Amazon throws user satisfaction out the window?

Published in Contingency Design on Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Via 9rules, I came across the write up in the New York Times of fellow 9r member Derek Punsalan. The article is titled Missing From Internet: Avid Shoppers’ Sharp Elbows, but it might just have well been titled "Missing from the Internet: A Satisfiable Shopping Experience".

Note: Some bits edited and added a few hours after posting, mostly things I mention in the comments below.

The time/volume limited sale

I buy a lot of stuff online, from plane tickets to books to electronics and gifts for friends back home. While I tend to have a happy experience for the most part - Amazon included - there are always some experiences that are very, very frustrating. In this case I'm going to focus on one sub-section of these poor experiences: the time/volume limited sale.

Many of us have experienced this for ourselves. Login to buy concert tickets online, only to have the website in question cough up a blank screen for 5 minutes and then magically it comes up telling us the concert is sold out.

Or, take Derek's experience:

Many were sorely disappointed. Derek Punsalan, a 23-year-old Web designer in Seattle, kept clicking until 4 a.m., when he went to bed. He was back when the Wii finally went on sale at 8 a.m. but missed his chance to get one; the $250 consoles sold out in less than a minute.

Sound familiar? Well, it certainly does for me, and do you know why this situation is so familiar and only going to get worse? Let me quote from the article one Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman:

“Everything went off without a hitch on our end,” said Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman. “If folks waited up, we certainly appreciate them and love their passion for wanting to buy a product from Amazon.”

Nice. It worked out for them, or did it?

I think their market is probably more important to them then selling a few Wiis. You would think that pissing off consumers is a hitch, contrary to the quote above. At any rate, the consumer feels the pain.

Now, there are two things worth mentioning here: 1. I could very well be missing something important from before or after Mr. Berman's quote and 2. Amazon is a big player and maybe they will do something to nip this experience in the bud. However I'm not holding my breath that this situation goes away from the web anytime soon, if ever.

For people who deal with systems and situations like that described above, is there no contingency design that could improve this experience?

Greed versus doing it right

For many retailers, solving this technology and hardware issue just isn't a priority. "The market is so large, why bother?" may be the cynical reality. And guess what, it may only get worse:

The issue may become more significant as more online retailers try using doorbusters. Amazon plans its first doorbuster sale this Thursday morning at 11 a.m., offering a limited supply of a highly discounted item.

The unfortunate reality

Great. What it boils down to is if it is really important, sure, try the web, but maybe better to stick to bricks and mortar. Is this the unfortunate reality of online commerce?

Comments and Feedback

If Amazon only has x number of Wii's to sell, what are they supposed to do? How is waiting on-line to buy a product with limited quantity any different than waiting in line at Best Buy? I guess I'd be interested in hearing how you would have liked Amazon to handle this type of situation. "Amazon throws user satisfaction out the window" sounds a little extreme to me.

In my opinion, the root cause of the problem is manufacturers not being able to produce enough product to meet demand.

Hey Jay, thanks for the comment. I'll admit that the title was a bit extreme, but I think it's valid. Looking at that quote from Amazon (of which I don't have the full context), to me it says Hey it worked out for us, so we'll keep on doing it.

Now, if you read the NYT article, Amazon does go on to say how they could perhaps do this better, and that is what it is all about.

How is waiting on-line to buy a product with limited quantity any different than waiting in line at Best Buy?

At Best Buy, you will likely know the quantity and the time the store opens. Here none of that was on offer. If someone tells me that they have 500 Wiis available online and at what time they will be available, I'll be able to decide whether to line up at Best Buy rather then waste my time online. Don't make it appear mysterious, be forthcoming with the details.

One more thing WRT the title, I am more asking the question and presenting some of the facts. I doubt they are not going to pay attention to this, but that quote the way it's presented in the NY Times really struck me:

Everything went off without a hitch on our end

Well, no, it didn't. You have pissed people off, consumers who use your site!! Last time I checked, Amazon needs consumers, so from their end, they sold some Wiis but pissed off a lot of people. Which is more important?

What worries me is that (maybe) they don't have to care. I hope they do.

The real problem wasn't the limited supply, it was the fact that Amazon neglected to consider the fact that consumers might deserve an ETA time for launch. This weeks $100 XBox deal received an ETA of 11AM. Why is the Wii any different? Does a product launch mean hey, let's make this a proverbial Jack 'n the box and see how many people get 'Jack'?

Fair enough. I agree with the launch time and that they should have posted it. You might want to forward your complaint to Amazon. It may end up in the right hands or it may not, but it's worth a shot.

I tend to view the doorbuster approach to marketing quite negatively and have refused to participate in such things for years. To me its a poor attempt to generate hype and shows a disregard for the customer. I would rather see something along the lines of a pre-order waiting list: "you are order number x of y orders". I suspect that the disappointment of not making the "chosen few" works against the positive image that most businesses would like to have. I've been quite satisfied with Amazon in the past but knowing that they are taking this approach is one of the things that reduces my customer loyalty to them.

Playing the side of the devil's advocate....Amazon accomplished their goal to market their site and products. Beyond the group of consumers who were angry because they were not able to get a Wii, Amazon probably generated plenty of other non-Nintendo revenue and buzz. Not knowing the time of release gives people time to wander around the site to find other products to buy. Don't get me wrong, I agree with your stance. I hate "doorbusters" and refuse to participate, but there are PLENTY of other fish in the sea. What's a few angry or lost cunsumers versus many gained. We see the bad side, but Amazon sees the positive gain for their business and really don't care about the few....yet. If your voices are many and loud, they'll eventually change their tactics.

Home » Blog » Contingency Design

Check out the blog categories for older content

The latest from my personal website,

SiteUptime Web Site Monitoring Service

Sitepoint's web devlopment books have helped me out on many occasions both for finding a quick solution to a problem but also to level out my knowlegde in weaker areas (JavaScript, I'm looking at you!). I am recommending the following titles from my bookshelf:

The Principles Of Successful Freelancing

I started freelancing by diving in head first and getting on with it. Many years and a lot of experience later I was still able to take away some gems from this book, and there are plenty I wish I had thought of beforehand. If you are new to freelancing and have a lot of questions (or maybe don't know what questions to ask!) do yourself a favor and at least check out the sample chapters.

The Art & Science Of JavaScript

The author line-up for this book says it all. 7 excellent developers show you how to get your JavaScript coding up to speed with 7 chapters of great theory, code and examples. Metaprogramming with JavaScript (chapter 5 from Dan Webb) really helped me iron out some things I was missing about JavaScript. That said each chapter really helped me to develop my JavaScript skills beyond simple Ajax calls and html insertion with libs like JQuery.

The PHP Anthology: 101 Essential Tips, Tricks & Hacks

Like the other books listed here, this provides a great reference for the PHP developer looking to have the right answers from the right people at their fingertips. I tend to pull this off the shelf when I need to delve into new territory and usually find a workable solution to keep development moving. This only needs to happen once and you recoup the price of the book in time saved from having to develop the solution or find the right pattern for getting the job done..