This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we spend money today.
With a few keystrokes you can find almost anything on Amazon … and buy it with as little as a single click. It’s a wonderbox of capitalism. Twenty minutes ago I typed in “yak” for no good reason and Amazon’s algorithms suggested “yak cheese himalayan dog chews.” So I hit Enter and up popped a page filled with 60 different dog chews that I have since learned are an all-natural, satisfying, long-lasting treat for pups. Amazon had six more pages, or 420 more Himalayan dog chews, to sift through, from hundreds of companies I’ve never heard of, sold by hundreds of different sellers.
I don’t need a bag of dog bones made of yak cheese right now, but if I did, I would feel overwhelmed. Which brands are high quality? Which listings are legitimate? What’s a good price to pay?
These days, almost anyone can sell items on Amazon in five easy steps. The site hosts millions of sellers, making it more like eBay than Walmart. But Amazon does not vet everything on its virtual shelves thoroughly, if at all, and that means you have to be careful about what you’re buying. The site has known problems with fake reviews and counterfeit items, and a growing number of Chinese sellers have flooded the site with strange new off-brand products in the past few years. Amazon has a fairly good return policy on its own items, but third-party sellers don’t have to abide by those standards, and many don’t.
WIRED can help! Below are a few tips to help you better pay attention to what you’re purchasing at The Everything Store, in an effort to choose items that are more likely to arrive as advertised and less likely to cause big headaches when you try to return them.
Buy Directly from Bezos
Whenever possible, you should buy items directly from Amazon.com. Amazon keeps a far better eye on its own inventory than it does on its third-party sellers. Items it sells directly are more likely to arrive as advertised and qualify for free two-day Prime shipping. Because Amazon manages everything, returns are often painless, as well. I’ve gotten refunds for defective items without even having to return them at all.
If you’re already checking out a product on Amazon, like this espresso machine, always make sure the seller info says "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com." This information is typically in one of two places. Either it’s under the red price (and green "In Stock") or it's under the yellow Add to Cart and orange Buy Now buttons on the right rail. If you're on the Amazon app, it's also under those buttons.
How to Only See Items Sold By Amazon.com:
If you’re browsing through Amazon listings, filter the site’s search results to only show items sold by Amazon.com. It will likely improve the quality of the items you see, cutting out a lot of less-relevant, lower-quality search results. And again, the items are better vetted, so you’ll probably get what you expect and have an easier time returning it, if need be. I'll use the new Motorola Moto G7 as an example of a product you might search for. It's one of my favorite new affordable phones.
Step 1: Search for a particular item in Amazon’s search box with category set to “All.” In this case, I searched for "Moto G7."
Step 2: At the top of the left rail, click on a Department that fits. Cell Phones & Accessories should be broad enough to include the Moto G7 phone, so that’s what I chose.
Step 3: Once the page refreshes, scroll to the bottom of the left rail and choose "Amazon.com" as your Seller.
Step 4: Now you will only see "Moto G7" products sold directly by Amazon.com.
If you still don't see "Amazon.com" as a seller, try hitting the "See More" button. It will bring up a dense but readable alphabetical page of sellers. If Amazon is one of those sellers, it will show up in the list. If your eyes start ADHDing on you, use CTRL+F (Command+F on Mac) to search for the word "Amazon.com." Sometimes you'll see "Amazon Warehouse," but that only sells used and refurbished items.
Avoid Fake Discounts
When people see that a product they like is on sale, a little wave of excitement washes over them. Instead of thinking about how much we’re spending, we start to think about how much we’re saving, or winning. Coupons and discounts exist because they create a sense of urgency that causes many people to buy things they normally wouldn’t. Some sellers abuse that pricing power. There are a lot of products on Amazon that are endlessly on "sale" and that makes it hard to know if you’re getting an actual bargain.
The page for these Monster Yak Dog Chews says that they’re on sale for $17 and normally cost $25. But that’s not true, and there’s an easy way to check. Just copy the URL and paste it into CamelCamelCamel. You'll get a page with a graph on it showing every price fluctuation in the past year. For this product, there were none. It’s been $17 for a year now. A lot of products have deceptive sale prices like this, to varying degrees. Knowing what the actual going rate is for a product puts you in charge.
Alternatively, the Keepa extension for Chrome will add a similar (uglier) box right into Amazon.com pages for you, though it does try and get you to register for free.
Tools like Keepa and CamelCamelCamel may also help you determine the best time to buy a big ticket item. Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, for instance, consistently bumps from its normal $120 price down to $80, like it is now. And for Black Friday, it dipped even lower. The tools can help you spot similar trends in other products, like televisions, which tend to get a lot cheaper when Christmas draws near.
Don’t Trust Every Review
Amazon's 5-star review system is supposed to make choosing products simpler, but it's easily gamed. If you’re looking at an expensive product from a company you’ve never heard of, or if there are hundreds or thousands of very positive reviews, do a little sleuthing. Many sellers try to manipulate reviews to get their products listed more prominently on Amazon.
ReviewMeta is an excellent tool to help you spot deceptive reviews. Just plug in an Amazon URL and it'll give you a report. It won't tell you how good a product is, and it isn't a flawless tool, but it will give you a hint at whether a lot of reviews are fake or suspicious. There's also a Chrome extension for ReviewMeta that shows its modified score in your URL bar. Fakespot is a similar tool, but its analysis isn't as comprehensive.
For example, this Hayke juicer looks fantastic at first glance, but ReviewMeta adjusted its score from 4.1 stars to 2.8. The tool noted that Amazon has had to delete reviews, and some reviews have entire phrases that are repeated, which is a strong sign that they aren’t authentic. There are also a lot of positive reviews that are “one-hit wonders,” meaning the poster only wrote a single, enthralled review about this one product.
Or just read the reviews yourself. Click on the link to reviews under the product name on a page and you'll end up on a reviews page like this one. To start, browse through the Customer Questions. You can use the search box above them to scan questions and reviews for key words that may indicate issues with a product, like "break,” “bad,” “defective,” “customer service,” or "return."
You also want to be alert for reviews that sound like other reviews, ones that repeat key marketing phrases, or any that seem overly happy and wordy. In the case of this juicer, many five-star reviews rave about how it’s “slow” at juicing and how it’s specifically great for carrots, lemons, ginger, etc. These are both features that the marketing description spells out. If you search for the word “reliably,” you can actually see two reviews that are identical, even though they're supposedly written by different people.
I don’t give much credence to one- or five-star reviews. They're sometimes filled with too much elation or anger to be useful. You can often learn more by reading two-, three-, and four-star reviews. These reviewers tend to have a more balanced perspective and may elaborate on the good and bad aspects of a product without as much BS (or rage). Verified buyers are also more trustworthy than non-verified, but they could still be receiving compensation for purchasing and reviewing a product. (It happens.)
Examine the Basic Stuff, Too
Only a small percent of third-party sellers would ever try to scam you or sell you fraudulent goods, but it’s good to be extra vigilant when you’re buying from a seller other than Amazon.com. Amazon doesn’t do a great job policing third-party sellers and doesn’t require they follow the same return policies.
Here are a few tips to help you know if a product listing or seller is trustworthy.
Check the manufacturer and product: Make sure there's nothing fishy about the company name, product name, description, or images. Do they look like real high-resolution, clear photos taken of a real product? Do they look professional? If not, that’s an immediate red flag. Have you heard of the manufacturer before? It doesn’t hurt to click on the manufacturer’s name in Amazon (it should be a link) to see what else they’re selling, and you can make sure they have a real website and are sold in US stores by Googling the manufacturer’s name or plugging the product name into a tool like Google Shopping.
Click the seller's name: Read the seller's page to make sure there are thousands of positive reviews (which at least tells you it's been in business for a while), and check its refunds policy to make sure it matches Amazon's. AnkerDirect is an example of a professional third-party seller. Anker makes its own products and has more than a million reviews. You can also Google it and see that it has a valid website and is a real business with a Wikipedia page. The seller of that Hayke Slow Juicer I mentioned above is Heyue and it only has 26 reviews, 25 percent of which are negative. Personally, I would not risk buying from this seller.
Is the product “Fulfilled by Amazon?” Even if you're buying from a third-party seller, make sure it still says "Fulfilled by Amazon." This means that the manufacturer warehouses its items at Amazon's distribution centers. Amazon Fulfillment won’t prevent all issues, but it does help ensure smoother delivery and that Amazon will be your contact for customer service issues. You can see who fulfills the order right next to the "Sold by [Company]" text on a product page, under the Buy Now button or selling price. If a third-party seller is fulfilling the order itself, shipping and returns are more of an unknown. You might get slapped with additional shipping charges or delayed shipping because the third-party seller is managing shipping on its own. Returns may also be more difficult. Check the seller's return policy (it’s in the Returns & Refunds tab of the seller page), which could be different from Amazon's.
Check the full list of sellers: Amazon algorithmically suggests a seller for every product. For example, this Pixel 3 listing shows Breed as the seller. The steps above will help you determine if Breed is trustworthy, but there are usually other options. To view a list of other sellers offering a product, click the Used & New (#) link in the "Other Sellers on Amazon" box under the Buy Now, Wish List, and social media sharing buttons on the right rail (or under them on mobile). This page will let you buy or filter out used and refurbished versions, or eliminate sellers that don’t offer Prime shipping or free shipping. It also lets you see how many reviews each seller has, when they could deliver by, and extra any taxes they charge. Since all Pixel 3 sellers are third-party, Breed would likely be my choice, as well, though after adding taxes its price wasn’t a lot lower than others in the list. If Amazon.com were selling this product, it would be listed along with the other sellers.
- Ensure you’re looking at the product you intend: At this point, if anything looks fishy or unprofessional, hit Back on your browser and look through your search results again (and don’t forget to filter for Amazon.com as your seller if that’s an option). Amazon search results are a mess of text and images, many of which look remarkably similar. Read the titles of the products thoroughly and check to make sure you clicked on the right product. If you’re looking for a smartphone like the Pixel 3, for example, the “Amazon’s Choice” entry is not a phone, it’s a case. Sellers will also often list different colors, refurbished (sometimes called Renewed), international, or other variations of a phone as a separate product. This kind of thing happens in all sorts of categories on Amazon. It’s often just the result of the messy way Amazon lets sellers make products in its database, but third-party sellers may find a way to make a duplicate-like product that’s different in some small way to get better visibility for its listing.
A Few Final Tips
Before I wrap this up, I have a few other quick tips to help you avoid legitimate scams. You should never be asked to leave Amazon.com to complete a purchase. That indicates that something is majorly wrong. Amazon also won't ever ask for your social security number or anything incredibly sensitive like that, so alarm bells should start ringing in your brain if that ever happens.
Watch out for fake emails, as well. Since Amazon is the most popular retailer online, a lot of phishing attack emails try to pretend they are Amazon. A good rule of thumb is to not click links in an email unless you know Amazon sent it. (Example: If you're like me and are just too committed to a C-rate story to stop buying seasons of The Walking Dead, you know that Amazon will send you an email about it after a new episode premieres.) You can find Amazon's messages to you in its notification center. If an email is legitimate or important, it should be here. Be sure to report any suspicious emails to Amazon.
Now that I'm done yakking your ear off, let me know how you make smart buying decisions on Amazon. Have your own methods and techniques for not getting ripped off? Suggest them in the comments below.
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