Amazon has a problem. It's the kind of problem that's obvious once you know where to look, but easy to miss considering the year the company has had. I mean, by all accounts, it's been a very good year to be selling things online. As online shopping surged during the pandemic, Amazon exploded. It became the place we went for everything from toilet paper, to laptops, to groceries.
It's also where millions of small businesses go to sell their products online. That is certainly a good thing--lots of people have lots of options of what to buy, many of them from small businesses. It seems like a win-win, and for Amazon, it's been very good business. Third-party merchants make up more than half of all of Amazon's transactions.
The problem, however, is that not all of those products are what they seem. For a long time, I've felt like the thing no one says about Amazon, but everyone thinks, is that unless you're buying a major brand from a seller you recognize, you're basically just buying cheap imitations from a guy off the street. You have no idea what you'll get or whether it'll do the thing it says it will do.
Of course, someone a long time ago came up with the idea that customers should be allowed to leave reviews about products they buy. That sounds like a great solution, until you have the experience of buying a product with thousands of glowing reviews, only to have it show up and not be at all what it seemed to be online. It's almost as if many, if not all, of those positive reviews were for something else altogether. Or, perhaps they were fake.
The Wall Street Journal has highlighted, on a number of occasions, the problem with Amazon's product reviews. If the idea is that you can find out how reliable a product is by the reviews, you'd expect that it would be important to Amazon that the reviews be honest and accurate. Instead, there is an entire underworld dedicated to pumping up the positive reviews of virtually no-name products, in an effort to attract more sales.
In some cases, as the WSJ reported over the weekend, buyers who leave negative reviews are contacted and harassed by sellers in an attempt to get them to change or remove their review. Some even offer refunds that exceed the purchase price of whatever product they bought.
This is a problem for Amazon, not just because it's really bad to have so many bad products with so many fake reviews. It's also a problem because Amazon knows about it, and seems to have taken very little action to stop it.
Of course, Amazon directly benefits from those reviews. Every product that sells on Amazon generates a commission for the company. It literally profits from the scam of selling sub-par products with thousands of stellar reviews. Amazon has just as much invested in keeping away the negative reviews as the shady sellers do.
I want to be clear that I'm not suggesting that Amazon is intentionally looking for ways to make the customers' experience worse, or that its executives are consciously trying to rip off customers. I think that if you ask people who work at Amazon, they genuinely believe in Bezos's "obsess about the customer" mentality. I think they genuinely believe that creating a great experience for customers means those customers will want to buy more things from Amazon, which is great for the business.
Except if a thing is broken, and you know it's broken, and you know it directly affects the customer experience in a negative way, and you don't fix it, you're sending a message that you don't care about your customers. There's really no other way to look at it.
That's certainly not what Bezos had in mind when he first published his 1997 letter to shareholders. Obsessing over the customer experience was his most important rule--the thing that drove every decision at Amazon.
I'm sure Amazon would argue that its third-party seller network is huge, and that it takes swift action when it discovers merchants that are in violation of its rules, but if you built something so big you can't effectively manage it, that's a problem. The solution isn't to talk about how you understand there's a problem and you have policies to deal with it. The solution is to fix it or shut it down.
Because, every time someone buys something based on a fake review, and ends up having a bad experience, that costs Amazon something. It turns out, that cost is far more than just the $20 you might have spent on something you didn't even need. The cost? Trust.