Have we reached peak Amazon frustration?
I’m looking for a new computer monitor. And so, with a sparkling lack of original thought, I type Amazon into my browser and search for monitors.
I get a sinking feeling when I visit Amazon these days. First, I have a sense of guilt about handing over cash to them (or, more accurately, buying with one click. I don’t even feel the money leave me). Amazon has become retail fast food: easy, convenient, bad for you, bad for the people that work there, and bad for the planet. But where else am I going to buy a monitor? You can’t even buy the model I’m looking at from the manufacturer’s site. They offer a list of retailers, but that list consists of one option: Amazon.
More than that, I get this sinking feeling because finding things on Amazon, when you don’t know exactly what you want, is hard. I struggle to get a sense of which are good, which are overpriced, and which are drop-shipped from AliExpress to fund someone’s Tim Ferris-esque four-day workweek. Everything is either exploitatively expensive or suspiciously cheap. It doesn’t help that monitor model numbers look like automatically generated passwords. They are a jumble of random numbers and letters. Should I buy 328P6VUBREB? Customers also liked EW3270U. Each of these requires a separate piece of research off Amazon. When eventually I settle upon a monitor, I return to Amazon, enter the random characters that represent it, only to find it currently unavailable. Amazon suggests an equally opaque set of random characters and so the cycle begins again.
I am a fussy techie. I’ve accepted this about myself. But flicking through a back issue of the New Yorker the other day, I came across a short story by Miranda July that covers the same Amazon frustrations: “Bedding is an unregulated corner of Amazon, where companies charge radically different prices for the same bad sheets. You can’t even get nicer sheets by paying more — money has no meaning there. And don’t bother typing in words like ‘Egyptian cotton’ or ‘thread count’ — you’re just offering them more precise ways to bamboozle you.”
I struggle to get a sense of which are good, which are overpriced, and which are drop-shipped from AliExpress to fund someone’s Tim Ferris-esque four-day workweek.
Complaints about Amazon are now common enough that they’ve crept into the New Yorker fiction section. I feel like we’ve reached some sort of tipping point, like the moment Joe Kennedy heard a shoeshiner giving tips about stocks and realized we’d reached the peak of the stock market. Have we reached peak Amazon frustration?
There’s a lot to dislike about Amazon. The treatment of warehouse workers, its cutthroat tactics, its undermining of competitor brands, the way it crushes startups (including ones it funded), its poor treatment of Marketplace sellers, diversity issues (talk about hiring in your own image, Jeff Bezos has more men called Jeff reporting to him than women or people of color). I could go on. But despite all of this, we flock to Amazon. Because it’s so convenient. It’s just such a good shop.
Except, well, it isn’t.
“You’re just offering them more precise ways to bamboozle you,” July says of search keywords. Amazon’s search has mixed results. Mixed in the sense that some are results and some are ads for Amazon’s own (often unrelated) products. And mixed in the sense that some are good and most are bad. Search for “monitor” and you get some monitors that match your search. But you also get ones that don’t. And you get stands and wall mounts and HDMI cables. I don’t know if the search is inept or trying to be helpful, but if I’d wanted cables, Amazon, I’d have searched for cables. Even the monitors that do make it into the results aren’t what you searched for. Amazon automatically extracts details from product specifications but then doesn’t use that to narrow down the search. Sometimes the specifications are even at odds with the description. Which do we believe? The description might be wrong because the seller tried to cram keywords in or Amazon’s extraction might be wrong because it’s an automated process that scrapes the details.
Even when you use Amazon’s filters to select the features you’re looking for, Amazon returns results that don’t match those specifications. It’s weird to say this of one of the most used online shops in the world, but it just doesn’t work. It’s like no one is actually using it.
But Amazon is cheap, right? At least you know you’ll get a good price, lower than most other retailers, online or off. After all, Amazon runs at a loss. It’s essentially a charity for consumers.
I don’t know if the search is inept or trying to be helpful, but if I’d wanted cables, Amazon, I’d have searched for cables.
This is sort of true. Amazon can be the cheapest place to buy certain products. But just as often now, I’m finding it isn’t anymore. And without checking the price in every store, it’s difficult to know when you’re getting a bargain and when you’re getting had. It’s so hardwired into my head that Amazon is cheaper, when I do look in shops, I often can’t believe I’m looking at the same items.
What’s worse, prices on Amazon fluctuate daily and wildly. Not just a little bit. Take this external hard drive. Over a thirty day period, it went from £243 to £447. Is Amazon cheaper than other shops? At best, all you can say is: sometimes.
There are sites, like camelcamelcamel (this isn’t where it’s name comes from, but a chart of Amazon prices looks like the silhouette of a row of camels), that track Amazon’s prices and alert you when a price drops. But this is an annoying way to buy things, more like a market than a store. In shops, while I know there will sometimes be sales, on the whole, items are priced at a standard cost and if I come back tomorrow it’ll be the same as it was yesterday. On Amazon, prices are random, an ever-changing number like the up and down of the stock market. You need an army of statisticians to make sure you get a good deal on Amazon. It’s like haggling in the fourth dimension. “Money has no meaning there,” as July says.
I’ve become suspicious when the average rating is 4.5 stars. There’s a pattern I’ve come to recognize: hundreds of five-star reviews, very few two-, three-, and four-star reviews, and then a spike of one-star reviews. It is the hallmark of a bad product that has been filled with fake five-star reviews in an attempt to drown out the real one-star reviews.
There are all sorts of review scams. Sometimes sellers merge products together, meaning that the positive review you’re reading is of a different product than the one you’re buying. Sometimes they use armies of bot accounts, submitting fake reviews: “Good product. Works as advertised.” Thanks for your insight Bob124578. Sometimes they just pay people to give products five stars. Amazon has banned this, but it’s impossible to enforce. Even when the reviews are real, they’re often written shortly after the product arrives but before it’s been fully tested. Even worse are the reviewers that don’t seem to understand what they’re reviewing: “Arrived quickly and in perfect condition.” I’m looking for a review of a monitor, not the post office.
And then there are the outright illegal activities. There’s the story of the customer who bought a 16TB external hard drive, only to find someone had taken it apart, replaced it with an 8TB model, and returned it to Amazon. Or the customer who bought a new NVMe drive from Amazon, in a seemingly factory-sealed box, only to find it had been removed and replaced with a security blanket of similar weight. Looking at the reviews of NVMe drives, you see story after story like this. The drive is swapped for a pack of cards, it’s swapped for three pieces of cardboard, sometimes there’s just an empty box. It’s almost exciting to find out what will be in the box each time.
Electronics are the worst thing to buy from Amazon. They’re difficult to check and it’s easy to accidentally buy cheap, no-brand components. Accessories like screen protectors and phone cases are particularly vulnerable to low-quality alternatives. A whole industry, fed on tales of low-effort, passive income, runs drop-shipping businesses on the cheap. Amazon is not a shop or even a mall. It’s a yard sale.
But at least you’re safe where Amazon began: books.
Except Amazon isn’t even good for books anymore. I’ve bought new books from Amazon only for them to arrive dirty, old, the cover torn. And then there’s Amazon’s print-on-demand service, which has introduced not only a flood of low-quality, self-published books but also copies of legitimate books. On one occasion, I received what appeared to be a pirated graphic novel, filled with wonky pixelated scans and Chinese subtitles.
The thing is, I could go on. Disputes with third-party sellers can be time-consuming and difficult. Dark UX patterns try to trick you into accidentally signing up for Prime. Shipping options are strange and inconsistent. The recommendations are awful. I buy a lightbulb, and suddenly the homepage is filled with lightbulbs as if I’m a lightbulb-obsessed fanatic. When I bought a dishwasher, I was endlessly bombarded with dishwashers. I already have a dishwasher, Amazon. You know that — because you sold it to me.
The harsh reality is: Amazon.com is not a very good website anymore and shopping there is not a pleasant experience.
This, perhaps, is the inevitable result of a company growing so big and powerful. Amazon is the everything shop. Everything good and everything bad. There is no curation or quality control, just everything imaginable all piled into one bargain-bucket, overseen by warehouse workers whose bathroom breaks are timed and deducted from their salaries. But weaning yourself off is hard.
I can’t help thinking that Amazon’s dominance has allowed it to languish. It’s not even just their shop, as Angela Lashbrook points out: Goodreads, the Amazon-owned book tracking site, “lingers in the dustbin of the early 2000s, doomed to the hideous beige design and uninspiring organization of a strip mall doctor’s office.”
Amazon knows it has problems. “Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt,” Jezz Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders. But perhaps that doesn’t matter enough. Amazon still takes a commission from third-party sales. For its part, Amazon claims to “invest tremendous resources to protect our marketplace from inauthentic goods.” But the issue isn’t the amount of effort it puts in, it’s the limited effect it’s having. Even if it made effective headway with this problem, it’s just one issue to be resolved. The poor search, the inaccurate product descriptions, the disorganized categorization, the flood of poor quality items, the fake reviews. Amazon talks about digital disruption, but as it enters its 27th year, I can’t help thinking that it is its core business that is ready to be disrupted. Perhaps it’s become not only too big to fail but also too big to succeed.