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Salesforce Commerce Solution Guide

Amazon Power User Excommunicated

By Quinten Plummer
Mar 23, 2016 5:00 AM PT

Amazon has carved another notch in its belt, adding one more customer to what it has called a "tiny fraction of cases" of people guilty of making too many returns.

The company banned Greg Nelson, a computer programmer, from shopping at the site because he returned 37 of 343 items purchased, The Guardian reported last week.

The returned products were damaged, faulty or not as described, Nelson asserted, but Amazon demanded a more detailed justification for the returns before it would consider lifting the ban.

On top of having his account closed, Nelson lost access to unspent funds trapped on gift cards, he said, which struck him as questionable from a legal perspective.

The computer programmer had been a "fervently loyal fan" of Amazon since 2002, he told the paper.

Although he acknowledged that Amazon must protect its business, he found the company's actions in banning him to be "totally egregious."

A Matter of Policy

From fine art and collectibles to game downloads and gift cards, Amazon offers specific return policies depending on the category. However, nowhere in its return policies does the company mention limits.

This isn't the first time Amazon has closed an account on the grounds that an unspecified limit on returns had been reached. Katy Kilmarton lost unused balances on her gift cards and had her Amazon Prime membership canceled early this year after she returned 30 items out of 112, The Guardian pointed out.

While these cases appear to be rare, they might do more harm to Amazon than good, sugested Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"By almost any measure, the cost of absorbing returned items is minimal compared to the Internet's ability to transform bad publicity into brand damage, especially if a mere 'tiny fraction' of Amazon customers is involved," King told the E-Commerce Times.

Head On

More brand damage may be one of the last things Amazon needs right now.

The company already has been "running on a brand deficit" as a result of the 2015 New York Times piece that told of long hours and a brutally competitive work environment for Amazon employees, noted Trish McDermott, cofounder of Panic Media Training.

"Customers, like employees, are Amazon stakeholders, and their perception of the Amazon brand is important to the company's overall success," she told the E-Commerce Times. "Care must be taken to weigh any forward-facing practices against the potential brand buzz, positive or negative, they may generate."

Regardless of how much truth there is to the claims of Amazon banning customers over excessive returns, such reports could cause high-volume consumers to loose faith in the company, noted McDermott -- and that is where messaging becomes critical.

"Amazon's reluctance to speak to the press can contribute to the negative buzz a policy like this generates," she said. "What is the definition of excess? Is the company more or less favorable to certain types of returns? Will I be banned if my daughter's bathing suit doesn't fit correctly?"

If there truly are legitimate reasons and hard metrics on discerning bad luck from abuse, then Amazon needs to offer customers transparency.

"Address the reasonableness of your customer base. Be frank and unapologetic," said McDermott.

If there is a problem with the return policy, it's best to address it as soon as possible, she said, and Amazon has to remember that "no comment" is indeed a comment.

"I would like to see the company getting in front of communications like this," McDermott added. "I think Amazon's customers would too."

Rate Your Experience

Many consumers already feel that they've been wronged by a retailer at sometime or another, observed Pund-IT's King. Those feelings arise from cases ranging from the receipt of poorly crafted products to policies that marginalize customers.

"The move to e-commerce has exacerbated that situation, with some online retailers making it difficult or impossible for clients to engage directly with a company representative to clarify or settle disagreements," he pointed out. "In short, I expect most consumers would side with the customer in this case, rather than Amazon."

Quinten Plummer is a longtime technology reporter and an avid PC gamer who explored local news for a few years, covering law enforcement and government beats, before returning to writing about things run by ones and zeros and the people who make them. If it pushes pixels or improves lives, he wants to learn all he can about it.

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