Algorithmic merchandising leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly but surely, it will erode trust for all the tech giants.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
First the detail. Take a look at my search results for “Hydrogen Peroxide” on Amazon. I’ve annotated them with red text and arrows:
As you can see, the most eye catching suggestions – the four featured panels with large images – are all Amazon brands. Big red flag. But Amazon knows sophisticated shoppers like me are suspicious of those in house suggestions, so it’s included a similar product in the space below its own brands (we’ll get to that in a minute).
Above the featured items are ads: sponsored listings that are not Amazon brands, which means the advertiser (a small player named “Blubonic Industries”) is paying Amazon to get ahead of the company’s own promotional power. Either way, Amazon makes money. Second red flag.
By now, I’ve decided I’m not interested in either the sponsored brands at the top, or Amazon’s four featured brands, because, well, I don’t like to be so baldly steered into buying Amazon’s own products. Then again, before I move down to the results below, I do notice something rather amazing – Amazon’s familiar brown bottle of peroxide is really, really cheap – as in, $1.29 cheap. There’s even a helpful per oz. calculation next to the price, screaming: this shit is eight pennies an ounce cheap!
Well, I’m almost sold, but because I hate to be directed into purchases, I’m still going to consider that similar brown bottle below, the one with the red label. Amazon knows this, of course. It’s merchandising 101 – make sure you give the consumer choices, but also, make sure the most profitable choice is presented in such a way as to win the day.
So my eye moves down the page to check out the second bottle. It’s from Swan, a brand I’ve vaguely heard of. Then I check its price.
Nine dollars and sixty nine cents.
Which would you buy? After all, this is a staple, a basic, a chemical compound. And you trust Amazon to get shit right, don’t you? I mean, a buck and change – nearly nine times cheaper? What a deal!
So…my eyes revert to Amazon’s blue labeled bottle. It wouldn’t have a four-star plus review if it burned your skin, right? And that’s when I notice the tiny icon next to it, which looks like this:
What’s this? Is this yet another annoying subscription service? Ever since we moved to New York, my wife and I have tried to figure out Amazon’s subscription services (Fresh? Pantry? Prime Now? Whole Foods Delivery? Who knows?!). I’m already deeply suspicious of any attempt by Amazon to lure me into paying them monthly for a service that I don’t understand.
But…a buck twenty nine! So I click on the bottle, and the landing page is super clean, and there’s no obvious Prime Pantry mention. Plus, it turns out, that bottle from Amazon is the Whole Foods generic brand, which for whatever reason seems a bit better than a generic Amazon brand. Did I just get lucky? Maybe I can just get some super cheap chemicals delivered in a day to my door, and my annoying hangnail will be a thing of the past soon enough….Right?
Here’s the landing page:
Looks great, the price is amazing, but…Uh oh. I can’t get this bottle of peroxide until Sunday. By then, I’ve likely lost my finger to a flesh eating bacteria. As I feared, this bottle is nothing more than a baited fish hook for one of Amazon’s subscription offers – which I find out, will cost somewhere between five and thirteen bucks a month. I’ve signed up for Prime Pantry by mistake in the past, and it wasn’t a smooth or enjoyable experience. No thanks. I click back to the original search results. Seems to me Amazon is gaming the shipping deals.
Well of course it is. I’m no longer a happy Amazon customer at this point. Now I’m just annoyed.
But what’s this? If I scroll down below the $9.69 bottle, there’s another choice, also from Swan, and, it seems, exactly the same, if one is to judge just by the image (and we do judge just from the images, let’s just admit it). This one costs almost half as much as the one above it. What’s going on?! Here’s an annotated screen shot:
As you can see, there’s a lot going on. I’ve narrowed my choice down to two non-Amazon brands. They look nearly identical. The most significant difference, at least in terms of the information provided to me by Amazon, is the price – the top bottle is nearly twice as expensive as the bottom one. But the top bottle has a major benefit: I can get it nearly immediately! The bottom one makes me wait a day. Is the wait worth four or five bucks? Hmm.
Also confounding: The bottom bottle has its price broken out on a per ounce basis – 32 cents, exactly four times more than the 8 cents-an-ounce bottle I just looked at from Amazon’s Prime Pantry. Ouch! Now I’m really annoyed, and confused. My eyes dart back up to the $9.69 bottle. As I’ve shown with the empty red circle, there’s….no per-ounce breakdown shown by Amazon. It does tell me that this particular bottle is 32 ounces, whereas the bottom one is 16 ounces.
But why not do the math for me? A quick calculation shows that the top bottle comes out to about 30 cents an ounce – two cents less than the bottom bottle. Why not show that fact?
This, folks, this is algorithmic merchandising at its finest.
Amazon knows exactly how many clicks it’s going to take for me to reach shopping fatigue. Not “on average for all shoppers,” or even “on average for each shopper who’s ever considered a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.” Amazon knows all of that, of course, but it also knows exactly how long it takes ME to get fatigued, to enter what I like to call “fuck it” mode. As in, “fuck it, I’m tired of this bullshit, I want to get back to the rest of my life. I’m going to buy one of these bottles.”
And because there’s no per-ounce breakdown of the 32-ounce bottle, and because that makes me suspicious of it, and because hell, who ever needs 32 ounces of hydrogen peroxide anyway, well, I’m just going to buy the $5 one.
Ca-ching! Amazon just made a nearly seven percent markup on my purchase. It took five clicks, 15 seconds, and a vast architecture of data and algorithmic mastery to make that profit. Each and every time we purchase something on Amazon, that machinery is engaged in the background, guiding us through choices which insure the company remains the trillion dollar behemoth we know and…
Do you love Amazon anymore? For that matter, do you love Facebook, Google, or Twitter? Interactions like the one I’ve detailed above are starting to chip away at that presumption. Personally, I’ve gone from cheerleader to skeptic over the past few years, and I’m broken out into full-blown critic over the last twelve months. I no longer trust Amazon to have my best interests at heart. I’ve lost any trust that Facebook or Twitter can deliver me a public square representative of my democracy. I’ve given up on Google delivering me search results that are truly “organic.” And YouTube? Point solution, at best. I can’t possibly trust the autoplay feature to do much more than waste my time.
What’s happened to our beloved tech icons, and what are the implications of this lost trust? In future posts, I plan on thinking out loud on that topic. I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, I think I’ll stroll down to CVS and buy myself another bottle of hydrogen peroxide. By the time Amazon’s comes, I’m sure my hangnail will be a distant memory. But that taste in my mouth? That’s going to remain.