Sunday, December 29, 2013

Words as a medium of exchange

In light of all the usual moaning and groaning and accusation-flinging about negative reviews -- on Amazon and elsewhere -- I thought this experience of mine was particularly telling.  It's not the negative reviews you should be suspicious of; it's the positive ones.

The transaction was, I thought, a simple and straightforward one.

A few weeks before Christmas, I ordered two items from an Amazon affiliated vendor, to be given as gifts to two different people.  The items were similar, but not identical, and the slight difference was important in determining which recipient received which item.

The order arrived in plenty of time for the holidays, in excellent condition and with a couple of bonus items that were a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the two primary items were packed in identical, unmarked, sealed boxes, with no way to determine which was which.  This was annoying.

My only option was to wrap the gifts and hope that they went to the correct recipients.  If not, I would have to explain the problem and then the two individuals could either swap the gifts or, if the difference wasn't significant enough to them, they could keep them as is.   It turned out that I guessed correctly and there was no problem.   But I was still annoyed and planned to post a review to that effect after the holidays.  It would have been a simple matter, it seemed to me, for the vendor just to stamp the distinguishing feature on the otherwise unmarked boxes.

I was surprised, however, to discover a separate piece of paper included in the box with the merchandise and my Amazon invoice.

It read:
Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive.

And then it is signed by the vendor.

After this text is an image of a typical Amazon order page, showing the buyer's account and orders, a description of the product, and the various feedback buttons:  Return or Replace Item; Leave Seller Feedback;  Leave Package/Delivery Feedback; Write a Product Review.  Then comes more text:
We would like you to write a product review!  Product reviews are fun and simple to complete.  Under your account select the "your orders" tab, find this order and then select the button that says "write a product review".
There is a big arrow pointing to the appropriate button on the image.

And then there's a big black line under all that, followed by more text:
If for any reason you are not satisfied with this order please let us know before you write your review.  We have a complete customer satisfaction policy and believe this is an excellent 5-star product!
The note closes with their email address and phone number.

When I went to the product's page and discovered it has well over 50 5-star ratings, I began to feel a niggle of suspicion.  Had all these 5-star ratings been purchased by the seller with a promise of a another free [insert product #1 name]?

I fired off a Seller Feedback note explaining only that I would love to leave a product review, but I couldn't follow their directions because the button wasn't active.  I wrote:
Packed in the box with my order was a note from you regarding product reviews.  I would like to leave a product review but can't because the "Write a Product Review" button doesn't show on the "My Order" page.

FYI -- I was very pleased with the products and with their prompt arrival, in plenty of time for the holidays.  I did have one minor complaint/suggestion, but you'll have to figure out how to allow me to leave a genuine product review.
Within a couple of hours -- on a Sunday afternoon! -- I received the following reply via email:


What is your minor complaint/ suggestion?

Please advise.

 My scamdar was pinging wildly.  So I wrote back:
Excuse me, [vendor's name redacted], but my complaint/suggestion is intended for the review, not for private discussion. 
The note included with my order says: 
"Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive."
It is then followed by a screen shot of a typical Amazon order page, with an arrow pointing to the "Write a Product Review" button. 
HOWEVER -- my order page does not have that button; instead it has "Contact Seller" and "Leave Seller Feedback" buttons, neither of which leads to the product review page.
Or am I required to submit my review to you for approval before it can be posted? 

Is it possible that this vendor is essentially buying 5-star reviews with a promise of free merchandise?  Is the vendor requiring that any product reviews be vetted by them in order to "qualify" for the free merchandise?  Is this practice potentially a violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations?  Did any of those reviewers state that they had received a free [insert product #1 name] in return for their review?

I wanted to leave an unbiased, honest review of this product.  Would my review -- which would probably have been at least a 4-star -- be buried under all those glowing 5-star reviews that no one will ever know might have been "bought" with free merchandise?

Recent events in the book review community have suggested that perhaps false positive reviews are much more readily ignored by those who have a vested interest in selling books (meaning, Amazon and now GoodReads as part of Amazon); and that sales-damaging negative reviews, even though they're scrupulously honest, may put the reviewer's account and reviewing career at risk.  Writers have inveighed against the negative reviews of their books even while establishing sock puppet accounts to 5-star their own or their friends' books.  (And, to be sure, they've often 1-starred their reviewers' books whenever possible.)

With the integration of Amazon and Goodreads, I think we really have to wonder which will win out:  The quest for sales, or the honest reviewer?  I'm afraid we probably all know the answer to that question already.

After I had written that, the issue continued to develop.  The latest update:

A few hours after I had sent my email to the vendor, I received a reply which stated:


Thanks for ordering from us and bringing to our attention that you were not completely satisfied with your purchase. 

We have refunded you the full cost of this item with shipping. This should appear in your account in the next 24 hours.

Please continue to enjoy the [product] and we appreciate any honest and fair feedback you would like to provide.  We prefer that complaints/suggestions be discussed prior to leaving product feedback and reviews (as a reply to this message or by calling us).  In this way, we have a chance to correct or explain an issue or concern.  This will insure your feedback and/or review would include how we dealt with your complaint or suggestion. 

Links and buttons for feedback and reviews are only accessible to the buyer (you).  We do not review or edit feedback or reviews before you (the buyer) post.


At that point I didn't know if they were going to refund the purchase price of both items or only the one that was mentioned in the note requesting a review.  Either way, however, I felt very uncomfortable with this.  I felt as if my silence had been purchased.  How can you complain about something you got for free?  Ultimately, the refund was processed for just the one item, which was fine.  I guess.  I'm still not comfortable with it.

I'm even less comfortable because the issue should have been handled differently.  Apparently the reason I can't leave a product review directly from my order page is because the page is designed to give the vendor the chance to fix problems, and the vendor should have known that.  In looking at my ordering history, any order that is fulfilled by Amazon -- even if purchased from another vendor -- can be reviewed directly from the order page via the "Write a Product Review" button.  If the order is not fulfilled by Amazon, then there is only the "Leave Seller Feedback" option. 

Regardless how or why the process didn't work the way it was explained with my order, I'm left wondering how many of those reviews were left by people whose opinions might have been colored by the prospect of free merchandise they received in exchange for a review.  And I also have to wonder if the offer of free merchandise violates Federal Trade Commission Regulations.  Most customers know nothing about FTC rules, or believe that those rules don't apply to individuals.  But Amazon does, and GoodReads does, and the vendors ought to know, too.

And maybe the vendor shouldn't require reviews in order to get free merchandise.  Back in the 1950s we called it Payola, and it's illegal.


  1. Did you inform Amazon of this?? Curious what they would say?

    1. Sorry I haven't posted a reply here sooner, but the fact is, I'm not sure reporting this to Amazon would do any good. That doesn't mean I've decided not to. But it's becoming more and more clear that Amazon really doesn't care, as long as stuff gets sold.

      Amazon does have copies of all the email correspondence that went on between my and the vendor; that's part of the process. So it's not a matter of my having to send them verified copies or anything. But I think it's ultimately more effective if I simply get the word out. Or at least that's my theory at the moment.

      Regardless, I think it's a crappy deal for the consumer.

  2. This reminds me of certain sellers on ebay who would send whatever I'd purchased with a note that said, "Please leave positive feedback and we'll be happy to do the same!" Well...considering that I'd already paid them immediately upon the close of the auction, they SHOULD be giving me positive feedback—feedback that should have nothing to do with whether their product arrived on time or in good shape.

    I don't like the veiled threats of "leave us five stars or else." You were absolutely right to question it.

    1. The sad thing is, Lynda, this seems to be the industry standard. I've heard more and more reports from customers of eBay, Amazon, and some of the other big-time online selling platforms that competition just for ratings is so fierce that vendors will do just about anything to avoid losing points. This means, of course, a win-win for Amazon and eBay and the like, but at best a gamble for the consumer.

      Honesty, apparently, no longer has any value. We've certainly seen that in the book community, where a truly honest, but negative, review can unleash a torrent of abuse upon the reviewer, but authors feel no remorse about openly soliciting and swapping agreed-upon-beforehand favorable reviews.

      Sometimes it's truly demoralizing.

  3. Wow! This is so interesting! I'm sharing this post on my private FB page with some of my author and publisher friends because we've often talked about this type of thing. Fascinating. Thanks Linda. Saw you in a GR thread and thought you'd be interesting. Will try to keep an eye on your blog.

  4. So, how do you feel about trashing books you’ve not read? Because YOU Linda Hilton, are doing just that on GoodReads!

    1. James, I do not trash books I've not read, but I criticize and low rate books I've sampled that do not meet my standards for good writing. I've blogged about this before and I will blog about it again, no doubt. I may mark a book, on GoodReads, on BookLikes, on LeafMarks, or anywhere else as "not for me," "do not want to read," or even "never in a billion trillion years" because of the subject matter or even the author's non-writing behavior. But I don't trash a book I haven't at least sampled. Can you say the same for yourself?

      When an author brings attention to him- or herself via online behavior, that usually brings attention to his or her book. Sometimes the result isn't exactly what the author expected or wanted.

      I found your writing, James, to be unpolished, in my opinion. I felt your work needed editing, and I cited examples to back up my opinion. I would have and probably could have done more, but that would have been the equivalent of providing editorial services without compensation, something I have neither the time nor inclination to do for you or anyone else.

      You are of course free to do the same to my work if you so choose.