Amazon may have a different kind of review problem on its hands

Source: Amazon; Photo: Getty Images/LumiNola
Aug 10, 2021 has come under scrutiny and criticism for some time over third-party sellers using false consumer reviews to promote the products they sell. Now, however, a different kind of review issue has arisen that could make customers feel uncomfortable when it comes to purchasing products from third-party sellers on the site.

A recent Wall Street Journal article provided an account of an Amazon customer who was unhappy about a $10 cooking oil spray she purchased and made her feelings known with a negative review. About a week after leaving the review, the customer identified by the paper as Katherine Scott of New York, received a direct email from the seller offering her a full refund and also asking her to remove her negative comments.

Ms. Scott replied that she would accept the refund, but would not remove the negative review. She was contacted via email the very next day by another representative who said the seller would not issue a refund unless she removed the review. Further, if she reconsidered and took down the review, the seller would issue her a refund of double her purchase price. A lack of reply on Ms. Scott’s part brought another email from the same email address.

“It was so creepy. They emailed me directly about it over and over,” Ms. Scott told the Journal.

Amazon, for its part, does not allow third-party sellers direct access to the emails of customers shopping on its platform. Sellers are required to use Amazon’s messaging platform to communicate with customers.

The company also doesn’t permit sellers to ask customers to remove negative reviews, although it is not totally out of the ordinary to receive offers through Amazon’s system for discounts or free products in the future if a glowing five-star rating and review follows a purchase.

Reviews remain an important part of the online shopping experience, despite concerns. A YouGov survey taken in late April found that 78 percent of Americans found online reviews useful in making purchasing decisions.

Amazon in June published a blog in which the company claimed that fewer than one percent of the reviews on its site are fraudulent and that its policing had stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews from ever being seen by shoppers on its platform.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does the shopper’s account reported in the WSJ article point to a new security issue for Amazon? Is there a proper way for retailers and consumer direct brands to approach unhappy customers leaving negative reviews to try and turn them into fans?

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"Amazon should continue to police sellers and monitor the situation."
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19 Comments on "Amazon may have a different kind of review problem on its hands"

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Mark Ryski

I doubt that this represents any serious security breach, and is likely more a function of an over zealous reseller wanting to do everything they can to put their products in the most positive light, and that includes trying to win back a customer that had a bad experience. While the circumstances surrounding the case cited in the article appears a little too coincidental, I don’t fault the company for trying to win back this customer – I wish all retailers worked this hard to retain customers.

Neil Saunders

This is potentially concerning and is something Amazon can and should address. Contact from sellers via proper messaging platforms is reasonable, as is some dialogue offering refunds and trying to remedy any problems. However harassing buyers is not at all reasonable, nor is trying to cajole them into removing negative, or leaving positive, reviews.

Christine Russo

It’s time to have a reset around transparency and third-party sellers for the likes of Amazon and Walmart. There are several issues in addition to the one outlined here. It is still very common for most buyers to be unaware they are buying from a third party and that the “rules” may be different from buying directly from the retailer.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Amazon usually takes the high road. If this really is direct contact and it really violates Amazon’s rules, this third-party seller should be removed. Offering a full refund, or more than a full refund, is a great way to overcome the problem, and she might have tempered her review (still on the negative but mentioning the company’s attempt to remedy).

Raj B. Shroff

While I think the shopper’s account is inappropriate considering Amazon’s guidelines, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about it. Because 78 percent find reviews useful, a series of negative reviews for a legitimately concerned seller can be really damaging. There is definitely an incentive to have positive reviews, but I doubt more than a small percent would resort to the email “threat” tactics.

I have seen reviews where the buyer updated the review after the seller did something positive, such as replaced the item for free or made modifications and sent v2.0 to the buyer. This seems to be the way to go to try and turn them into fans.

Amazon should continue to police sellers and monitor the situation.

Suresh Chaganti

It is not a security issue. It is trust issue. Amazon is a massive platform and overall I like the quality of the reviews. “Verified” reviews and reviews with pictures and videos increase trust.
Issues such as these cannot be avoided entirely, and given the scale there will always be sellers and customers who collude to game the reviews. On the whole, Amazon is nowhere near some of the other websites which have hundreds of reviews for every item that screams “fake.”

Nikki Baird
This problem isn’t limited to Amazon. It’s been happening for Yelp and even Glassdoor – just saw an article yesterday about a company suing a former employee for defamation over a Glassdoor review they refused to take down. I think for Amazon, the issue isn’t going to be this new review problem piled on top of the others, so much as the challenge of third-party sellers in general. The fact that there are thousands of harmful products and fraudulent listings available on the site at any time (see regular reports from NYT, WSJ and Consumer Reports on products listed as children’s toys that don’t meet U.S. safety standards), coupled with the whole seed fraud thing over the pandemic last summer (a fascinating read by The Atlantic), and the heightened awareness of the power and lack of responsibility from major platforms (not just Amazon but Facebook, Twitter, etc.) – all of these are going to come together to create an environment ripe for going after platforms that enable third-party sellers. THAT will be Amazon’s problem. This… Read more »
DeAnn Campbell

Amazon has created a tough ecosystem for sellers that relies on reviews not only to achieve customer sales, but even to qualify to remain on Amazon’s platform. This kind of atmosphere, like any fear driven workplace, feeds desperation tactics. The saddest part is that this behavior undermines the validity of the entire Amazon review system, which is the primary tool consumers use to make purchase decisions. If Amazon’s review system becomes undermined to the point where consumer trust is lost, shoppers will shift buying habits to brick and mortar, or other online marketplaces that offer better transparency.

Gary Sankary

I believe that it’s a pretty significant stretch to extrapolate a security breach based on one customer’s experience with an overzealous seller. We don’t know exactly how the seller got the customer’s email, there are a lot of ways that a sleuthy, internet savvy person can acquire email addresses with only a name. That said this is an example of a seller crossing a line. I have had similar experiences on Amazon, not to this degree, but certainly with a seller asking me to change or delete a review. From a consumer standpoint these are best ignored.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Amazon needs to ensure that this example is the exception rather than the rule. However I see the need for some form of communication between retailers and consumers to address product related issues, short of an incentive to remove the negative review. In the words of Disney, the challenge is to change tragic moments into magic moments. How? by understanding what caused the tragic moment and fixing it. The goal is to address the customer first. Asking for a negative response to be removed with an accompanying incentive does not respect the customer nor her opinion.

Meaghan Brophy

I’m not sure this implies security issues but rather points to the larger problem of online marketplaces holding sellers to unrealistic review standards.

As a consumer, it’s suspicious to me if every review for a product is 5 stars. Some variance is normal and, at least to me, adds credibility to the raving fan reviews.

A genuine and thoughtful response to a negative review can turn unhappy customers into fans if done right. It can also reassure potential customers of the seller’s level of customer service.

Contacting the customer directly, especially when the seller is not meant to have that contact info, is a little creepy and not likely to be an effective strategy for improving reviews.

Rich Kizer

This smacks of “buyer beware.” For customers who experience this, the mouse is out of the cage. For all others, if they learn about these accounts, look out!

Harley Feldman

I don’t think this is a big security issue. The seller’s offer of a full or double refund should be allowed in order to offer restitution to the customer for a purchase the customer did not like. However one offer or two should be enough as the customer should not be harassed.

David Spear

I agree with Mark Ryski about this not being a security breach. That said, Amazon must continue to monitor and police sellers so that consumers can fully trust the platform. If this type of behavior continues and consumers feel any whiff of harassment, then Amazon will have a HUGE problem on their hands that could potentially translate into lawsuit nightmares.

Shep Hyken

I can’t address the potential security issue. Finding someone’s email is not always difficult. But about the approach that particular brand had with the customer – to “buy” their way out of a negative a review? Well, that is crossing the line.

We advocate responding to reviews quickly – and that means all reviews. A quick acknowledgement of a positive review is nice. A deeper response to negative reviews is even more important. First, apologize. Then explain that you’d like to go offline to discuss the resolution. Then circle back when you’ve resolved the issue. The public can see the brand is trying. In the perfect world, the customer comes back on and thanks the brand for their efforts. This doesn’t remove the review, but it shows the world that the brand responded appropriately. In some instances, this is better than having it removed.

Steve Montgomery

A question I didn’t see answered in the article is how the seller got the email of the reviewer. Based on Amazon’s policy I can only assume she provided enough information in the review that they were able to locate her. That is something I would not recommend any reviewer do. That is not a security issue for Amazon but is one for the unhappy customer.

Kai Clarke

This is a serious issue, regarding how the seller managed to get the customer’s email information. The problem is not in the aggressive offers after being turned down (although that is a separate issue), but how the seller could contact the customer in the first place. Amazon should be aggressive in following this up and penalizing the seller who violated this.

11 months 28 days ago
I live in China and Amazon sellers here have access to this info, as long as they are willing to pay … it’s no problem to get the buyer info, or even get the review deleted. Unfortunately, Amazon’s policies make it almost impossible to try and help customers with issues without using the services of unscrupulous agents leaking the info out of the back door. If somebody receives a faulty product and we want to contact them to make it right, we don’t have the email address, the address to send a replacement or even the ability to contact them unless they contact us first. How can you offer good customer service when your hands are tied like this? Less than 1% of buyers leave reviews, and typically disappointed customers will leave negative reviews, which of course makes it very important to deal with customer service — 1 or 2 negative feedbacks on a new product can kill its sales completely. I remember my 3PL warehouse made a mistake on a new range of products… Read more »
7 months 29 days ago

When you have a 3rd party seller emailing you, that’s a problem if they’re not supposed to have access to your info. But the bigger problem is them not telling you that what you’re buying is coming from Hong Kong or China. I’m going through an ordeal with one now that didn’t tell me, and I needed the product ASAP due to storms coming in. The product is still sitting in China. So I will be extra extra careful from now on.

"Amazon should continue to police sellers and monitor the situation."
"As a consumer, it’s suspicious to me if every review for a product is 5 stars."
"This problem isn’t limited to Amazon. It’s been happening for Yelp and even Glassdoor..."

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