Shopping on Amazon Sucks Now

It does and we still keep doing it.

Hi. Can here. Today, I’m going to complain about Amazon. But not for the reasons you can imagine, like the company’s working conditions or its impact on the local economies or its founder’s obscene wealth.

The list keeps growing. I need a whisk, obviously, obviously. But what about wooden utensils? Do I need both measuring cups and measuring spoons, or can I, like, use math? Does my place feel like a minimalist Scandinavian without decorative pieces on every flat surface or just a boring bachelor pad?

After a lifetime of sharing living spaces, dorms throughout high school and college, and then roommates in San Francisco, I've finally gotten a place of my own. And it's been terrifying, to say the least, how much stuff I needed to buy. Obviously, need is a bit rich here, but I did want a lot of things.

There was a time, I think a few years ago, this would have been an easy problem to solve. I always hated shopping, but there was always one clutch I could fall back on. Go to the oh-so-ugly but oh-so-reliable website, pick out what I need, and voila, a couple days later, it would be on my doorstep. It was great a time for mindless consumerism. It’s all gone. Shopping on Amazon sucks now.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

In Amazon I Trusted

Should I Buy it again?

I've been an Amazon customer, apparently, since early 2005 when when I bought my first SAT book. There’s no year since then I haven’t made at least 5 purchases. My Amazon shopping history is a fascinating, part creepy, party dreamy walk down the memory lane. It feels eerie to look that far back in my shopping history, a a titilating exercise in self-voyeurism.

There are expensive study guides, a lot of them, marking a particular privilege in education. There are gifts to former partners and partners-in-aspiration, hinting at several misguided romantic excapades. Books that belong to a period of my life spent way too online, in the dark corners of the web. There are a lot of sporting goods, most of which never got a use after the initial unwrapping. And the endless array and collection of cables and the dongles. There are enough cables (and dongles and adaptors and cases) I’ve bought over the years for various Apple products that it makes me strangle someone in Cupertino sometimes with them.

The constant among all those items is how little I remember of making most of those purchases. Up until a couple years ago, buying on Amazon used to be such a neutral, eventless experience that it simply didn't register anywhere, except on my doorstep a day later and my credit card at the end of the month. There was nothing remarkable. You clicked. You bought. Things arrived. Rinse, repeat. It was, if I may say, awesome. This is how technology was supposed to work.

What is a Product?

Let’s zoom out a bit. What is the product of a consumer technology company? Is it a set of features that allow you to, dare I say, accomplish some goal? That could work some products, like, say, Uber. You want to get from A to B, and you just download something to your app and input the destination and something, be it an app or a server, or some weird amalgamation of those, takes care of it. A vehicle appears you get in, you sit, you get out. This is a good place to start, but it is not enough.

The real product of any company is the feeling you are left with after you are done with it. You do not get into an Uber and get transported magically to your destination. There’s an entire flow, starts with you learning about Uber, and then downloading the app and signing up. You decide where to do go, and how. Every step has so many variables to play with, and a good product design covers all of it. Not on day one, mind you, but eventually.

Take the waiting step. You wait for your driver to arrive, based on an ETA. If that estimate is too off, in any direction, the product has failed you. If it's optimistic (2 min ETA when the car is 10 blocks out) , you are obviously upset when the car doesn't arrive on time. If it's too pessimistic and your driver arrives too soon, somewhat counter-intuitively, the product still failed you because you wouldn't be ready by the time your driver arrives. The actual transit experience matters and is the primary, but so does what happens after, and before. And there are even tougher problems to handle like lost items. For example: How do you contact Uber and prove your identity if you lost your phone?

There are a lot of "feelings" involved in all those steps, and while the price is the paramount decider, everything from the ordering list of transportation options to color of the fonts, they all add up to a feeling. Each one of them taken individually could come off as designer bullshit or product management fluff or growth hacking by itself, but they add up to a specific sentiment settling after you are done with the product.

Look, I know this stuff sounds wishy-washy, but it matters. The experience as a whole, again, primarily defined by the financial terms, but not only by them, is what makes a product successful over the long run. Tesla can sell mediocre quality cars at a premium price not just because its cars drive great (and they do) but because you are part of the Tesla story. It’s not denoted just by driving, but because the entire experience feels futuristic the start to end. Apple doesn’t obsess over its packaging because it sells thems more products, but because they sell you the next product with a higher margin.

Obviously, Amazon is not Apple, or Tesla. It is the opposite, in some ways, by obsessing over nothing but the price. But that’s a shallow observation. Amazon does care about its customers. Yet, the holistic view is increasingly replaced by a single measure. Somewhere in there, it feels like Amazon has taken its eye off the wheel. Shopping for a whisk on Amazon in 2020 feels like buying plane tickets on Expedia in 2012.

Shopping on Amazon is Like Buying Plane Tickets Now

There are few things that unite Americans like hating on airlines. And the hate starts from the very beginning of the aviation experience. That is, buying the tickets. Each time, you end up opening multiple tabs each logged into a different website, aiming to find that right combination of price and layovers. The numbers on the screens are intimidatingly high; no one wants to spend a few hundred bucks just to be stuck in an aluminum tube. But you also know that with every dollar saved, you are shaving off some enjoyment out of your time. Is it worth getting that Economy Plus seating? What about the extra luggage? Or maybe, should you just spend that extra couple hundred so that you can fly direct and avoid all that? It’s never fun.

That is exactly how shopping on Amazon feels like now.

The experience starts with the search, where you are now bombarded with not just the item you want, but 10 different versions that are almost exactly the same, except some are half the price, and others double. There are some brands you recognize, some you’ve never heard of and some you feel like you should have heard of but can’t put your finger on. Your heart rate rises over so slightly. Unable to tell anything apart from the tiny pictures and various testimonials scattered (Who are these people? what’s Popsugar?), you end up opening a few tabs to check out each product individually. Congratulations! You have now gone level deeper into the purgatory. And that’s merely the beginning.

Once you scroll down the product descriptions, whose length is often disproportionate to its usefulness, all the way down to the reviews, that’s where the real fun begins. This is the section that you wish you were reading YouTube comments instead.

Honest, actual reviews from people who bought the products used to be one of Amazon’s original innovations. It sounds banal now, but the idea of putting negative reviews seemed too crazy for many to consider in the past. Wouldn’t people buy less things if others told them the product sucked? Amazon’s insight was that if you could actually get people to trust you, you could make them buy more things by becoming not just a destination, but a starting point. The negative reviews were always part of the plan.

That plan obvioously has gone off the rails. Most reviews on Amazon are now useless. It’s not that they discourage you from buying, but rather, they carry no signal. They are so rabid, so obscene, so out of the ordinary, you wonder if it’s written by real people, that actually used the thing you are trying to buy.

Of course not. They are gamed, abused, and manipulated. Why would anyone’s husband fall in love with a flat whisk? Did that TV stand really almost burn down your house?

Amazon Prime? More like Amazon Whine

Every single Amazon purchase now is an ordeal, that makes me feel like I am buying tickets on Expedia in 1999. Every tab on for a product on Amazon has to be paired with various other review sites like Wirecutter and Reddit. There are extensions, ranging from Honey for coupons to Fakespot, to…spot fakes. How insane is that?

Like most people who buy things on Amazon, I’ve long internalized and normalized this pain. The fact that a shopping website is so bad at spotting fakes on its platform, or that its marquee feature, reviews, are so gamed, barely even registers anymore. We think this is normal, but it is not. Amazon is famous for its razor thin margins, but the work a company does to provide value.

The awfulness of the experience doesn’t stop there. Yes, Amazon does have good return policies. But like everything on Amazon, that now is also gamed and manipulated.

And the pain doesn’t even end after I make the purchase. I can't count the number times I've purchased something for an absolutely, insanely low price and be shocked at the low quality of the item I got. There are things that I got that were so cheap, both in quality and price, that I could have returned and should have that I discarded after a few sad months in a drawer. Maybe a quarter of the things I buy, I regret having bought, but the annoyance doesn't cross the "make-it-to-the-post-office" mark that I end up living with them, just being upset at myself and Amazon.

The entire experience, from top to bottom is awful. Yet, I keep doing it. [1]

I know there's no easy fix. I am guilty of propagating the problem myself, having spent a good chunk of my paycheck on shopping on Amazon. There are superficial fixes, like maybe exposing the return rates on items or more tactical ones like having a heavier hand in verifying reviews.

The problem, however, feels much more entrenched, and almost part of a larger strategy. It sounds unlikely that Amazon does not know that its product reviews are manipulated by businesses, big and small. In fact, the scale of Amazon is so engrossing that the manipulation itself is now a big business unto itself, which in turn gave birth to its own cottage industries, like Wirecutter [2].

Is there a solution to this?

Amazon could stop selling anything and everything, including things people scavenge from dumpsters of cosmetics stores, and actually do curation. It could do a multitude of things based on a strategy to fix things. It could also do nothing, and enjoy its ever-increasing stock price. But, and I say this with no authority on the matter, that doesn't seem like a good idea. Something will have to give. Because shopping on Amazon sucks now.

My co-host Ranjan is the Margins’ resident Amazon agitator. He wrote about the Amazon Coat, the brand hijacking, the review inflation and even how the company’s insane scale changes how we recycle things in US. When I was discussing this piece with him, even the ever-so-Amazon critic in him couldn't resist pointing out I still buy things there. I do, and so does he. He even has an Alexa!

We are all guilty of this.

Consumer Behavior is Fickle

But I am starting to notice changes in my own shopping behavior. It started with me wanting to check out local options before heading to Amazon to complete my purchase. It was a dickish thing to do to begin with, using other people’s shops as a gallery before buying things somewhere else.

And now I find myself buying more and more either directly from brands’ websites or even just buy things, like a savage, from a physical store. Again, this wasn’t a principled stance, it just felt more comfortable to do so. This should scare Amazon.

I might have spent an extra dollar or so, but I knew the entire time what I was getting. I didn’t have to wade through reviews, or live with a low-key but persistent worry that I’d not like what I got and have to decide whether I want to return or just live with it.

And, hey, I probably kept a few dollars in the local economy too. It wasn’t my goal, but it sure felt good.

[1]: I whined about this on Twitter, in a futile attempt to dull my pain after making yet another Amazon purchase. It got a ton of responses from people saying the same, a few disagreeing with me. The most hilarious, however, has to be one from which turns out to be a Director of Product at Amazon. I know Amazon prides itself on Customer Obsession but nothing says listening to feedback like telling someone “works on my machine”.

[2]: You could apply some mental gymnastics here and come to the conclusion that Jeff Bezos not just owns The Washington Post but also indirectly is funding The New York Times through Amazon affliate links that Wirecutter earns.