Amazon Black Friday warning – ‘stolen’ reviews, system abuse and don’t trust Alexa
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While many business are struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon is booming.
Amazon has benefited from lockdown, with Spring sales up by 40%, making an astonishing £1.6 billion in profits every month.
Nearly 90% of us use Amazon and it's the first place 70% of people go when searching to buy something on the internet.
Black Friday is nearly upon us and Christmas is fast approaching, but should shoppers trust Amazon?
Channel 4 have uncovered some questionable practises and underhand tactics being used on the site on in new documentary series The Truth About Amazon: How to Shop Smart.
Some sellers are 'stealing' reviews to make their products look better, while Amazon can push us to buy products that are not the best value.
And leaving personal assistant Alexa to take over the reigns of the shopping can be a bad idea.
As Helen Skelton and Sabrina Grant investigate the online retailer, here is a look at some of their findings:
Buy Box not pushing best deals
The Buy Box has such an important role that many people don't realise
(Image: Channel 4)
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Amazon users may not think too heavily about the Buy Box, but it's one of the most hotly contested areas of the internet.
The Buy Box allows buyers to quickly add to the their basket or buy in one click, which makes life a lot easier but not necessarily cheaper.
It is used to determine that preselected seller whose product is put in your shopping cart – and with more than 80% of all Amazon sales going through the Buy Box it can make or break a business.
If you can't win the Buy Box at least enough of the time to generate meaningful sales then there's basically no point being on Amazon.
The lucrative spot is awarded by Amazon's algorithms, with low prices and sellers loyal to Amazon's services coming higher.
But Amazon favour themselves most of the time over a third party seller, even when it isn't the cheapest seller.
James Thompson, who was was a Senior Executive at Amazon for six years, doesn't believe the Buy Box is fair on sellers or customers.
Helen Skelton has a warning for online shoppers
(Image: Channel 4)
"I don't understand how that works because often those products are on the same physical shelf in an Amazon warehouse and the same Amazon employee is picking an Amazon unit or third party seller off the same shelf, putting in same box and shipping in same way to the consumer. Yet Amazon gets the tie-breaker in situations like that," he says.
"These are the sorts of things regulators are going to have to look at and decide, 'Is that fair?' For all intents and purposes, because consumers don't know any different, all they see is a Prime eligible product that is low-priced being shipped to them quickly. As far as they're concerned they're getting a good experience."
If you click past the Buy Box then you can save a serious amount of money, but many customers are unaware of this.
In response, Amazon told the programme: "All of the Amazon retail and independent sellers' offers compete to be one of the featured offers based on the same criteria.
"Customers preference depends on which offer we feature. The vast majority of customers who take the time to compare all the non-featured offers ultimately select the offer we've featured on the product page, which confirms we've done a good job predicting what customers want."
Reviews can be 'stolen'
Reviews for chargers were being taken over by ones for cat trees
(Image: Channel 4)
Many shoppers rely heavily on reviews when deciding whether to buy a product, but they should not be taken at face value.
A report in May this year found that 58% of products on Amazon were accompanied by a fake review.
Earlier this year, Amazon was forced to delete over 20,000 fake reviews and claims to be relentless in tracking them down.
But another way that sellers are abusing the system has been uncovered.
The Channel 4 investigators have found that some sellers are stealing five-star ratings from their well-liked products and attaching them onto their other listings.
Katie Woodhead, who used to manage online sales for one of the UK's most recognisable brand names, explains they find one high ranking product then list connected items with bad reviews to that, which gives them an average better rating.
The way this functionality is designed by Amazon is completely above board because if you, for example, had the same jumper in multiple sizes you would want those linked together, but the system is being abused.
Katie Woodhead says Amazon's system is being used by sellers
(Image: Channel 4)
Katie says: "It happens a lot. A lot of the smaller sellers especially will do this to get credibility for new items that haven't got many sales or haven't been seen by many people yet.
"They think, 'We'll connect this to the superstar product so that it is pushed up in the results a lot higher'. It's not th e way Amazon intended for it to be used at all."
The investigation found that popular products had their ratings boosted by reviews on a series of unrelated items.
A 'dog casino' for pets, which had more than 17,354 reviews and a 4.3-star average rating, had pooled reviews from the whole dog toy range.
Good reviews are being 'hijacked' then planted on the pages for completely different new products.
When searching for headphone adapters, they found that some enthusiastic reviews were for things like an inflatable birthing pool, remote-controlled helicopters, screen protectors, pens and cat trees.
Helen Skelton & Sabrina Grant have been investigating Amazon
(Image: This picture may be used solely for Channel 4 programme publicity purposes in connection with the programme(s). This picture is cleared for editorial purposes, but not for any form of printed advertising or commercial products. Not to be reproduced or redistributed for any other use without the prior written consent of Channel 4 Picture Publicity. (Channel 4 images must not be altered or manipulated in any way).)
Neema Bahti from Which? magazine, who investigates fake reviews, explains customers can be misled over the popularity and quality of products.
"You have to actually start reading and doing a bit of your own sleuthing to see, 'Are these reviews actually genuine? Are they talking about the product that I'm actually looking to buy?'," she said.
"It shouldn't be the case and that's why we really do think that online sites need to do much more to ensure that the reviews that they have online are genuine and can be trusted by those that are shopping on their sites."
Amazon are taking a stand and, when informed of specific hijacked reviews by Channel 4, removed them all the same day.
A set of adapters went from having 600 reviews and a 4.6-star rating to just three reviews and a one-star rating, while another set dropped from 4,520 reviews and a 4.6-star rating to zero.
Amazon explained: "We encourage customers who are concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product to use the 'Report Abuse' link.
‘We…have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features. We suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies."
Should you trust Alexa?
Alexa might not be good for ordering certain items
(Image: Channel 4)
Amazon wants Alexa to be your best friend and sort all your daily needs without even picking up your laptop or phone.
The digital assistant is in hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and is there to make our lives easier.
James Moore, expert in digital trends, believes Alexa is Amazon's way of keeping up spending on the site while allowing them to keep on growing.
"Amazon is using Alexa to control the whole process of buying from the 'Oh I need this' sort of moment all the way through to 'this is the product and this is what you need to pay for it'.
"It gives Amazon a very integrated platform to control the whole E-commerce buying process.
"Having a voice assistant platform will make it easier to see Amazon as a monopoly overall as you can keep people in that ecosystem."
On a laptop you can browse the items and pick the ones you want, while someone using Alexa is limited to the ones offered.
Alexa is in a wide range of devises
The programme's experiment found Alexa was a little bit more expensive, but had made some odd decisions.
Where items were cheaper with Alexa it was usually because of quality and on three items Alexa decided to bulk buy, while the striking thing was not a single item matched.
James explains that Alexa is useful for basics that you don't need to think about, such as toilet roll or washing up liquid, but not for high-valued items like phones.
If more of us shop with Alexa there are enormous benefits for Amazon based around the data, such as when requests were made and how quickly they were resolved.
"It allows them to home what they offer you and when. It's allowing them to refine recommendations in whatever context you're in," he adds.
Alexa is now being put into light switches, thermostats and microwaves – anywhere you can request information.
The advice is to use Alexa for single basic purchases and ordering once before on a phone or laptop so Alexa remembers your quantity and brand preferences.
Used goods can be more expensive
An advert for Amazon Renewed – the place to buy refurbished electrical goods
(Image: Channel 4)
Amazon Renewed has all sort of pre-owned and refurbished electrical goods that they will look and work as if they were new – with a one year guarantee.
They promise some amazing savings, coming in up to 40% cheaper than their brand new equivalent, as well as being sustainable.
But tech journalist Rhiannon Williams thinks there is more to Amazon's enthusiasm for renewed goods than saving us money.
"Appearing to be sustainable and part of the environmental conversation, there is no bigger issue for tech comapnies. They all want to be seen as the greenest and care the most.
Channel 4 uncovered a fundamental floor in Amazon Renewed – multiple examples of the difference in price being less than £1 – so it's not very tempting.
While some refurbished products were actually more expensive than brand spanking new one.
Ironically, also found on this year's Prime Day that Amazon Echo Dot's had their prices slashed by 62%, but mysteriously all the refurbished versions disappeared from the site on the same day.
Amazon said: "On 2020, the average discount on the Renewed store was of 35% versus the new equivalent of the product.
"One of the requirements for a product to be sold on Renewed is a minimum 5% discount versus the new-equivalent price.
"We monitor the store to identify and suspend any offers that do not meet this minimum discount."
There are good savings to have on the Renewed store if you know where to look, mainly on high valued items such as phones and cameras.
High street shops cheaper
Jack Stratton says the high street is undercutting itself
(Image: Channel 4)
We're constantly being encouraged to go out to the high street to spend our money, which has been tough during lockdown.
But another reason we haven't been going there, as well as the convenience factor of home delivery, is that it's cheaper to buy their products on Amazon.
Even more surprising, is that some brands allow their products to be sold cheaper on Amazon than on their own websites.
This means the high street feels it has to undercut itself just to compete.
Retail trends consultant Jack Stratton believes high street stores are "surrendering" value shopping data to Amazon.
He says: "Amazon are able to sell more and make more commission through the third party sellers but also they learn loads of stuff through those third party sellers that helps them to improve their own products and make more profit from them. And also target their advertising towards the right people."
With more sellers, Amazon can refine their algorithms to get exactly the right price and product presented at right moment, which is better for customers.
Jack adds: "They're saying, 'We use trends from all of those sellers to inform what's selling and what's not'. That's why sometimes Amazon might sell a similar product on its own label to a third party seller but the price might be slightly different because they're working out actually what the right price point is."
Amazon said it didn't use private seller data to decide which own label products to launch.
Helen and Sabrina found that many high street shops will price match with Amazon or even go lower when challenged, so this actually helps customers out.
*The Truth About Amazon: How to Shop Smart is available on All 4