Jeff Bezos founded Amazon with the mission to be ‘Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company’. Amazon has, indeed, set global benchmarks for how to treat a consumer. A quick Google search will throw up innumerable articles, blogs and management books that extol Amazon’s consumer focus and offer tips on how to emulate it (three ways, five ways, seven ways to be customer-centric like Amazon, etc). Jeff Bezos is so obsessed with customer service that he is known to leave an empty chair at the conference table, telling attendees that it was occupied by the “the most important person in the room”—the customer.
But, if you were at a panel discussion organised by the ministry of consumer affairs (MCoA) to celebrate World Consumer Day on 15th March, you would wonder if we were talking about the same company in India. Before going into details, a caveat. My experience with Amazon has been excellent, especially for Amazon fulfilled products (delivered directly by Amazon), usually cash on delivery (CoD), barring one exception. But more about that later.
At the MCoA discussion, which was titled, “Consumer Disputes Resolution in the Digital Age”, a couple of activists raised issues about Amazon that should have put Jeff Bezos on the next flight to India. Instead, Avinash Ramachandra, Amazon’s director, public policy (who was also on the panel), hasn’t found time to respond to my emailed questions for five days now, despite a reminder. Here are Amazon’s issues in India, a country that is important to Mr Bezos.
Fraud and Fakes: An activist with one of India’s largest consumer organisations purchased a cosmetic product made by a large multinational company (MNC) through Amazon. When it was over, she purchased the same product again. The second time around, she noticed that the label looked different, so she compared it with her previous purchase. It was, indeed, different. She wrote to the manufacturer and was told that the product was a fake. The MNC, quite correctly, refused to accept responsibility. The MNC told her that it has told Amazon about fakes and provided it with a list of its official distributors. Amazon’s response was rather stunning.
Mr Ramchandra claimed that Amazon cannot be held responsible for allowing fakes to be sold from its platform, because the government does not allow it to be a direct retailer and it can only operate as an online marketplace. Consequently, it cannot control products that come into its pipeline, beyond preliminary checks. Why did it not accept products only from official distributors of the company? The Amazon representative said that the MNC should get them a court order to that effect.
If anyone figures out why the world’s most customer-centric company needs a legal order to ensure it sells only genuine products, rather than harmful fake ones, please tell us. Meanwhile, we would like to know what Amazon means when its website promises 100% purchase protection, which includes a guarantee of genuine products. The website says, “Sellers are committed to sell only genuine products to customers on Amazon.in. All sellers listing their products on Amazon.in are required to enter an agreement to list and sell only genuine products.” Are these mere words?
Three Strikes and Out: The consumer activist asked why a distributor caught selling a fake product was not blacklisted immediately. Moreover, when Amazon realises it has sold fakes (especially cosmetics), shouldn’t there be a recall of all products supplied by that seller? Amazon had no answer. Instead, Mr Ramachandra went into an elaborate explanation of Amazon’s policies and how sellers who indulge in dubious practices are given three warnings before being blacklisted. Should every seller get three chances, no matter how serious the offence? Forget about product recalls, the consumer activist said that the seller continues to operate on Amazon.
We were also told about Amazon’s system of user-driven customer reviews, where even the most negative ratings are faithfully listed. This, again, is a half-truth. Certain issues, especially problems in Amazon’s service delivery, are not allowed to be uploaded by its algorithm. Consider my own example. I purchased a dhurrie from Amazon that had no CoD option and was to be delivered a good nine days later, which I could track online. There was a courier number of DHL. However, things came to a halt when the product was actually to be delivered. On receiving no further information, I called DHL only to find that the parcel number listed there was false, since DHL only handles international deliveries (first lie).
On escalating the issue through a chat, Amazon gave me the seller’s number and asked me to connect with him. A conversation with the seller’s representative was an eye-opener. He claimed he did not have my number (second lie). He also admitted that the parcel had not been couriered at all, but he had brought it along since he was going to be at a fair in Mumbai. He further said that he could only deliver the product three days later when the fair ended. It seemed pointless to cancel the order, if the product was in the city. I agreed. On the day of delivery, the seller told me that the product I had ordered wasn’t available (he probably sold it at the fair) and offered me other options (he sent photos on WhatsApp). By then, I was fed up of the whole experience and wasn’t looking at another battle to get my money back. So, I accepted an alternative which was smaller than the product I had purchased.
From Amazon’s perspective, I needn’t have accepted the alternative product, so I have no complaints about it. But wouldn’t a customer-centric company want to know about the resolution of an escalated complaint? Was the seller even reprimanded for the multiple lies and shoddy delivery? Did it trigger any of the three strikes? I have no clue; nor did I hear any regret for the mess. Instead, a month later, just after the 15th March consumer seminar I referred to, I received a routine mailer asking me to review the product. On trying to post my experience as a review, I was startled to find it got rejected. On reading the review guidelines, I gathered that only product-related details are permitted; service issues need to be mailed as feedback. I didn’t find any feedback button!
Apni Dukaan or Haat/Marketplace?
Amazon’s peppy advertisements encourage you to consider it as ‘Apni Dukaan’, or your own shop. But that is false. Mr Ramachandra insisted that Amazon is merely a marketplace—like a ‘haat’ or fair—where different producers stock their goods and take responsibility for what they sell. He seemed to argue that it was the government’s fault that Amazon wasn’t allowed to be a retailer, and so its services in India weren’t what the world has come to accept.
But hasn’t Amazon come to India with its eyes open and chosen to operate in this market, with all the constraints? Whatever may be my sympathies on the policy issue, how can Amazon use this as an excuse for something as egregious as the sale of fake products in Apni Dukaan? Remember, Amazon is already facing a class action overseas for the practice of bumping up product prices to be able to show a fantastic deal. There have been such complaints in India to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which has upheld the charges of misleading advertising, despite Amazon’s aggressive legal defence.
Since all this was played out before the secretary and top officials of the MCoA, one will also wait to see whether they are even alive to the issues of online retail and the much-touted digital policy of the government. More importantly, if this is the situation with Amazon, which is consumer-focused, one can only wonder what is happening with scores of other online ‘marketplaces’ that have been proliferating over the past decade.