Amazon Ruined Online Shopping

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From The Atlantic:

There’s a Gatorade button attached to my basement fridge. If I push it, two days later a crate of the sports drink shows up at my door, thanks to Amazon. When these “Dash buttons” were first rumored in 2015, they seemed like a joke. Press a button to one-click detergent or energy bars? What even?, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reasonably inquired.

They weren’t a joke. Soon enough, Amazon was selling the buttons for a modest fee, the value of which would be applied to your first purchase. There were Dash buttons for Tide and Gatorade, Fiji Water and Lärabars, Trojan condoms and Kraft Mac & Cheese.

The whole affair always felt unsettling. When the buttons launched, I called the Dash experience Lovecraftian, the invisible miasma of commerce slipping its vapor all around your home. But last week, a German court went further, ruling the buttons illegal because they fail to give consumers sufficient information about the products they order when pressing them, or the price they will pay after having done so. (You set up a Dash button on Amazon’s app, selecting a product from a list; like other goods on the e-commerce giant’s website, the price can change over time.) Amazon, which is also under general antitrust investigation in Germany, disputes the ruling.

Given that Amazon controls about half of the U.S. online-retail market and takes in about 5 percent of the nation’s total retail spending, it’s encouraging to see pushback against the company’s hold on the market. But Dash buttons are hardly the problem. Amazon made online shopping feel safe and comfortable, at least mechanically, where once the risk of being scammed by bad actors felt huge. But now online shopping is muddy and suspicious in a different way—you never really know what you’re buying, or when it will arrive, or why it costs what it does, or even what options might be available to purchase. The problem isn’t the Dash button, but the way online shopping works in general, especially at the Everything Store.

. . . .

“They sent the wrong tea lights,” my wife announced recently, after tearing open the cardboard box Amazon had just delivered. “It’s the wrong brand, and 50-count instead of 75.” This is not so unusual, actually. Amazon moves a huge volume of goods, and its warehouse workers are poorly treated humans, not just robots. Errors are bound to happen occasionally.

On top of that, Amazon is more than willing to fix its errors. In most cases, you can return an item for a refund or exchange with a few button presses on the website or in the app. And when Amazon messes up, as in the case of our tea lights, the company usually offers free return shipping, and even free UPS pickup, so you don’t even have to leave the house to rectify the error. These are some of the reasons Amazon consistently ranks high in customer-service satisfaction: The company appears to give people what they want, including correcting problems when they arise.

But a customer-service orientation masks how Amazon has changed consumer expectations and standards as they relate to retail purchases. At BuzzFeed Newslast year, Katie Notopoulos wrote about how terrible Amazon’s website is, prompted by its offering her a subscription deal for bassoon straps (a product Notopoulos reported needing to replace once every two decades or so), and a warranty for bottle brushes (which cost $6.99).

. . . .

I recently tried to search for a heat-pump-compatible thermostat on the site. I got a litany of results, all thermostats for sure, but it was difficult to figure out which ones really worked with a heat pump. Eventually I gave up and resolved to visit Home Depot, which I still haven’t done. Another time, I tried to look for a 5-by-8-inch picture-frame mat on Amazon. But every other possible combination of mat came up instead: 8-by-10, 5-by-7, 8-by-8, 5-by-5. A hedge-trimmer battery I purchased came with a charger, but I didn’t realize it from the product description, so I ordered a duplicate charger as well—that charger arrived first, for some reason, and I had opened the packaging so couldn’t return it.

. . . .

Apparel and other items with many options are particularly confusing. Determining if Amazon has the color-and-size combination you’re after for a particular dress or pair of sneakers can be disillusioning—as I write this, for example, Adidas Samba shoes are available for $72.95 in a men’s size 9 without Prime shipping, but for $57.58 in a size 12 with Prime two-day delivery.

. . . .

That brings us to Germany’s Dash-button ban: It’s difficult to know exactly what the product costs when you press the button to order it. Prices on Amazon sway up and down in mysterious ways, driven by computational pricing models that consumers can never see or understand. If configured to do so, pressing the Dash button can send a notification to the account holder’s smartphone, which can be followed to confirm pricing and cancel the order if desired. From the perspective of German law, this isn’t enough; the default behavior is for the purchase to complete, absent sufficient information.

. . . .

The products available to purchase in the first place still feel arbitrary, as do their changing prices, their seemingly inconsistent availability and shipping times, the reliability of their arrival (thanks in part to Amazon Flex, the company’s gig-economy delivery service), and not to mention whether you actually get the product you ordered.

. . . .

But there’s a reason that we used to have shoe stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, bookstores, and all the rest: Those specialized retail spaces allow products, and the people with knowledge about them, to engage in specialized ways of finding, choosing, and purchasing them.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Nirmala for the tip.

PG says there is nothing like a collection of first-world complaints to make you realize that life in modern America is a totally hellish experience. Lovecraftian to the max.

Arbitrary product selection!! Such a thing would never happen at a proper book store.

Prices that change!! Different prices for different shoes!!

Bassoon strap sellers running amok!!

All of these micro-aggressions and micro-annoyances and micro-heat-pump-thermostat-uncertainties make one long for a return to an aboriginal lifestyle.

Or at least a serious book discussion with a knowledgeable Barnes & Noble clerk sporting detailed and colorful satanic tattoos running up and down each arm (presumably to help disguise needle tracks) and multiple lip piercings that produce a unique blurring of fricative consonants when he/she/they/us/we speaks.

At least, the Germans have retained their unique culture in the face of Amazon’s unremitting commercial onslaughts and microaggressions.

No Dash buttons for you, Helga! Es ist zu deinem Besten. Sorge dich nicht, sei glücklich.

23 thoughts on “Amazon Ruined Online Shopping”

  1. The only complaint that I can agree with is the frequently funky search results. Somewhat – they are also frequently amusing!

    But that is not Amazon’s fault. Even the vaunted Cloud is still a computer – and computers are stupid. The strange items popping up in your search results are always the result of the seller using the wrong keywords, or not really thinking through their product description. Happens with books all the time; the number of absolutely terrible blurbs that I see is disappointing, to say the least.

    • Well, some people believe folks need to be protected from their own decisions. Presumably because they can’t be trusted to make responsible choices.

      • Pretty amazing that they let people vote. After all our rulers already know how we should vote so why not simplify the process and protect us all from the mental strain of having to decide ourselves?

        • Well, it’s not as if the masses get to vote on the things that matter. Which might be a good thing. Considering the positions supported by the masses under the “guidance” of populist politicians.

          The Chinese and russian “show elections” may yet end up the more effective system. In the US a lot of people are starting to regret the end of the “smoke filled rooms” in favor of primaries, particularly in open primary states.

          Makes you wonder what political system will emerge from the death of democracy. Corporatist boards?

          • The masses did vote in 2016, and there have been significant changes in things that matter. Many in that mass did indeed follow what the media calls populist politicians.

            Populism is a political reaction fueled by the idea that government is working for the best interests of a small group at the expense of the much larger group. In simpler terms, you don’t have a populist until you have an elitist for him to oppose.

            And emerging political systems? After the 1860s democracy emerged stronger. We have a long way to go.

            • “Populism is a political reaction fueled by the idea that government is working for the best interests of a small group at the expense of the much larger group.”

              So you mean like when a government implements tax cuts for the mega rich?

              • Or when governments spend money they don’t have on services and boons designed to quiet rioting mobs or buy votes or both.

                When the beneficiaries are businesses it’s called corporate welfare; when the beneficiaries are unions or non-business special interests it’s populism. Two sides of the same vote-:buying coin.

                And when the credit rating tanks and bankruptcy looms it’s called Detroit, Greece, or Puerto Rico. Coming soon to a state or three out there…

                A poorly exploited dystopia outside of Ron Goulart.

              • So you mean like when a government implements tax cuts for the mega rich?

                No. Based on income, the pattern in income tax shows the top 1% paid more than the bottom 90%, so income tax is not a case where government confers benefit on a small group at the expense of the larger.

  2. I tend to vote with my wallet, just as I vote at the ballot box. Where I shop is still my choice, as is what I buy.

    Amazon is only one store of many.

    Mostly, I buy big-ticket items locally, although when I want a case of my favorite tea flavor, or bread-mix, or other oddity, Amazon wins.

    HOWEVER – it’s the Internet of Things that really annoys me. Too many things are over-engineered with built-in security risks and no way to apply any security. I don’t want a car that’s on-line, or a refrigerator, or an oven that can be infected and running some kind of mal-ware.

    It’s bad enough that the TV is a security risk. At least I can switch the power off at the plug.

    The internet should be kept in it’s place, not all over my house. (Get off my lawn! LOL)

    • Internet conductivity can be managed. By simply not connecting. Don’t plug the cable in, don’t provide a valid password.

      Worst case scenario, if you need to go online to initialize either don’t buy or change the password. Preferably the former. Voting the wallet generally gets their attention.

      • “… or change the password. ”

        If you have to keep it connected to use, then change that password. 😉

        (And have it only ably to get out through a router that you’ve blocked/locked out its ability to phone home.)

        Friend had one that kept searching for open wifi connections. We dug up an old wireless router he wasn’t using and gave that as how to connect so it’d quit searching. (not that we ever plugged the router into the internet …)

        • The unconnected browser trick also works.
          But seriously, anything that requires it it’s best not to buy.

          • Less and less choices out there as voting with your dollar doesn’t work when too many others don’t know/care and buy the silly things.

  3. Deflection is, of course, a classic rhetorical technique, to be hauled out when confronted with an argument you don’t have an actual answer to. The excerpt says nothing about books. Answering the argument that Amazon’s search engine sucks for stuff like clothes with “Barnes & Noble sux!” is classic deflection. It turns out, however, the the original piece does in fact mention books, in a paragraph that didn’t make the excerpt:

    “It’s a far cry from Amazon’s beginnings as a retailer of books—“among the world’s most reliable, durable units,” as my colleague Derek Thompson recently put it. There’s no ambiguity about what you’re getting when you buy a particular book, CD, or DVD. But as the retailer expanded into the Everything Store it has become, it also changed consumers’ expectations about the experience of shopping.”

    The response that Barnes & Noble sux turns out to be even less on point than it first appears.

    • And the piece is actually a bit optimistic about books. For public domain books it can be a bit tricky to figure out what you are buying, and the comingled reader reviews quite specifically aggravates this.

  4. The dismissal of the piece as a first world problem is another form of deflection. It would be on point only in a context where it was agreed that first world problems are off the table. In the real world, people discuss and complain about first world problems all the time. For example, traditional publisher contracts is totally a first world problem. Shall we therefore take that off the table as a topic for discussion?

  5. Gosh, you must go to a cool Barnes & Noble. I’ve been dozens of times and never run into a clerk like this: ‘satanic tattoos running up and down each arm’ (presumably to help disguise needle tracks)
    Around here they are part-time college students and grandmas.
    Are you sure you’re taking your meds regularly?

  6. Amazon is in the business of reducing friction in sales transactions. It eliminates the friction of moving from one place to another entirely. It reduces the friction of entering your credit card data when you find what you want. It even reduces the friction of figuring out that you want to buy something by offering you things you didn’t know you would want. It reduces the friction of going to the store to bring something home, & to return something you didn’t want after all. It is eliminating the friction of pushing that button.

    They should have named Alexa “Jeanie”.

    • There’s an idea that the economic progress of the last 500 years is simply the elimination of transaction costs.

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