bioephemera

Update: welcome Consumerist readers! While I use my own experience to illustrate concerns about third-party online merchants, this post is mainly about the bigger long-term informational problems I see with reputation, reliability, and online communities. Please feel free to weigh in!

A few weeks ago, I caught a familiar story on the local news. A local citizen had written in to the news team with a request for help after a local furniture company sold them a defective living room set, and wouldn’t give them a refund. The news team went to the business, who – wary of the potential public relations nightmare – apologized and exchanged the purchase. The customer got satisfaction without having to go to small claims court. Score one for traditional media!

It wasn’t a very memorable segment; lots of local newscasts and newspapers do this sort of thing. But it suddenly occurred to me that as traditional local news outlets die and people stop watching the local news, we’re losing a valuable community “shaming” mechanism. Sure, we can use online services like Yelp to express our dissatisfaction with a business, but Yelp won’t intervene for us, and a single Yelp review isn’t that prominent to the community of potential customers at large. The only other future customers who will be dissuaded by a bad Yelp review are those who also use Yelp. Rightly or wrongly, a bad review on Yelp just doesn’t seem as threatening to a merchant as a bad review on the nightly news. Plus, Yelp is in a bit of hot water over recent allegations that they extort advertising in exchange for positive reviews – and whether this is true or not, if Yelp loses credibility with consumers, it will have even less impact on merchants – which means consumers who write reviews have even less power to affect reputation.

Part of the problem here is that online reviews can be written and posted by people who have never used the service or product – for example, Mechanical Turk makes it easy to farm out the chore of writing reviews for a few cents apiece, and thus skew your online reputation. Some feedback systems, like the seller ratings at Amazon and ebay, tether transactions to feedback, so presumably the feedback all comes from interested parties who have actually dealt with the merchant. This should make Amazon Marketplace seller ratings much more reliable than Amazon reviews – in theory.

But in reality, big problems arise when dealing with third-party sellers on platforms like eBay, Half.com, and Amazon Marketplace. Such sellers have little incentive to be responsible. One might suppose that if they rip off a large proportion of their customers, their feedback rating will go down, and deter future buyers. But many potential customers don’t check seller feedback before they click “buy”. Plus, sellers can pressure customers who give bad feedback to withdraw it as the price of remedying the situation, so other potential customers will never hear about the bad interactions. Finally, if something does go wrong for you, although third-party sellers benefit from the big-name reputation associated with their hosts, hosts like Amazon and ebay will rarely take responsibility for third party sellers’ behavior. Even if a host kicks a seller off, it’s a minimal investment of effort and resources for the seller to rejoin under a new identity with a clean reputation the next day – something that brick-and-mortar stores simply can’t do. How can scattered online buyers cooperate to hold these faceless sellers to ethical, fair business practices?

Ironically, shortly after asking this question, I got ripped off by an online merchant, inconvenienced, and ended up about $50 out of pocket. And the experience made me wonder yet again whether/how we can create mechanisms as a online community to deter bad actors.

Here’s the scenario: I bought a new book from Amazon Marketplace seller any_book. I always look at the seller’s feedback; in this case it wasn’t great (about 94% positive), but few sellers had new copies of the book I needed, so I didn’t have much choice. I went ahead and ordered – a terrible call on my part. Here’s what happened.

1. The book wasn’t shipped for several weeks. According to Amazon Marketplace policy, “Sellers are expected to ship all orders within two business days of the date the order notification is made available by Amazon.” But my book wasn’t shipped until two weeks after I ordered it. (any_book refused to admit this, of course; I figured it out by running the tracking number on the package.)

2. The seller refused to respond to emails. After I bought the book, any_book did not communicate with me at all. So I asked for verification that the book had been shipped, with whom, when, and for tracking information. I asked through Amazon, by email, and on their website. They didn’t respond. While their website says “tracking information is available upon request,” they simply refused to provide it, even after I asked twice. When they did finally email me, they gave me an arrival window extending up to six weeks after my order – and no tracking information. Hmmm.

3. The book finally arrived almost a month after I ordered it. Crappy, right? Amazon Marketplace is actually fine with that kind of delay – while they give you an optimistic delivery estimate, you can’t actually file for a refund until a month plus three days after your purchase. So delivering the book a full month after I ordered it was not technically a violation of the purchase agreement. However, it resulted directly from the delay in shipping, which was a violation of the terms of purchase. And of course it caused me significant inconvenience (I ended up having to photocopy what I needed from someone else’s copy of the book, at a cost of $20 and 2 hours of my time).

4. The best part? The book they finally sent was used, not new. Yup – I paid a premium for a “new” book, and instead got one that had been through the wringer – writing and highlighting everywhere. If I’d wanted a used book, I’d have bought one in the first place more cheaply – the price I paid was much higher than the price charged by sellers who didn’t lie about the condition of their books. I ended up with this choice: either find and buy a new copy locally that was marked up $30 over online retail, or order online more cheaply but pay for 2-day delivery. Nice.

So to recap: thanks to any_book, I waited a month in vain, had to borrow someone else’s book and spend $20 on copies, and finally bought the book somewhere else at a $30 markup. Yeah, that’s a great experience! (Then it took another month to get a refund.)

After this experience, I did what I should have done in the first place: I Googled any_book to see if other people had similar problems. They sure had. In fact, I found two stories that sounded much like mine. The very first Google search result for any_book is a complaint at my3cents.com, which says:

I ordered a book April 9 through Amazon.com from a seller known as any_book. They stated my order would ship same day via USPS. When I didn’t receive my book by May 4, I sent an inquiry to the customer service department . . . On May 7, I responded back stating that they should resolve my issue by May 18 or I would post a negative comment on Amazon. They didn’t respond and I didn’t get my book, so on May 19, I posted a negative comment on Amazon. I quickly received a response asking me to remove my negative comment so we could work together. I responded stating that I would remove my comment IF I received another shipment or a refund. They did neither and sent me a message stating “Sorry we couldn’t work together”. I posted several other pleas for a refund and have heard nothing from them. Today, 7/3, I filed a claim with Amazon to receive a refund.

Wow. So this other customer was jerked around for three months? I guess I got off lightly. Here’s another review. Even weirder, here’s an author claiming any_book is offering to sell a book which is not yet published. At that point I went back through a few hundred of any_book’s Amazon ratings, and read the comments. Pretty much all the negative comments said what mine did – that the book took a month or more to arrive, or it never arrived, or it wasn’t what they had purchased. It’s a bizarre pattern of feedback – what incentive would a seller have to systematically delay shipping for several weeks? (More on that later)

So if any_book routinely does this kind of thing – lying about their merchandise, not shipping it on time, etc. – why was their positive feedback on Amazon Marketplace around 94%? Isn’t the “shaming” system of buyer feedback going to flag bad actors, and enable future buyers to avoid them? Well, here’s a possible answer why not: when I posted bad feedback about my purchase on Amazon, any_book immediately emailed me to persuade me to remove it. There was nothing overtly threatening about their message, although it did sound as if their willingness to fix my problem was contingent on me removing the negative feedback. But they didn’t come out and say that. Heck, they even offered to refund my shipping costs if I’d take down my negative comment. Nice, right?

Well. . . I call it self-interested.

Let’s look at the result of that seller behavior over hundreds of transactions. As long as a seller anticipates a certain percentage of angry buyers in advance, and marks up prices accordingly, they can more than cover the cost of reimbursing a few dollars’ shipping to customers who post negative feedback. It’s just part of doing business (badly). Those customers take their negative feedback down, and it’s as if the problem never happened. Future customers won’t see that there ever was a dispute associated with that transaction. How many disgruntled buyers do you suppose will rescind their negative feedback in exchange for $5? Half of them? More?

Disgruntled buyers won’t make the same mistake twice and go back to a bad seller. They personally don’t benefit from leaving negative feedback on the seller. Online buyers aren’t part of a small local community, so the odds are pretty low that their friends and family will buy from the same seller later, and most people aren’t especially motivated to help perfect strangers. So only those buyers willing to pay $5 to punish any_book for their unpleasant experience are going to leave negative feedback up on Amazon’s feedback system. I bet that’s a minority of buyers. If at least half of any_book’s disgruntled buyers can’t be bought, then their overall buyer dissatisfaction rate is really 12%, not 6%. If only a quarter of disgruntled buyers hold out, the dissatisfaction rate is a whopping 24%. (Of course, if you assume angry buyers are more likely to leave feedback on Amazon than happy buyers, which makes intuitive sense, then you would expect negative feedback numbers are always inflated in the first place. But either way, a seller who aggressively targets posters of negative feedback is going to look better than it should compared to others.)

What’s so wrong with buying off disgruntled customers? Isn’t it the nice thing to do – to give them a token of apology for their trouble? Sure. But the net effect of this practice is detrimental to the buyer community as a whole, since the bad seller’s feedback rating is no longer an accurate reflection of its performance. The buyers who have been bought off with the token of apology are still unhappy, after all! They’re just less unhappy. Competitor sellers who actually engage in good business practices, accurately describe their merchandise, and have decent customer service still didn’t get that valuable sale. And most importantly, the feedback information used by future buyers to pick the sellers they want to buy from is not accurate, so in future transactions, both good actor competitors and buyers will continue to lose out.

Back in the old days, well-regarded brick and mortar merchants often offered apologies and/or discounts without demanding any quid pro quo from the customer. The merchant either genuinely wanted to do the right thing, or (more likely) assumed the repeat business and good word-of-mouth would be sufficient benefit. But since sellers at Amazon Marketplace probably get little repeat business, the only “word of mouth” they need to worry about is through Amazon’s own feedback system. If scrubbing your Amazon feedback clean is cheaper than having decent customer service in the first place, that’s exactly what you’re going to do: it makes economic sense.I have no way of knowing how many people accept any_book’s offer to refund shipping costs and delete their negative feedback. But Amazon does. Unfortunately, Amazon only notices/cares if large numbers of people file A-Z refund claims, forcing Amazon to get directly involved. (Which, in this case, I eventually did – but FYI, you only get five A-Z claims over your shopping lifetime with Amazon Marketplace).

So what is going on with any_book and sellers like it? Here’s a hypothesis from an amused onlooker:

any_book is one of many third-party sellers on Amazon whose primary business isn’t bookselling. Their internet presence is based on something entirely different, but selling books for outrageous prices is icing on the cake if/when someone buys one (which is highly unlikely).

Like many other third-party sellers, any_book advertises books they don’t own. If someone orders one of their advertised books, they scour the internet for a new copy of the book (which often comes from the publisher) and they buy it and ship it to their customer, pocketing the different between their cost and the outrageous amount paid by their customer.

That’s an interesting hypothesis. It would explain why they didn’t ship until a full two weeks after I ordered. But I didn’t overpay for my book – it was reasonably priced.

On the other hand, I thought I was buying the new copy they advertised. For a used copy, I did overpay several times. Perhaps any_book anticipates that buyers will have to accept what they get? This might work for students, who buy textbooks and absolutely must have them by a certain date – they end up stuck with a used copy, but don’t have time to return it and get another. Poor students are exactly the cash-strapped demographic most likely to scour Amazon Marketplace for cheaper copies of overpriced, scarce high-margin books, like textbooks. They’re also more tempted to take a pittance in exchange for removing their negative feedback. In other words, preying on students could be a profitable business strategy. This hypothesis is only supported by any_book’s non sequitur of a response to my objection that they sent me a used book, not the new one I advertised: they suggested I keep it, in exchange for a paltry 20% discount! Since new textbooks go for significantly more than 20% over used copies, if I’d accepted their deal, they’d still have been making a tidy profit – and I’d still be ripped off. Hmmmmm.

What are the options for buyers ripped off by online sellers? Pretty much the same options buyers traditionally have: complain, call your credit card company, file a claim in small claims court if you have to, report the seller to anyone who’ll listen. But these sanctions just aren’t very effective. I think the traditional community shaming function played by the six-o-clock news segment on the crappy furniture company is a lot more effective than complaining to customer service at companies that may not even have a customer service staff. (There are some blogospheric analogies to this, but I doubt they have the punch of a local TV spot deriding an intransigent local business). So why hasn’t the community nature of the ‘net lent itself to an even more powerful and effective community shaming function online? Why is Yelp the best we’ve got? Is part of it that increasingly, we don’t trust opinions and endorsements from our larger networks?

The truth is, buyers are as much on their own as they ever were before the internet. All the “feedback” and star ratings and other “community” trappings are easily manipulated by large sellers at the expense of both buyers and small sellers. So the first rule for any buyer should be to do what I neglected to do – Google your seller, and dig for complaints by other disgruntled customers. Unfortunately, that won’t always protect you. I haven’t mentioned that any_book was actually the second seller I ordered from. The first one, a small seller at Half.com, canceled the sale and refunded my money after a week with no explanation. That’s why I was ordering from any_book in such a poorly researched rush – because I’d already lost a week waiting on another deadbeat seller, who as an individual person in a nearby state (I try to minimize shipping distance to reduce fuel expenditures on shipping) with less than ten feedback ratings, and no Google record as a seller, was the exact opposite of any_book (except for the deadbeat part). Online shopping for the win – not.

In the end, I dealt with any_book with Amazon’s help. (For the record, while you have to jump through hoops to get an A-Z claim filed, once you do, my experience is positive. I just wish it wasn’t necessary to waste two months fighting with a scammer seller before Amazon stepped in to make me whole). But I’m sure many of you have similar stories about online retailers – maybe much worse ones (though I hope not). So, I’ll hand off to you, readers: any ideas or suggestions for ways to build a better community deterrent system to deal with online sellers, or ways to improve the value of existing feedback systems to the community?

Even if you have no ideas for changing the system, I urge you to think about the feedback you do leave as a public service. Truthful feedback really can help other buyers avoid getting ripped off, and direct business to sellers who act in good faith. And while it may feel futile or pointless, it’s one of those benefits that can only accrue if a lot of us chip in for no immediate reward. (Kind of like voting. But that’s ANOTHER story. . . )

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    March 9, 2010

    “What are the options for buyers ripped off by online sellers? Pretty much the same options buyers traditionally have: complain, call your credit card company,”

    Complaining to your credit card company should work well. I’ve had to do that several times when online vendors charged me for products they never shipped.

    Additionally, I’ve sold 1 item on ebay (ever) and 3 months after the person received it they told their credit card company the use of the card was unauthorized and the company yanked my money from paypal, who was very sorry but unwilling to stand up for me. So you can even use your credit card company to get free items if you have no soul since they (the credit card company) appear to be very willing to appease their customers.

    However, getting your credit card company to intercede on your behalf doesn’t help to warn the next person. All you can really do now is leave negative feedback wherever possible (this comment for example, go to hell ebay and paypal and i hope you go out of business for facilitating theft from me) and hope people look up the merchant on a search engine before making the purchase.

    Maybe some smart credit card company could figure out a way to generate a list of safe merchants based on customer usage reports as a clever way to attract new customers.

  2. #2 Katherine
    March 9, 2010

    In my country we have a tv programme called Fair Go, who shows the stories of people getting ripped off and usually shames the company into giving the people they ripped off a fair go.

    Just recently I was sent the wrong item from a seller on Trademe. I’m sure they’ll make it right though.

    Usually on Trademe people leave in comments like “wrong item was sent but the seller quickly made it right” etc. on their good feedback. It is kinda wrong that auction sites have systems that allow sellers to bury negative feedback though.

  3. #3 Mu
    March 9, 2010

    The other trick/scam with feedback, especially in ebay is the selling of useless/low price items for feedback to set up the big scam. I noticed that pattern especially from sellers of “antiques” from China. You see a $3,000 item from a 100% feedback seller with 300 feedbacks. While that’s not a guarantee, it’s usually a basis to go from. Now, if you start looking in detail for their feedback you notice a pattern of $1 + shipping for items like fake silk ties etc. By selling (with little or no profit, but probably no big losses either) $300 of merchandise they set up a perfect record, and suddenly put 10 high price items up, for one big scam. Especially with ebay’s 90 day records policy, it’s often hard to find out if a feedback is for an identical item you’re looking at or a $1 item. I only was saved once because the seller got too greedy and started his high price stuff after 60 days, with about 50 “great $1 ties” feedback still visible. He had $50k in “current auctions”, all expiring the same day.

  4. #4 Mr. Gunn
    March 9, 2010

    Just had two incidences of this myself, one from Ebay and one from Amazon. The Ebay seller that incorrectly listed a replacement lcd for my phone seemed really put of by my negative feedback, bugging me by email several times a day to change it. Finally they agreed to refund my money and change the listing if only I’d change the feedback.

    The amazon seller has a listing up featuring a picture of Canon ink, but when I got the package, it was third-party “compatible” ink. Apparently the note about it being refurbished cartridges wasn’t on the listing but showed up in their store somewhere. This issue is still open, but I hope they’ll work with me. I did tag the item with some descriptive tags such as “third party”, scam, etc.

  5. #5 Noadi
    March 9, 2010

    This post just got picked up by consumerist so hopefully that will help with the shaming and letting more people know how bad this seller is.

  6. #6 Maggie
    March 9, 2010

    drop shippers are a fact of life on Amazon. I sell books there but only sell books I actually have in my possession, graded accurately and with a tracking number sent immediately upon shipment. . Unfortunately, many sellers abuse the system through ignorance or just the pursuit of the fast buck. DON’T let them buy their way out of the feedback they deserve. Accurate feedback is the only way to sift out the scammers and parasites on the system.

  7. #7 rose
    March 9, 2010

    As a seller, I had this problem with an Ebay buyer not paying. He had a large number of withdrawn feedbacks. He didn’t pay nor did he respond to numerous e-mils requesting payment, I filed with Ebay and left negative feedback. He left retaliatory negative feedback, then e-mailed me the next day requesting I withdraw, so *I* don’t have a less than 100% positive percentage. I said no, that I considered it my duty to warn others that he was difficult. He persisted for several days, under the guise of saving me from myself. He couldn’t believe I didn’t care.

  8. #8 Trencher93
    March 10, 2010

    At least you could deal with Amazon and the third party. I had a situation so bizarre it was never really resolved. One of these used book companies listed a rare (used) computer manual I needed. I ordered it from them.

    I got someone else’s order, FROM A DIFFERENT BOOKSELLER. I ordered through B&N, and got an Amazon order. The person whose book I got recieved a different one, and I guess the rare book was thrown in the trash, because it was never found.

    Contacting the seller got no response at all. They must have been out of business or something. I couldn’t return the book, because it was someone else’s order (I guess they were putting the wrong orders in the envelopes or something) and it wouldn’t be credited as MY return.

    I was in form-letter hell with B&N, who basically couldn’t care less what happened. Each inquiry – with a very, very detailed explanation of what happened – was met with a form letter response until I finally got this kicked up to management.

    I finally got a refund TWO MONTHS LATER from B&N, after a ridiculous effort.

    My lesson learned: NEVER order from a third party. No one cares. The third party doesn’t, and the bookseller doesn’t.

    I also learned customer service is a joke – just form letters.

  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    March 10, 2010

    Actually, Trencher93, I couldn’t deal with the third party seller. They were completely resistant to my requests for a refund – only offering discounts on the unwanted item and repeating the demand that I remove the negative feedback “so we can work together”. The clear implication was that I had to remove my negative feedback before they’d even utter the word “refund,” much less give me one.

    I considered their completely nonresponsive emails (similar to the “form letter” responses you got) to be harassment in retaliation for the negative feedback I left. Since I wasn’t inclined to give in and remove honest feedback, I had to go to Amazon directly. When I informed Amazon of the seller’s demands that I remove the feedback, and their refusal to discuss a refund at all, Amazon told me I should stop talking to the seller, which I was happy to do. I haven’t had customer service experience with B&N, so I’m sorry they weren’t more responsive. I can say that Amazon was very helpful, although it took a long time, and I actually talked to a real person. So as far as Amazon goes the experience was slow, but not bad.

  10. #10 John
    March 10, 2010

    Remember when everyone kept telling us to “do our homework”? The same idea applies when it comes to buying anything. One of the only reasons that businesses are able to stay in business is because people don’t have time to be good consumers by shopping around and doing necessary research. Having said that, I would always recommend http://www.abebooks.com/.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    March 10, 2010

    John, the point is that it isn’t so easy to “do your homework” when there is no centralized site for customer reviews, and both independent sites like Yelp and the internal seller feedback systems sponsored by host sites are subject to shameless manipulation. While Googling some sellers can indeed turn up dirt, Googling others – such as the first seller I tried to buy from – turns up nothing. If you have a suggestion for increasing the information available to buyers so that “doing homework” turns up reliable, useful information, I’d love to hear it.

    For the record, I always check abebooks – there are several centralized online pricechecking interfaces that include abebooks and other retailers, so checking prices at multiple sellers is not too difficult. While I’ll pay a premium to buy from sellers known to be reliable businesses, and have had good experiences with abebooks’ sellers, in this case, abebooks did not have a new copy of the book I wanted at a price below that of my local brick and mortar sellers.

  12. #12 Jessica
    March 10, 2010

    The best story I’ve seen about a consumer publicizing their bad experience was Dave Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars song. http://consumerist.com/2009/07/united-breaks-guitars.html

    Too bad this kind of widespread bad publicity isn’t the norm for dishonest companies.

  13. #13 Rob Monkey
    March 10, 2010

    Very well written, some really good points made here. I haven’t had too many bad experiences, but I at least check feedback and whatnot. I’ll second the vote for abebooks, I think the reason they’re so great is that in general the sellers on abebooks are actual bookstores, not just some guy in a basement. I will say that despite the dishonesty that can be done on the internet, being able to buy an HDMI cable for $1.50 instead of the $60 Best Buy wants to charge me is sweet revenge indeed ;)

  14. #14 abb3w
    March 10, 2010

    The underlying problem has several levels.

    First, there is the direct algorithmic computer science question of evaluating reputation. Difficulties include potentials for dishonesty and (dynamic) psedonymity by buyers, sellers, and mediators. (Defined broadly, a true name is also a pseudonym.)

    Second, there is the practical computer science question of how to extend/alter existing technological (and sociological) systems in a way that usably implements the algorithm.

    Third, there is the practical business problem of “how do I make money implementing this”.

    There’s been some interesting work done on the first part; and, arguably, Ebay and Amazon have demonstrated that at least simple algorithms can get through 2 and 3, and provide sufficient benefit to buyers and sellers to allow an agent to make SERIOUS money. The existence of Ebay and Amazon provides an existence proof, but also provides the current baseline standard for dissatisfaction. The question is, can more advanced algorithms from part 1 provide “better” information to buyers and sellers, such that the added implementation costs in part 2 are justified by sufficient improvement in information quality as to allow substantial revenues in part 3?

    If I had a good answer to this, I wouldn’t be wasting time posting on a blog; I’d be finding a venture capitalist.

    Generally, however, high-quality information appears to fall approximately in the category of public (non-rival, non-public) goods, with consequent issues of underproduction. While there are approaches to increase production (sometimes making part 3 possible), they involve trade-offs; so, don’t expect the solution to leave you perfectly happy.

  15. #15 MattXIV
    March 10, 2010

    I do about 10 transactions a month on eBay – never had a bad one. Maybe I have a better than average bullshit detector. I don’t buy anything without a photo of the actual item, which alone avoids 90% of the potential scams. It was standard practice last time I checked to have something with the seller’s ID on it in the photo when selling high demand items like recently released game consoles. I deal in rare and vintage guitar effects, which theoretically should be a very easy area to scam in since the prices are high and it can be tricky to date vintage items without detailed photos, but I’ve never ran into any trouble. Knowing what to look for is of course necessary when dealing with vintage items and antiques, but that’s true when you’re shopping in person and having the internet as a reference when you’re deciding to put in a bid is a lot easier than trying to make the call on the spot in a retail situation.

    Their dispute resolution terms look pretty fair (maybe a little slanted towards buyers if anything) although I’ve never had to open a claim. I find eBay ratings a lot easier to work with than assessing the reliability of “normal” businesses and a lot more reliable than doing business through classifieds systems like craigslist.

  16. #16 Bryant
    March 10, 2010

    I feel your pain. As a buyer I have been there. As a third party seller on Amazon I am continually frustrated that sellers like this are allowed to continue there. Amazon has certain standards they require sellers to hold to. Anything under a 95% approval rating, sustained for a period of weeks or months, is sure to result in warnings from amazon and possible suspension.

    For the small seller.

    The larger sellers with tens or hundreds of thousands of items listed are seemingly immune to such policing. If Amazon were to suspend or delete the accounts of, say, the top ten offenders, they would likely lose very little inventory or sales overall. And they would reap the benefits of satisfied customers in loyalty and word of mouth.

    Nearly every book (CD, DVD, etc.) on Amazon is available from multiple sellers. If these worst offenders were eliminated, Amazon customers would simply purchase from other sellers, with significantly less chance of a bad experience.

    Amazon has record of any_book’s true customer service record and feedback. It is undoubtedly atrocious. Why the fail to act on it is a mystery to me. Even conceding that any_book’s rating is accurate, a 95% positive rating means that your experience has a 1 in 20 chance of ending poorly. I think we would all like better odds than that.

  17. #17 Jessica Palmer
    March 10, 2010

    Bryant, that’s the thing that really makes me angry – there are a lot of really good, responsible third-party sellers on Marketplace. In my personal experience, Marketplace transactions are usually great, with a few ok, and only two of my transactions being horrible. But because of the occasional bad seller, I increasingly will avoid the Marketplace entirely and pay more to buy new items from Amazon itself just to avoid the potential grief.

    Here’s a conundrum: I guess that means in a roundabout way Amazon is benefiting from my fear of the Marketplace – although obviously Amazon benefits from having the secondary Marketplace market or they wouldn’t host it! IDK the economics here. :)

  18. #18 ChristineMM
    March 11, 2010

    For Amazon Marketplace—

    1. Read the feedback before you buy. NO one can protect anyone from making a bad decision if they don’t research. Period.

    2. I choose to not buy from mega sellers. When the book description has key red flags I stay away such as– “book MAY have remainder marks” or where the condition should be stated it says something like “money back guarantee” instead of staying the actual condition. I look for custom unique descriptions. Descriptions that look like copy and paste for all books, I avoid.

    This means I often am not buying the lowest priced book on the list of available books.

    3. When I have a problem I leave negative feedback.

    4. I have twice been asked to change feedback to lie about my experience after the seller gave me my full refund, the two times I’ve been screwed. I refuse to do this. This is feedback manipulation and against Amazon’s rules. In one case a book in “like new” condition was ruined and a mess, and in another case the book never arrived at all and they took weeks to get back to me and could not provide shipping details (tracking number etc.).

    5. I report feedback manipulation to Amazon.

    6. I give good feedback on the good sellers.

    7. I note I’ve sold 2 or 3 items on Amazon Marketplace. I’m 99%+ a customer and am not a professional bookseller. I went out of my way to provide great service to my buyers but none left me any feedback which stinks. I also paid out of pocket for delivery confirmation so the buyer could not screw me and say it never arrived. So I have a low number of sales and zero feedback. Not nice on my buyers part. Thus I have no reputation on Amazon despite giving good service and even paying out of pocket for delivery confirmation.

  19. #19 W.J. Elvin
    March 11, 2010

    Thanks very much for the post and comments, I thought problems with third party sellers were much more unique than is shown in this queue. My blog is generally about fakes and forgeries rather than seller scams, but including the link in complaint letters seems to help. So what about a link we could all use, a monster version of neighborhood watch — but I suppose the weasels would find some way to take advantage of that.

  20. #20 Susan Shirley
    March 11, 2010

    What an eye-opener your post and the resulting comments are! I’ve been a 3rd Party Amazon seller since Spring of 2005. I would just like to say that there are many, many of us who really do care very much about the buying experiences found on Amazon. My advice to my friends is to always check for feedback, which is what I do as well when purchasing from Amazon. Feedback below about 96% is ample reason to check comments from buyers. Also there needs to be enough feedback to establish an accurate track record. And, on a high-dollar item, I would look at the comments anyway (just to be sure a scam isn’t happening, as illustrated above.)
    Thanks for the opportunity to say that not even a small percentage of sellers in my experience have been less than I expected when I purchased from them.

  21. #21 Peter
    March 11, 2010

    I would suggest that if you want quality service that you not use a service designed to push the price as low as possible. If you don’t want bottom dollar service you have to pay for it. I would suggest dealing directly with an actual bookseller. The reputation systems on Amazon and Ebay don’t actually work, since sellers know what they’re really trading on is the site’s reputation itself, which they have only as much incentive to preserve as Amazon itself will force them to. In the case of the largest sellers those rules don’t even apply.

  22. #22 M. Cooper
    March 11, 2010

    Here’s a heads up on Amazon Marketplace seller any_book.

    They also list books and media they don’t have on eBay’s Half.com site as bwibook .

    Avoid them.

  23. #23 Jessica Palmer
    March 11, 2010

    Peter: you suggest that people only go to “actual booksellers”. But aren’t there many “actual booksellers” with online presences only? There are certainly artists, small-scale presses, etc. with online presences only; there are media outlets with online presences only. That’s not because they’re all scammers. One of the great things about the internet is that it allows small scale niche businesses to thrive – you could in theory have a specialty store selling only 18th century translations of Greek philosophers, and you could reach interested customers all over the world. That’s cool. It levels the playing field so many more customers, even those outside urban areas, have a wider selection of options. There are towns in the US that don’t even have a bookstore; it’s terrible, but it’s reality. It was true of the town where I grew up.

    If we accept that online sellers can indeed be “actual booksellers,” in so far as they are responsible merchants providing a valuable service, the problem is identifying who the “actual booksellers” are. That’s why some form of reliable reputational feedback is SO important. A website storefront isn’t sufficient proof of “actual booksellerness”; plus, many responsible sellers have perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to restrict themselves to a lone website storefront: they want to be findable, and Amazon is a big hub. As I said in the post, I agree that some third-party sellers free-ride on the prestige of Amazon as a whole; however, some small third-party sellers use Amazon to make their merchandise more searchable – including many independent sellers who are also part of Abebooks, whom even you would recognize as “actual booksellers.”

    Also, a second point: it’s interesting here that several people seem to assume I didn’t check the seller’s feedback at all – I think it may have to do with the brevity of the squib on Consumerist. As I wrote in the post, I always check seller feedback. I’m an experienced Marketplace buyer (and seller), and I wasn’t happy at all about a 94% feedback rating. I did look through the first several screens of feedback to see what the typical complaints were (but of course most of the negative feedback had probably been removed, and for a seller with high volume, the first several screens of feedback cover only a day or two!). Unfortunately, in this case I didn’t have many options for the book I needed.

    What I didn’t do here that I wish I had done was Google the seller, but that’s because it doesn’t usually work for most sellers – only for high-volume sellers who anger a lot of customers, like this one, to the extent they go and rant somewhere indexed by Google. For most sellers, the Amazon, ebay, etc. seller feedback is pretty much all you have to go on. And given the types of practices some sellers engage in, the feedback in those systems is blatantly skewed, and not useful. Peter suggests, I think, that you should simply not trust any sellers on those marketplaces at all; but if you do that, you close the door to many small sellers who don’t have their own outlets.

    I think it would be very interesting to compare feedback systems on ebay/Amazon and etsy. My guess is that etsy artisans have much, much more reliable feedback, since they are investing higher degrees of labor in what they sell, they have higher margins, their merchandise is scarcer and more tightly linked to reputation/identity, and they can’t simply flee into anonymity and set up shop as someone else to scrub their reputation clean. But that’s an off-the-cuff hypothesis with no empirical basis, and even if supported, the reasons why etsy reinforces better feedback are likely intrinsic to the nature of the goods, not portable to other marketplaces.

  24. #24 Cassie Mehlman-Rhys
    March 11, 2010

    As a several year “seller” on Amazon, I can tell you your statements are simply untrue. If a buyer feels they were treated unfairly by a seller, all they have to do is file and A-Z claim. Amazon will investigate and guess what….the buyer ALWAYS wins. I have had buyers admittedly damage products themselves and Amazon has not only refunded their money from my paycheck, but didn’t even require them to return the product to me. To add injury to insult, Amazon does not even monitor the number of claims that buyers file. A buyer could file a claim every time and there would be no way for a seller to know. You really should do a little more research before you make such claims.

  25. #25 Peter
    March 11, 2010

    Amazon marketplace isn’t for picking up rare or specialty items, if you use it for that you will get burned. It’s for picking up used tradebooks for a penny and textbooks at clearance prices. If you want services other than these you should deal directly with the seller rather than a marketplace intermediary. You basically went to a flea market and complained that what you got was shoddy and banged up. No shit.

  26. #26 Jessica Palmer
    March 12, 2010

    Cassie, all the Marketplace policies I state in the post are directly taken from Amazon’s policies and procedures and Marketplace agreements. As a seller, you should know those policies; they include the fact that buyers have a limited number of lifetime A-Z claims, and that buyers are forced to wait several weeks before they are able to file a claim. While you may object to how those policies are enforced by Amazon, that doesn’t mean the policies don’t exist, or that I need to “do more research.”

    It sounds like you’ve dealt with some bad buyers, which is the flip side of dealing with bad sellers. There are certainly both types of person out there. As I mention repeatedly in my post, one of the benefits of an improved, more reliable feedback system would be to direct more business to the *good* sellers to reward them for having good practices.

  27. #27 Jessica Palmer
    March 12, 2010

    Peter: what I bought wasn’t a rare or specialty item. It was a recent textbook. And I’m at a bit of a loss how exactly you think I should “deal directly with the seller” in this case. All sellers of books are intermediaries, unless they represent the publisher itself. (In this case, neither the publisher nor Amazon had it for sale).

    As for the “new”/”used” distinction, to be clear, this was not a case where there was a little “banging up” or bumping on the binding; the book had been used by several previous owners who had written and highlighted all over 50% of the pages. If a seller calls such a book “new”, they’ve very clearly lied, whether they’re in a flea market or an online community.

  28. #28 Jim
    May 4, 2010

    If you are risk-averse when spending your hard earned money, go to a real brick-and-mortar bookstore where you can look at and touch the merchandise before you pay for it. It may cost more, but you won’t have to wait a month for it and you *know* what the condition is.

    Faster, better, cheaper – pick any TWO.

  29. #29 Jessica Palmer
    May 4, 2010

    Well, then Jim, let’s just get rid of online shopping entirely. Hey, why not go back to barter. honestly, if you have nothing useful or original to say, why even comment? Sigh.

  30. #30 Albert
    July 5, 2010

    I hardly know where to begin as you have covered many points in your posting and then all of the comments prior to mine to boot. My company is new to selling on Amazon and pretty much the internet. We have our own site but also decided to utilize Amazon to help with branding of our name. I want to try to cover all the points made but please forgive me if I dont or if my written English is a little(or perhaps greatly) atrocious.
    1. Feedback – As a consumer no feedback should ever be removed as this is a sign to the next customer of what to expect.(at least the % that they will be next) Therefore allowing them to make an informed decision.
    2. Always Always Always Google the name of the seller as this will give you an idea of their past dealings and history of complaints. For better results try “S7 Computer Solutions”(using quotes and all) then add scams or complaints then press search or enter.(used my company name as an example, use the sellers ID in place).
    3. If a price is too good IT IS TOO GOOD. For a clearer price picture type the product name in google and click on shopping.
    4. The true measure of an online company will be these few items:
    a. The companies contact information is easy to obtain.
    b. The company has shown response to negative feedback but not utilizing bribery or muscle to retort the feedback. Just open and honest lines of communication.
    c. The company openly lists any and all policies and does not try to hide them in clutter or unreasonbly hard to find places.
    d. And lastly the company treats every customer with the respect online that they would treat a customer in a B&M store.
    5. As for A to Z claims- these are in place to make a customer feel safe in knowing that their purchase is protected and any reputable company would match this or exceed(we exceed). The probably of a customer aabusing this ability is not as great as most online sellers think. It is far easier to comply and just ensure you have well planned customer service metrics in place. With well defined metrics you can and will retain customers, gain new ones and reduce the “bad seeds”. Amazon has to protect their image and if yours must be scarred to protect theirs…you lose everytime. It is their site, servers and name not ours. Be good, do well and brand your name so customers can find you.
    6. Community – I only disagree with the no longer having the ability to “shame” a company. If you do not allow the seller to haggle a feedback away then you can shame them(Merchant Circle perhaps). The more our society utilizes the internet the faster we will become a community of billions and the faster we can shame on larger levels. A name can be tarnished forever with a bad review placed in the right places(rip off report, comsumer report).

    Now a little about my companies policies on Amazon. They are no different than they are on our own website. If you receive the wrong product we make it right(NO EXCEPTIONS). Everything ships within 1-8 days(we sell electronics and some are very big and take longer to package). If the customer leaves bad feedback(even if they do not) because we did something wrong then we fix it(no need to haggle the feedback, we want the customer to know we care about them and their purchase not future purchases. We are who we are and we do not hide it. Go ahead and google these terms
    Albert L Robbins III (that is my name and I will be on the first page)
    S7 Computer Solutions (will show everywhere we are listed)
    “S7 Computer Solutions” Scams (will show if we have any-NONE)
    “S7 Computer Solutions” Complaints (will show if we have any-NONE as of this comment)

    To end I would like to thank you for your article and hope that many a consumer and seller can hopefully learn from this and make our online Community better for it.