An interesting flaw (or feature?) in Amazon's marketplace

By Tom Moertel
Posted on
Tags: amazon, marketplace, buyer, seller, contract, contract

Recently, I discovered an interesting flaw – or is it a feature? – in Amazon.com’s marketplace.

It all started when I bought economist Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. I had been reading an old printing from the library, but it was riddled with highlighting; now I wanted a clean copy to read without distractions.

On Amazon.com, I found exactly what I wanted. A third-party seller had listed a new copy for just $6.50. I bought it.

Shortly after the order, Amazon sent me an email confirming that my book had been shipped. In the email, the book was described as follows:

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States
Sold by: XXXXXXX
Condition: new
Quantity: 1
$6.50 each

Here’s where things get interesting. Around the time I received the shipment notice, I also received a cryptic communication from the seller:

I wish I had a pristine copy to send you but, while this book has wear at its front, I am confident it will serve you well, as it served me.

I didn’t think much of it until I received the book a week later. The book was, of course, riddled with highlighting.

Confused, I went back to Amazon.com to figure out what went wrong. I logged in, clicked on the order listing, and was shown the following summary of my order:

1 of: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States [Paperback]
By: Albert O. Hirschman
Condition: Used – Good
Sold by: XXXXXXX (seller profile)

Note that the condition is now listed as “Used – Good”, not new as it had been when I placed the order. Amazon allowed the item I had ordered to be changed after I had ordered it[]( What’s worse, Amazon now lists the changed item on the final invoice for the purchase.

In effect, Amazon has rewritten the history of my order. It’s as if I had ordered a used copy of the book in the first place. I’m lucky I kept that original email) Without it, how could I document what I had actually ordered?

Like most people, when I order something online, I expect that clicking the order button forms an implicit agreement between buyer and seller: in exchange for my money, the seller will deliver the product that I ordered, as it was represented to me when I placed the order.

That Amazon allows this agreement to be rewritten – behind the buyer’s back – seems like a huge flaw in its marketplace. It’s such an obvious flaw that I have a hard time believing it exists. Amazon is very good at the buyer-experience game; if it allows this “flaw” to exist, my hunch is that there must be a good reason for it. The trouble is, I can’t think of what that reason might be.

But my hunch is made more plausible by Amazon’s A-to-z Guarantee. Knowing that the guarantee will protect customers affected by the flaw gives Amazon the option of not fixing it. My guess, then, is that Amazon’s engineers thought about fixing the “flaw,” discovered a good reason not to, and decided to leave it alone.

Which raises the question, what is a compelling reason to allow a buyer-seller agreement to be changed after the fact and behind the buyer’s back?

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