Does Amazon Banning Customers Go Against Everything It Stands For?
For as long as it’s been around, Amazon has made it’s name and built its brand on a single concept: being the most customer-centric organization in the world. That statement is literally the crux of Amazon’s mission statement. And Jeff Bezos and crew are, for the most part, hell bent on maintaining that image, even if doing so pits it against sellers and brands that utilize the platform.
There’s no denying the success that Amazon has had in fulfilling its mission. Since it first starting turning a profit in 2003, the company has experienced extraordinary and exponential growth each and every year. It’s annual revenue in the most recently reported year was almost $178 billion, up more than $40 million over the previous year. In Dealerscope’s 2018 Top 101 ranking of consumer electronics retailers, Amazon claimed the top spot for the first time in the history of the report. More than half of the company’s revenue was generated in electronics and media sales, according to Statista.
Beyond the numbers and revenue, a simply glance at business headlines on a given day will tell you everything you need to about Amazon. There’s only one company that retailers are fighting against as they seek to remain relevant. And with all of the new services that Amazon seems to launch on a daily basis, they’re struggling to do so.
A major reason for that struggle is because of how Amazon has been able to remain true to its mission statement. They’ve put the customer first. They’ve made it incredibly easy for any consumer to shop on their platform and get the products they need, as quickly as they need them. They’ve also built a tremendous amount of trust with their massive customer base. In fact, a study published earlier this month found that Amazon was ranked as the most-trusted retail brand, besting some familiar faces in Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and Apple.
Trust can easily be broken however. And Amazon appears to be heading down a path where it may already be in violation of its most important functions as a business.
The past week or so has brought about several reports of Amazon moving to ban customers who return things too often—nothing new, but this time around it seems to be getting a tremendous amount of traction on social media. The Wall Street Journal, which initiated the latest round of reporting, spoke with customers who said their accounts had been closed or deactivated—sometimes without warning—when they were found to be “creating headaches” for Amazon.
In response to the report, an Amazon spokesperson told the Journal that the company doesn’t take the decision to ban customers lightly. “We want everyone to be able to use Amazon, but there are rare occasions where someone abuses our service over an extended period of time,” they said. “With over 300 million customers around the world, we take action when appropriate to protect the experience for all our customers.”
According to the Journal though, some of those abuses over an “extended period of time” totaled maybe a handful of items over a two-year period. Another saw her account permanently banned for reporting “an unusual number of problems” with her orders. And in a Guardian report from 2016, an Amazon customer claimed they were banned after returning 37 out of 343 purchases over a handful of years.
To be fair, it’s not clear in the reports whether there were other extenuating circumstances with the customers who spoke with the Journal or Guardian. And in its return policy, Amazon doesn’t specify a limit on returns. They do, however, state in their terms of service that they reserve the right to “refuse service, terminate accounts, terminate your rights to use Amazon Services, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion.” That’s a lot of power over the customer for a company that’s become something pretty close to an essential service.
A Returns Catch 22
There are many reasons why Amazon has experienced such a quick rise to the top of the retail industry. But one of the perceived best benefits available to customers has been the “no hassle” returns process.
If anything, it’s that benefit alone that has caused the greatest headache for the rest of the retail community. By allowing customers to regularly return items purchased on its website, Amazon conditioned customers to expect that same benefit from every retailer. To their credit, plenty of retailers have tried to match what Amazon has done with speedy deliveries and easy returns—a process dubbed the Amazon Effect—but it’s come at a serious cost.
It’s no secret that e-commerce logistics are an expensive venture. It’s far cheaper for the retailer if a customer buys an item in the store (or even online) and then comes back into the physical location if they need to execute an exchange or return. There’s still a cost, but it’s far less than having to cover the additional expenses tacked on by having the item returned through the mail. So as retailers try to keep their customers happy and operate like their own version of Amazon, they’re seeing their margins get crushed. And that Amazon Effect only gets exacerbated by the fact that customers today will regularly order three or four of an item—particularly in the apparel industry to, say, try on different sizes of the same article of clothing—find the one that works best, and return the other two or three.
So it’s no wonder then, why some retailers have already started to crack down on customers who return things too frequently or in above average quantities.
The problem, though, is that Amazon appears to have joined that list, which flies in the face of everything they supposedly stand for. It’s an unfortunate catch 22 for them, but they’re the ones who created this environment by promising to be so customer-centric. If they start to walk back on that promise, all they’d be doing is showing their customers that they care less about their needs and more about their own bottom line.
And if that really is the case, all of the trust that Amazon has built up with customers could come crashing down.
Rather than handing out lifetime bans like they’re Major League Baseball, Amazon (or any retailer) should go to the source and attempt to learn more about what’s causing the customer to return so many items. Perhaps it’s an issue with the marketplace seller; or it could be an error in the logistics process that resulted in a damaged product; or maybe there’s an issue with the product page being misleading. Whatever the excuse, it’d be more prudent from a customer service perspective to actively try to resolve the issue with the customer. And no, canned corporate emails aren’t an acceptable alternative to a personal one-on-one interaction with the customer.
If you’re going to tout yourself as the world’s most customer-centric company, you need to be practicing what you preach.