Sunday, December 22, 2013

Amazon: The Good, The Bad & The 3rd Party

What is Amazon?
Amazon is the world's largest online retailer. It provides thousands of products at competitive prices, including pre-owned items. Their support is the best I have ever dealt with. They have also started trends like their special Amazon-only credit line, and 2-day shipping through their Prime membership for $79 annually (which includes a growing free library of movies and shows!). Despite these benefits, Amazon still has their own shortcomings to deal with, many of which are not well-known because what retailer giant fesses up to their downsides before being caught?

Click to skip to: The Good, The Bad, or The 3rd Party.

The Past
Amazon was in hot water last year around this time for removing numerous reviews, many without a true just cause. People had long been complaining about the way reviews were done in Amazon. A majority of those complaints centered around fake reviews. Amazon finally got around to doing something about them, but not without taking down numerous reviews that were real.

Authors Be Damned!
Some of those reviews were of author's reviewing other authors. Amazon had changed their policy so that reviews could not be done on behalf of a person or company that had a competing product, including authors. It's a bit ridiculous but its easier for Amazon to do that then setup a special set of rules and measures to allow authors to write reviews for one another.

Amazon In Context
Beyond the authors fiasco, it seemed that Amazon had done more good than harm. Besides fake reviews, paid reviewers, and friends-reviewing-friends, there were numerous top-reviewers who were not doing their "job". Top-reviewers create the most "helpful" reviews. A review is designated as "helpful" if a person with an Amazon account has clicked the respective button to make it "helpful".

These top-reviewers get the benefit of having free products sent to them to try and then review. However, many top-reviewers, who are meant to just be normal buyers (like you or me) were carefully calculating what to review in terms of what product and what content to write, as this would determine what free products they could get next.

The Bad
Just when everything had settled down, it looks like Amazon is looking to start riling people up again. Deleting reviews is one matter, but Amazon has now changed their tactics to be even sneakier!

Amazon Is Self-Aware!
So the reason people knew that their reviews were being deleted is that they could look at the number of reviews they had written and easily notice a drop in their total. Amazon has likely realized this and does not want any more flack, so they have altered their methods.

Sneaky, Sneaky
Someone had posted a comment to one of my reviews for the Cellulon Epic, which I have gone into greater detail here. The comment was a point I had not fully addressed so I went back to my review to answer. What I found was that parts of my review were missing! I remember it because I was going to mention one part in my post from my review and re-read a part of my review unable to find it. I dismissed it and mentioned a different part of my review that would have been near the end. I decided to re-read the rest of my review and found that part missing as well. In all, I could recall three parts that had suddenly gone missing!

I ignored it and began reading through some reviews of products I was interested in. Before long I noticed that people's links were replaced with [...] instead of the URL. Yet, it seems there were some links left, not as URL's, but as clickable names which I am unaware of how to actually create... I ended up on a review I had done sometime last year and noticed the exact same thing. However, according to Amazon's rules, Amazon can make these edits.

Here is a link to their rules, some of which are quite vague, obviously to give Amazon leeway to do whatever they want. One of the sections is:

Objectionable material:
• Obscene or distasteful content
• Profanity or spiteful remarks
• Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct

This is under things not permitted in a review, but without details it can be used however they like. Profanity and illegal conduct is straightforward, but what about everything else which is left to the interpretation of Amazon? If I start talking about nude people in the sense of art, is that obscene? What if I mention abortion, is that distasteful? What if I say something that is spiteful but not directly related to the seller or product in question?

The Cellulon Epic Example
Maybe it seems obsessive to focus on these rules because they should be rather obvious to the lay person, right? Wrong. I'll give you my example which has to do with the Cellulon Epic. If you do not know what the Cellulon Epic is, here is my article on it and why I do not recommend it to anyone. In short, it is a portable lazer keyboard. Pause for oohs and aahs...

I had wrote a review explaining that the device was nothing special, why their support sucked, that it was not compatible with all Bluetooth devices, and that it used annoying beeps to indicate a touch of a button. The gist of my review is still available, but pieces I consider important have been cut out.

Here are things that were cut from my review:
  1. I wrote details about the calls I made to support. I included that there was support from either Korea or the US and that I chose the US because I only speak English. This is not significant, but why the need to delete it?
  2. I wrote about how my Bluetooth device works with the Wii controller and a generic PS3 controller. There is a rule about how promotional material should not appear repeatedly, I mentioned these two controllers once!
  3. I ended my review by telling readers that it would be better to get a flexible, roll-up keyboard because it would be cheaper and more accurate. This I remember adding specifically so that people had an alternative if they were looking for a unique, portable keyboard. Was I promoting something? No. I was not giving a specific product recommendation, nor was I mentioning it in excess. Was I doing this on behalf of a company or product? No. Again, a specific product was not specified.
The review is not considered "helpful" by the Amazon community, which I contribute to people wanting to believe that this is more than just a toy. It is a lazer keyboard that is best suited for people who type slow, as the answer to the first Amazon question states you can not type too fast. Or for those who want it strictly for novelty purposes.

Smarter, Secret Censorship
A more important question remains: Did Amazon ever make me aware of this censorship? No. Which leads me to believe that they know that people will make a large fuss about it, and rightfully so. If you want to make people aware they have done wrong, you notify them. Hiding the censorship just makes it look like what Amazon is doing is wrong, and I do believe it is.

How is this smarter on Amazon's part? Well, instead of deleting the reviews, they censor them. You can no longer look at the amount of reviews and determine something is wrong, you actually have to review your reviews, which can be a pain if you have a lot of them. 

Reviews Open To All
I wanted to note that you do not have to buy the product from Amazon that you want to review. All you need is an Amazon account and you can write as many reviews as you want. This can be good for items that are old and discontinued, but it can be bad if someone got a "dud" product and just wants to tell everyone about how much they hate that product.

This would not be as bad as it seems if this did not have the 5-star rating system that accompanies the reviews and directly affects the product being sold. However, much like deleting authors' reviews of other authors, I think this does more good than harm.

Shoot The Messenger, Not The Manufacturer
The reviews are only connected to a product, not the party selling the product. And sometimes that review is incorrectly posted to a similar but different product. While there are products sold on behalf of the the manufacturer by Amazon, there are much more third-party sellers selling the same products.

While there are numerous reasons to blame the manufacturer (shoddy workmanship, a missing piece, etc.), many times the faults are because of the seller. Even when not, the seller should still be made aware that they are selling a bad product. A smart seller would then inspect their stock to avoid the same problem with future sales of that product.

Instead, Amazon gives them a feedback system, but that feedback system is not viewed from the product page, only the 5-star rating of the product is. What is worse is if you end up finding the feedback system, negative reviews can go unseen if there are tons of positive feedback piled on top (more on this below in 3rd Party Seller).

The Good
As I said before, Amazon has the best support I have ever dealt with. If you check my previous article on how to cheat them out of sales tax, you'll see one very huge reason why. I stated many of the great things in the first paragraph, so I won't reiterate. Instead, I'd rather give two more examples of their amazing support...

The Callings
About a day ago I purchased a few items from Amazon, all computer parts for a new build. There was a big issue that occurred with two of my items (more on this below in 3rd Party Seller) that I was irate over. I called Amazon to complain and have something done about it.

India Support 
I presume the person I reached was from India (the accent is what makes me presume, and the fact that outsourcing is most common to give to India or Asian countries). I talked for an hour explaining that I was not going to get off the phone until I was either given some sort of compensation, or the seller of the items was given harsh consequences. The support ended up giving me a $30 credit (for two items) since if I now bought the items from a different seller would cost me at least $100 (apparently they can only give up to $30...).

US Support - Part I
I called back a day later in regards to a motherboard I had purchased the day before. Amazon had a few left before I had purchased it, but ran out when I did try to make the purchase. It would've been with my Prime membership, so I instead had to buy from a third-party seller and pay an extra $5-6 for regular shipping. I asked about a credit for the difference after giving the circumstances as to why and the lady I was speaking to gave me a $16 credit! However, the credit amount may have had to do more with the 3rd Party Seller...

How do I know the lady was from the US? Well, her accent was a dead giveaway, and I even mentioned that to her in which she agreed that she was. I have to admit that while the support is always good - or at least I consider it good by the end of the call - I always find it easier to communicate with people from the US. It took me about 20 minutes, which included going over everything from my last call.

Not only that, the Indian support did not even bother to do as they had said in terms of filing a claim or starting an investigation. Does that mean that they are bad at support? No, you just can not assume that things will get done (and should call back to make sure as I did). In addition, Indian support gave me $30 credit for two items, while the US support gave me $16 credit for one item. In all fairness though, the latter item was already shipped...

3rd Party Seller
While Amazon sells many products for other companies and people, there are third-party sellers. I would say that most of them seem to be on the up-and-up, but there are a few that should not be allowed to operate on Amazon or anywhere else.

I had gone onto Amazon looking for the best deal on at least two Radeon graphics cards. Anyone who is a Radeon graphics card fan, or who is into Bitcoin (or alternative coin) mining, will tell you that this line of graphic cards are becoming impossible to get at decent prices. (BEWARE!)
I ended up finding an Asus Direct CUII R9 280X (which is arguably better than most of the other 280x variants) from a third-party seller named, "antonline" for $345 shipped! This was an amazing find considering that most other sellers were selling 280X's for about $400. (Keep in mind that when these cards were first introduced to the market a couple months ago they retailed for about $300-$320 depending on the variant.)

I immediately bought the card, proud of my find. As luck would have it, 20 minutes later the seller listed same exact card at the same price! I had been snooping around on Amazon trying to find the best deal for a second 280X so I again immediately purchased it.

The Scam 
I can't really say it was a scam from my own experience because nothing truly negative happened to me. However, there are many indicators that some very shady business practices were going on...

I received an email the day after my purchase from antonline which began with an apology. Already a bad start. It continued by stating that they no longer had stock of the item so it wouldn't be shipped until after Christmas. Okay, not so bad. The email concluded by telling me that they would not likely get anymore stock, and if they didn't by the end of the month (10 days), they would cancel my order. What...

What To Know
There are a few things of note, some I gathered on my own, some from the support calls, and some from the email:
  • The email stated that Amazon sometimes holds orders to the seller from 2 hours to 2 days! I confirmed that Amazon never does that.
  • I was curious if companies manually listed their items, or had a way to automate inventory through Amazon. I confirmed that sellers must manually input new items, which means that antonline put up a listing 20 minutes later even though they didn't even have enough stock to fulfill my previous order...
  • As of right now, the site does not come up. When Amazon support tried to pull up the site it blocked them from doing so because that website's reputation is to poor to allow Amazon employees access...
  • Knowing that antonline put up a listing 20 minutes later without having knowledge about their stock prior to doing so shows me that they are probably using one inventory for their Amazon and website business (and maybe more?). A smart and trustworthy business model would have two separate inventories for each business.
  • On the same day that I received the email I checked their feedback from their Amazon store page. They sell a lot of random (you-can-get-anywhere) items, so there was positive feedback. About 3-4 "next" clicks away a buyer by the name of George T. had experienced the exact same situation as me for a XFX 280X from them. They even had the audacity to re-list the 280X a couple days later, which George spotted and mentioned along with his 1/5 feedback score.
  • George's feedback post had been made the same day I received antonline's email, which means that this was not something happening few-and-far between.
US Support - Part 2
On my call I explained the situation that I had already gone through with India support, but it seems nothing had been done. Hooray for outsourcing! Anyways, the lady seemed much more helpful in the matter.

We got through everything and did a little bit of our own investigating. She began the claim that was meant to be started by India support, and agreed that this third-party seller seemed "shady". We parted ways at that point.

The Vow
I had already requested my payment be canceled due to obvious reasons, and had explained to the seller that I would be contacting Amazon frequently about the investigation and what was being done to reprimand them.

I am going to continue contacing Amazon about this incident because it is important that sellers like this don't dictate how they get to operate, it should be Amazon, and more importantly buyers, who dictate how they properly operate.

What really gets my goat are three things:
  1. During the day it took for antonline to contact me I had already missed at least one other deal on the same card (albeit for a slightly price).
  2. I had bought the aforementioned motherboard, a power supply unit, and a hard drive after the graphic cards purchases because I had already paid for them.
  3. On antonline's Amazon page it states that a 15% restocking fee is charged to people who return brand new, unopened items. So, I have to pay a 15% restocking fee if I do a return, but they do not have to give me a 15% fee for the time wasted lying to me; which led me to buying other related items? Or for screwing me out of deals that went by while I was left to think I was (rightfully) getting an item I already paid for? I prefer to censor my swears in my articles, but that is bullshit!
I really wanted those 280X cards, but I ended up getting two Powercolor R9 290 OC cards for about $100 more. A great deal, especially if the 290X hack works (possibly more on this in a future article).

If anything, you should learn the following from this article:
  • Do your own research when buying a product, never rely solely on Amazon reviews.
  • If using Amazon support, be sure to always follow up if there is anything important they are meant to do.
  • Buy directly from Amazon whenever possible.
  • If you must use a third-party seller, check their feedback first for any important information that a buyer may have left.
This whole situation has not deterred me from using Amazon and it should not deter anyone else either. The real point here is that no company is perfect, so know and avoid their flaws if you want to be a happy customer!

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