peter,

    Is the problem that Amazon let another company use both its brand and Sony’s to push second-rate goods on their storefront, or is that you felt suckered by the experience? Did you return the headphones? Buy new ones?

  3. You should buy from Amazon instead of A1 Accessories to get the best experience. This is also why Amazon should not allow 3rd-parties to sell on their platform.

  4. Rob, I felt duped with my experience with such a trusted e-tailer like Amazon. The fact that they allow vendors to use Amazon’s storefront and branding and sell products that obviously do not equal Amazon’s standards of quality is hard to swallow.

    Jack – thanks for your comment. It may seem like a non-issue because of the “size” of my purchase or that I dealt with another company through the storefront, but we all have expectations with our shopping experience and when they are not met, we are disappointed. So am I supposed to forgive Amazon and their storefront and expect a better experience the next purchase? Shopping online should not be a guessing game.

    After all this, I’ve decided to keep the headphones, but to use it as an office decoration. Going through the process of returns scare me and is a waste of my precious time. Instead, I purchased new ones from another site.

  5. I am glad someone is writing about this. Amazon has been driving me up a wall for the past year or two. To me, it is another classic case of a maturing company minimizing and shrugging off what made them great in order to grow and/or do new things.

    What made Amazon what it is, in my mind, amounts to offering revolutionary levels of:

    1. Product information (customer reviews=genius) more complete than ANYONE, by a wide margin.
    2. Simple ordering that is totally intuitive (wish-lists=brilliant), reliable, and just easy to do business with. People shop online because they want convenience and control, and Amazon got this in a BIG way. Amazon was THE example of how to do ecommerce right, and you can see elements of what Amazon invented at almost every major ecommerce site. Amazon was the gold standard, by a wide margin.
    3. Quick shipping. Back in the day, ALL of Amazon’s orders, even with the cheap-o shipping, were priority mail (at worst), and arrived within 3-4 days total.
    4. Selection. Their selection of books used to be staggering. You could get ANYTHING from them.

    Now-a-days, Amazon has been taking FOREVER (at least for me) to ship some pretty common items, their pricing is at a premium (this seems to be getting better), and their checkout was completely broken (from an intuitive perspective) a couple of years ago, and even the current version is a shadow of the simplicity of how it used to be.

    Also, I think, and for some strange reason Amazon NEVER called me before they did this ; ) , Amazon has COMPLETELY diluted their brand by using the framework of third-party vendors they have. Recently, I purchased an out-of-print book from a very favorably reviewed (1000+ positive reviews) third party reseller (in alleged like-new condition). The order was placed on Oct. 2nd (with the book being “in stock” from the reseller). I just got the book yesterday (Oct. 25). Also, the book arrived (sent Media Mail) in a plain manila envelope. No invoice/packing-slip, no bubble/shrink wrap, nothing. Just a book in an envelope (whose cover and back look pretty trashed), sent across the country, in an envelope, via Media Mail.

    By putting third-party sellers on the same footing as themselves, Amazon has thrown the baby out with the purchasing experience. Why would the world-leader in doing fulfillment right allow ANYONE to take over this process? Amazon has ZERO control about when/if the order will be shipped, what packaging will be used, etc. Baffling. I know it was not actually Amazon that I ordered the book from, *but* I placed my order on the Amazon site. Intellectually, I know that they are different, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth for Amazon. Let eBay be eBay, I buy from Amazon for a reason.

    Lastly, due to pricing and shipping issues, I now order ALL of my books (and I read quite a few) from Barnes and Noble dot com. Their shipping is free, it is fast (2-3 days), their prices are competitive, their selection of hard to find books is wider (this is an area where Amazon used to dominate in, which helped make them who they are), and it is just EASY. If I wanted complexity, I would go to a bookstore. My needs are not complex, and I don’t really like to take the time to have to shop around (which is why I order online, because it SAVES TIME). I just want a reliable source for what I need, that offers a good service/experience, and that keeps its promises. Just looking at all of the ecommerce companies that have grown madly over the last several years (Newegg, Zappos, etc.) ALL get that it is the buying experience, stupid. How Amazon completely lost sight of this is completely amazing to me.

    In my mind, it is sad, but all too common. Amazon went looking for things to fix (that they should have left alone, because they were not broken), and completely diluted what they used to be the best at, to now just being another me-too. Amazon has left the door WIDE open for competitors. I know that my business would never had been at risk if the service did the fairly simple things listed above. Often, it is the simple things that are really the secret sauce of a business, and it is a shame to see Amazon trade these things in.

  6. John-

    You make valid points which I’d like to comment on as a previous Amazon 3rd party seller. Initially when the 3rd party selling program was created 3 years ago we were in the initial ‘pilot program’ and therefore one of the first companies able to sell through Amazon’s channel. The process for adding products and managing inventory was onerous, but as a new service, we decided to invest the time and money to get our products into Amazon’s system.

    Initially, things went well with the program, and over the course of a year we (manually!) added several thousand products to Amazon’s site. Our products are our own, and everything is custom labeled, photographed, and packaged. In addition, we offer high levels of customer service, speedy in-house fulfillment, and warranties.

    Suddenly one day we saw that other vendors were popping up on our product listings. What was upsetting was that these vendors appeared above us on the purchase page because they were offering products at a lower cost than ours. Since we don’t wholesale our products, these products were substantially different from the photographs and descriptions we had painstakingly created and uploaded.

    As I am sure can guess, we started getting complaints on our toll free hotline about the quality of our products not meeting our descriptions and photos. These were customers who had unknowingly purchased from one of these ‘other’ resellers. Amazon refused to do anything since the products were ‘similar’ in nature. This was despite the fact that all of our products were clearly listed with our brand name in the product title.

    In order to save our reputation we were forced to remove our products entirely from Amazon. To this day I do not understand how Amazon can insist that this is a fair business practice. The irony in all of this is that we protected our brand name and saved a lot of work by walking away from Amazon entirely.

  7. Yes, this is definitely a 3rd party seller issue. I think Amazon should make it more obvious that you are purchasing from a 3rd party- sticking it within the availability details leads me to believe that they don’t want you to notice.

    They almost lost me as a customer once- but between the free shipping, extremely low prices, and the ability to keep a wish list for just about everything I could ever want- there just isn’t a viable alternative for me.

    P.S. They had almost lost me because there was some sort of problem with my account in their database. When I’d try to purchase something I’d get an error message that there system was temporarily down. It lasted for months. I tried different computers, different browsers, different methods of starting the payment process, etc. Nothing. My wife’s account worked fine. It literally wouldn’t let me purchase anything. After a difficult time finding a customer service phone number, I called several times and since the problem didn’t fit into one of their pre-defined categories, they had no idea what to do. I asked them if they could send my issue to a step-up customer service dept./team and they said they didn’t have one. Nor could they notify the department that manages the account databases. Their solution, and I had to beg for them to even acknowledge that there was a problem and thus a solution was needed, was for me to create a new account and manually re-enter the forty or so items that I had in my old wish list. It took me hours to do, and permanently angered me toward Amazon. To this day it amazes me that a company so large can have no process for dealing with non-standard problems.

  8. My wife recently tried to buy a pair of leather boots on Amazon, but had to abandon the effort when she realized that the order flow had never asked her for her shoe size.

    Now is that a broken process, or what?! I expect better from the site that I have come to rely on for convenient book-buying.

  9. While the 3rd party merchant may be guilty of showing a photo of a retail package where one was not included, it is very possible that they did not generate the item description. I’m an Amazon 3rd party seller, and the process is very frustrating at times even when you are trying to do everything right. Amazon will determine that your item is the “same” as another merchant’s item – sometimes based on sku, but sometimes based on your model number that is a generic industry standard – and then substitute the other merchant’s description. This sometimes leaves inaccurate descriptions, and if you do not have the time to look at your thousands of items, one by one, you will not know that Amazon is not presenting the item as you intended it.

  10. I am very sorry to hear about that Peter. It happens all the time. The sad thing is that you relied on their capability to give you your money’s worth, in which they palpably failed to do. And that can mean one unhappy customer telling millions online how bad is their experience at Amazon. :)

  11. I too was a victim of amazon, I order a book on CD by lynda.com an action script book. It seemed to come with the cds and a book to follow along with the exercises on the cd’s. instead I got a dvd case with the cd in it for $150.00

  12. Hey all, just a few of your comments and you all are saying much unneeded things about 3rd party vendors. My company happens to be a vendor on amazon.com I chose to be self employed and chose my sales channel to be e-commerce. As it is difficult to sell stuff on a website that is unknown to the public. will you buy from joeshmoe.com? no, what about amazon.com? YES if you were to buy once from joeshmoe.com and be disappointed then you would never use them again, but amazon.com would get another chance from you, at least most of the time. Amazon.com helps my company achieve sales and because of amazaon.com helping me achieve sales my company has a chance of succeeding dramatically. without amazon.com I would be working 9-5 in some corporate environment in the city. that is easier than running your own company, but I would be unhappy. now that I have mentioned pluses about selling, how about plusses for buying? amazon.com sellls a printer for 150$ that you want sooo badly, but a 3rd party vendor has the same printer for 85, its listed brand new and instock. you get it and your happy. if your unhappy and the vendor doesnt reply to you then amazon.com takes money away from the vendor, gives you a refund and you keep the product anyways. amazon.com freezes, suspends and cancels 3rd party vendor accounts if they are making customers unhappy, have poor customer service, not answering emails in a timely fashion, too many order cancelations or refunds. AMAZON LOOKS OUT FOR THE CONSUMER ALWAYSSSSSSS. all of you want 3rd party vendors out? my company makes 50 cents on an item just to beat out other vendors, delivering goods in a timely fashion, great customer service and you get items for dirt cheap? come one, be realistic. if your unhappy, complain, something will be done immediately, i can guarantee it. ohh and customers are horrible, why is it that if a customer is unhappy about the quality of the product they purchased they leave negative feedback. it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through the buying process. buy the product that you need and do your research. if you have questions email the vendors, my company does the research for you and answers within minutes. your choice to buy or not, our will to help you. i can tell you horror stories all day long,. We had a customer buy 140 dollar head phones. we sold out and decided hey lets send him headphones costing us 160, losing over 50$ in the aggregate just to please him, its like ordering a samsung dvd player and getting a samsung dvd/bluray player, a complete upgrade. we thought our loss would make the customer happy. NOPEEEE we got negative feedback. i dont understand. if i walk into a car dealership and i buy a toyota and they made a mistake and give me a lexus, im going to be happy not upset. ohh and the headphones were the same company, same brand, same features, same color, same design, IDENTICAL, just one had better audio dynamics and was much more expensive. they caused feedback to go from 100% to 95%, would you buy from someone who has 100% feedback or from 05% feedback? exactly. he wants us to lose money. the experience wasn’t bad! he was just not a very bright individual and if the guy was unhappy with the headphones a simple email would make us have UPS come to their house, pick up the headphones ship them back and ship him the correct ones or give him 110% money back. I won’t share my company name, I am here just to tell you guys to be a little nicer and a little more welcoming, oh and we are all human and mistakes happen, if an order was sent and the address was supposed to be 23555 and they put 25553 and you ended up getting the package late. understand! people make mistakes! NO ONE IS PERFECT!!!!! NO ONE!!! Not Einstein, not Clinton, hehe Def not Bush lol. don’t act like your shit don’t stink!

  13. I made an order at Amazon.com, and it didn’t ship. When I emailed the vendor (1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET) and asked him why my items hadn’t shipped, he got angry with me and cancelled my order. This is fine, they have the same items on nflshop.com, but 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET kept emailing me and harassing me during the day as well. I forwarded the emails to the customer service manager at amazon and got nothing. I continued to forward the emails and asked the customer service manager (and cc’ed 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET so he would get the request as well) to please ask 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET not to contact me further. This didn’t stop 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET from continuing to email and harass me, I received another 5 emails from him. I so far have gotten no response from anyone except for the nasty emails from 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET. The orders I had made were for Christmas presents and 1LAP2GO@COMCAST.NET cancelled them a week before Christmas (yesterday). Luckily NFLshop.com is able to get me the same items before Christmas with just a little more money than amazon charged but the fact that Amazon.com didn’t care about my opinion, and was okay with this vendor harassing me and still hasn’t responded to my complaint says a lot about a company who supposedly cares about it’s customers. Overstock and NFLshop will continue to get my business. This was only the third thing I had ever ordered from them, but I’ll never order again.

  14. Kathie,

    This is MORE than outrageous. This is criminal. Someone at Amazon should help you get this jerk off your back and kicked out of the Amazon sellers community.

    Please keep us advised.

    — Peter

  15. It happened to me too. 2 years ago my girlfriend bought a pretty expensive watch as a surprise Christmas present for me. She was supposed to receive it 1 week prior to Christmas. She waited and it never came. So there go my surprise. We call up Amazon and they apologise saying that the logistic was nightmare. We said ok and they promise to deliver it within 1 week. Well, the parcel came and when we open up….we saw a mug. A pretty mug though. We called up and by then we were so pissed. We cancel the order and after many rounds of call, the credit card company finally agreed to not billing me. A nightmare.

  16. It is a appauling that this should happen. Amazon is such a trusted website and is a name so many people turn to for things like that. I haven’t had such issues on Amazon UK, but I guess as others suggested it was probably the third party that was to blame rather than Amazon. I have to say I’m always a bit weary of buying stuff from Amazon marketplace sellers. Have things impoved since this purchase, or have you lost faith in Amazon?

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