Pissed-off Toff

Amazon – the Artful Predator

in Big Issues

Here’s how Amazon picks your pocket … “for your own convenience,” as they put it.

I recently bought a book via Amazon, and when I proceeded to the on-line check-out I was given various delivery options. One of these involved paying P&P of a few pounds and waiting a few days. Another promised free next day delivery. This was what a City man I know likes to call a ‘no-brainer’. So I clicked on the free option … and before midday the very next day, the book arrived. It had, it seemed, cost me half what I would have had to pay in a shop. 

“Aren’t Amazon amazing?” I said to a friend after the weekend. “I bought a book on Saturday, and they delivered it free of charge yesterday, on a Sunday.” It was fortunate that I made that casual comment. You only get free delivery if you’ve signed up to Amazon Prime, explained the friend. And that, she said, would be costing me £8 per month.

I looked at her blankly. I didn’t even know what Amazon ‘Prime’ was; nor, certainly, had I knowingly signed up to it. But when I looked through my bank statements, there it was. For the last year I had been paying £7.99 a month to Amazon. I suppose I must have looked at these entries, fleetingly, but since I sometimes buy stationery on-line, I had probably assumed that these were purchases of ink or refills, or some such … and had no doubt dismissed them in the same way that I dismiss the mass of other small items. 

Nevertheless, this was £96 down the drain. Thus to the Amazon website, where after fiddling around for a while, I discovered that I was indeed a ‘member’ (as they put it) of ‘Prime’. Having clicked on ‘cancel’, I received a warning that I’d lose lots of fabulous benefits; a warning couched in terms suggesting that I would become an outcast from decent society and that no-one would ever speak to me again. But I cancelled nonetheless. And I was still £96 down.

* * * * *

As was immediately clear, to be contacted by an angry customer – or indeed by any customer at all – is the last thing that Amazon want. You have to look very, very hard to discover how to get in touch with them; but if you look for long enough, you will eventually find the link, hidden deep inside the bowels of their website. So in due course I fired off an indignant email, not expecting to get any joy from this faceless company, but determined to try.

To my surprise, not only did I receive an answer almost straight away, but they promised to refund me all my ‘Prime’ charges. No fight, no dispute. Just: by all means, have the money back. What this meant, of course, was that Amazon knew they were guilty. They knew that they had got the money out of me by sleight of hand in the first place.

* * * * *

Here’s how they do it. As their letter to me explained, I had, at some stage in the past, signed up for “One-Day Delivery with a free trial of Amazon Prime,” to quote their words. This had simply involved clicking on a button, at their instigation. Nowhere, if I remember rightly, had there been any mention of a fixed and permanent £8 monthly charge; or certainly not a visible mention; otherwise I wouldn’t have touched it.

So far, Amazon had done no wrong. But this is where we get to something approaching pickpocketing. Again, as their letter explained to me, “while you weren’t charged at sign-up [i.e. when I unthinkingly clicked on the button they urged me to click on], your membership is upgraded [my italics] to a paid membership plan for your own convenience [my italics] once the trial period ends.” 

In other words, for my own ‘convenience’ they didn’t ask me, at the end of the free trial period, whether I wanted to be ‘upgraded’ … this being Amazon-speak for ‘to cough up eight quid a month for eternity for a service you don’t really want’. Mindful of my own wellbeing, they didn’t trouble me by asking whether they could regularly pick my pocket in this way. Of course not. They just went ahead and activated their thoughtful ‘membership plan’ … that is to say, they took my money, month by month. For my own convenience.

But just think how much cash Amazon must be creaming off for what is essentially a scam. There must be countless thousands of customers who have unwittingly signed up to this (or rather, who have been signed up, for their own ‘convenience’), and who, every month, are unwittingly filling Amazon’s already bulging coffers. Yes, I got my money back, in the end; and if that were it, I would not much mind. But the story doesn’t end there.

* * * * *

I thought that I had heard the last of ‘Prime’. But it is perhaps a measure of how much money Amazon are making out of this service, that they will stop at nothing to get you to sign up. And they will do this by hook or by crook. As for why, you only have to think of the maths. If Amazon can turn occasional customers into a guaranteed monthly revenue stream, at £8 per person per month, they are literally printing money.

The next time, therefore, that I bought some mundane ball point pen refills through them, a window popped up saying: “One-Day Delivery! Pissed-off Toff, we are giving you a free trial of Amazon Prime.” I was not asked; I was told. The default option was to go with this; and the only way to say no was to click on a discreet and faintly shaded button saying “Refuse Amazon Prime advantages.” So I clicked on it. But if I had not clicked, if I had not been awake and savvy, I would have been trapped.

You might have thought that Amazon would have understood by now that no, I absolutely do not want  their ‘Prime’ service. After all, their IT systems are highly sophisticated, so of course they have me ‘profiled’. However, when I later visited their site to buy something else, the following message popped up, in bold green type: “Pissed-off Toff, we are giving you a FREE 30-day trial of Prime … [etc etc]”. Once again, the default option was for the trial to be activated; and once again, in order not to activate it, I had to click on a less visible button.

Then a final visit to Amazon, still determined not to be forced to sign up to Prime. But Amazon were ready and waiting, with more ruses. When I attempted to go to check-out, a message appeared saying “Pissed-off Toff, we are giving you a FREE 30-day trial of Prime [etc etc].” This time, the typeface was in bold red, not green; and there was no option to say no. The only button visible was one labelled “Try Prime FREE”. Nor could I bypass it and go to check-out. Which was all I wanted. To pay and go, asap.

In the absence of anything else to click on, and wishing to be shot of the whole business, I clicked as prompted, and was taken to yet another window where I was once more encouraged, as the default option, to click, yet again, on yet another legend entitled “Try Prime FREE.” Nearby, however, there was a less-visible button, saying “No thanks. I do not want a 30-day free trial.”

So I clicked on this, and nothing happened. No nice little box saying “Don’t worry, we haven’t got you this time, but we’ll be trying to get you later!” No acknowledgement that I had not been signed up to this unwanted service. Quite simply, nothing happened. Just a sullen silence, before finally being allowed through to checkout.

* * * * *

And still they are trying. If ever I go to Amazon, the first thing I see on their site is a message urging me to sign up for Prime. I am now so fed up with them that I have moved to ebay, whom I don’t much love, but who don’t hold a gun to my face every time I have dealings with them. 

The only possible conclusion is that this must be – can only be – a deliberate policy on the part of Amazon. A considered business model. To bully you, trick you, cajole you, harass you … to induce you, by hook or crook, to sign up to their accursed Prime service. Nor, indeed, are they the only ones. Sky are just as bad, apparently. As a friend said to me, only today: “Have you ever tried extricating yourself from a contract with Sky? It’s virtually impossible to get in touch with them. They will do anything – almost anything – to prevent you from talking to them.”

So perhaps I was lucky with Amazon. Then there’s my US-based website hosting company, for the blog which you, the reader, are now perusing. They were bought by another, bigger company, called site5, which not only provides a lousy service, but also assigned my site to a ‘shared’ server which had been blacklisted. For technical reasons that I will not go into, this made their web hosting service more or less useless.

But site5 cannot be contacted by telephone. The only way to contact them is via a ‘ticketing’ system, which means that every email you write is answered by a different person, somewhere in India (I am guessing this from the names of the invariably charming slaves who reply to me). After an immense expenditure of energy, and a not-inconsiderable expenditure of money, I have now ‘migrated’ my site to a better ‘host’ in the UK. And although a refund would be too much to hope for and just more of a fight than I can bear, I have, after two-dozen-odd emails, obtained a credit note which might perhaps be of some use. If I had had less time on my hands, I would have given up long ago, and would simply have taken the hit and moved on.

There’s a pattern here, is there not? It would seem that increasingly, these on-line giants have the same policy: make it all-but-impossible for the hated customer to have any meaningful and conclusive contact; if he – the customer – does somehow manage to contact the company (never by phone, because that would be too personal; no, it’s got to be by email, with each email preferably answered by a different member of staff, to make things as difficult as possible) … if ever he does manage to get in touch, email-wise, the trick is to wear him down relentlessly, to piss him off so much that he just goes away and pours himself a stiff G&T.

* * * * *

So where does this leave us?

When the Amazon book I bought was delivered to my home on a Sunday morning, I thought, initially, that I was on to a winner. But even then, I knew that I was feeding a monster. Because what is happening is obvious. Bit by bit, Amazon is destroying the high street, and we are all complicit in this.

When the high street is gone or diminished beyond recognition, what will happen? Simple. Having obtained a monopoly of large parts of the retail sector, and having got you strapped over a barrel, Amazon will move in for the kill. Which it has started to do in any case. Hasn’t it? That’s my experience, anyway.

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