Amazon is terrible

Something rotten

A while back, I got some new network hardware (a NAS and router, specifically) and decided that instead of paying extortionate prices for CAT6 cables, I'd get the tools to do it myself—after all, they'd pay for themselves after about five cables, and I could start reaching for my dream of having a completely clutter-free desktop (i.e. no loose cables dangling). After some time doing research, I realized exactly how tight the specification is and opted to throw in my Amazon shopping cart a specialty crimper and cable ends that purported to make the process of crafting cables much easier.

Several days later, all my boxes had arrived, and it was time to start wiring things up. I sat down with a tutorial on my screen and my tools in front of me, and started making some test connections. For some reason, I couldn't get the cables to work, and after some inspection I could see that the wire "teeth" that are meant to cut through the insulation and into the wire weren't getting pushed in all the way. I figured, the most likely scenario here is that I'm not using the tool right or the CAT6 spec is even trickier than I thought, but after a half dozen more attempts I still couldn't get a working connection. At this point, I decided to look closer at the manufacturer's website, and realized I'd been duped.

The tool itself seemed to be correct, but the box of ends (that cost probably 5x as much, each, as a normal CAT5e termination) were … wrong. The molded plastic and one-time locking piece didn't look like they were supposed to. "Sometimes that happens," I told myself, "when manufacturers tweak things. Maybe I just have an older version or something."

Nope. Amazon had sent me a fraudulent part.

This became a bit of an obsession over the next few weeks. I fired off a bad review (with pictures to prove it), notified the manufacturer, told everyone who would listen that Amazon aren't to be trusted, and so on. Eventually, I stumbled on a tweet (linked from HackerNews) that discussed why this happened.

Long story short: Amazon has a program called "fulfilled by amazon" that sellers generally like because it allows someone else to manage their inventory and online listings (i.e. Amazon), customers like it because it means more products can be fulfilled in a single shipment (from an Amazon warehouse, instead of some rando 3rd party), and Amazon likes it because they get more of a cut from each sale.

However, Amazon generally trusts/has trusted sellers to provide them with authentic goods. When they get an item that claims to match some SKU, they toss it in (I imagine) a big bin of crap, and then when someone orders from any vendor claiming to sell that particular FBA product, the pickers grab one at random and toss it in your box.

As a vendor, you hate this, because when you supply real merchandise but your customers receive fake merchandise, you take the reputation and restocking hit. (It should, of course, be obvious that customers generally hate receiving cheaper goods than they paid for.)

The poison goes deeper

Meanwhile, articles were being published. Over the past three or four years, we've all read about how Amazon mistreats their warehouse workers, how Amazon mistreats their delivery drivers, how Amazon mistreats their corporate employees…

Turnover in all divisions is huge. There are reports of people in corporate crying at their desks every day, of warehouse workers being promoted to manager after six months because of attrition, of people not lasting a week in delivery roles. Everyone in New York hates LaserShip (who, I gather, are a third-party delivery service that contracts mostly to Amazon) because they're lazy and unreliable1.

So why do we use Amazon? Are we heartless? ("No," we tell ourselves, "but why pay more?") Well, you can find anything, right?

… not exactly. Have you ever tried finding all items of a category on Amazon? Let's say you're looking for a class of products—in my case, Network Attached Storage drives, by one of a small number of companies, with certain features—and want to comparison shop. Admittedly, it's gotten better, but it's still not good, because here are your hurdles:

  • You do a search, and Amazon thinks it's narrowed down to the product category. You are still seeing some things that don't apply, so you drill down.
  • Now, you see mostly the right product, but not just the brands you want to comparison shop. So you check off those filters.
  • Now you're seeing mostly what you're looking for, but a recent model you know exists isn't showing up.
  • Further, you want to find a specific product in a particular price range, so you sort low to high. However, the first ten pages are filled with accessories that are either appropriate to your product class (RAM, cables) or completely wrong and simply associated with your search for what you can only assume is a result of sellers keyword spamming.
  • You re-do the search with more specific terms to try to surface the product you know exists, but now you're not seeing another product that came up during your previous search.
  • Worst yet, on some searches variations on a single product show up in the item itself (e.g. pant sizes/colors), whereas others show up as completely different items, swamping out meaningful search results with page after page of noise.

And so on, and so on.

One solution is to window shop at the manufacturer's website. But now you're endlessly cross-referencing searches and reviews anyway, so what service is Amazon providing in this situation? Sure, it's the "world's largest store" (or whatever their motto is), but I'll be damned if I can ever find anything.

Meanwhile, I get so exhausted by the search itself that when I'm trying to build up a big enough order to hit the free shipping mark, I often discover that I've overlooked some important detail of what I've ordered. On average over the past ten years, half the stuff I've received from Amazon has been inadequate to the task I purchased it for. Maybe the windup is too much for me—I spend five days or a week expecting something that will solve my current problem, whereas if I made the same mistake with a brick-and-mortar store it'd only be a half hour until I discovered my mistake—but all too often, I find that whatever arrives is not at all the size, or quality, or even product, I expect.

Maybe when I go to the store, I see fewer goods overall. Maybe I pay more. Maybe I would have been happier with something different, that I never learned about. But at this point, the only things I buy there are products that have been surfaced somewhere else (a blog, or a twitter post) that I literally cannot find anywhere else.

Amazon isn't good at surfacing products I'd like to know about, and their failings and abuses mean that I am now going out of my way to never give them money whenever possible.

Final anecdote

There's one final story I'd like to throw out to round this out.

My brother lives on the opposite coast, and I know his hobbies well enough to know that I could never get him anything he wants and doesn't already have. So, because I accumulate credit card rewards points, I just redeemed them for an Amazon gift card (as none of my other options are relevant to his interests. Olive Garden? Home Depot? Nope.)

In return, he ordered me three items related to a conversation we'd had, and relevant to our mutual interests. They were set for delivery on the day we returned from the midwest, so I hoped that they would, as usual, be located in our lobby when we arrived.

One box was there, and I had two "Sorry we missed you!" notifications.

No problem, I'll just swing by the UPS Store and the Post Office during the course of my normal errands!

After over an hour out, dealing with the cold and the ice and the crowds at those two locations, I had all three of my packages. Opening them, I looked at one and said "how am I supposed to use this?" I went back and forth with my brother, looked online a bit, and realized he'd accidentally purchased me a replacement part for the thing he meant to order, and that it was useless on its own.

I went online, setup the return (paying $6.50 for the shipping label), made another trip to the UPS store, paid for an envelope, and waited a week for the funds to appear in my account before I could order the right part.

At the end of the day, my brother tried to do something nice for me, and Amazon turned it into two hours of work and two more hours of confusion and frustration.

Thanks for everything, Amazon.

  1. This may, of course, be a consequence of Amazon paying so little for shipping; LaserShip might not have the flexibility to provide better service because they have to try to eke out a profit margin.