Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Perils of Online Shopping

I seem to be having a run of bad luck with my online purchasing. I thought I’d share the highlights with you so that we can all learn from them.

The first problem I’ve had was with the book Lost and Found by Shaun Tan. Tan is the guy behind the Oscar winning The Lost Thing, he’s a very graphic science fiction author and he’s an Aussie. After watching The Lost Thing on ABC we decided we want to read his books, and Lost and Found offered a great opportunity by combining three of his previous releases (The Lost Thing included).
I ordered the book from Book Depository and received it some two weeks later. Usually the book would be shelved for a while until I found time to read it, but my wife did browse it and noticed a strange problem: half the pages that should have been The Lost Thing were replaced with duplicate pages from the preceding story.
I contacted Book Depository who gave me the option of a replacement or a refund. As they weren’t able to guarantee the problem won’t reoccur I chose the refund option, but my point is that their service was exemplary. I kept my defective book despite the refund, and I was very impressed by the speed and the quality of Book Depository’s communications.
Proof of me being a happy customer is in the shape of me buying more books there since.

Sadly, the smooth problem handling Book Depository offered is not as common as it should, with my wife being the main victim.
We bought her a watch from a Sydney watch shop over eBay. The watch we received did not work, and after some negotiations where the seller wanted to replace the batteries but I asked for a new watch (as per my legal rights given it was dead on arrival), and after lots of staggered and inconsistent replies from the seller's side, they agreed to send me an postage parcel I can use to mail the watch back to them.
Due to an Australia Post error (or rather, fuck up), that parcel took two weeks to arrive. During those two weeks both seller and I exchanged accusations and eventually they paid me money to post them the watch; I apologized sincerely when their parcel did arrive.
By that time, though, the seller refused to provide a replacement watch and gave me a refund instead. I clarified this would earn them negative feedback in an otherwise unblemished eBay career, but they persisted.
The odd thing is that I can still buy the same watch from them in a completely separate eBay transaction. Sure, we had a tough transaction on our hands, but by now I appreciate their service even though their communications could improve. In retrospect, given the limited information each one of us had about the other, we both behaved exactly the way we should have behaved under the circumstances.
What I fail to understand is their irrational insistence on not selling me a watch once the dust had settled. Is this the way a professional behaves?

The third unlucky incident took place when I tried to buy my wife a Nexus S Android smartphone (as discussed here).
I chose to buy my phone from the Smooth Mobiles website. They seemed to offer the best balance between good price, good payment options, a good Australian warranty (Vodafone has exclusive rights over the sale of Nexus Ss in Australia; any other sale comes from Hong Kong), and model availability (I wanted the AMOLED screen version rather than the LCD one). I paid them on the spot via direct Internet money transfer.
For two days later they were "chasing" me over the phone. They also sent me emails saying they would try to call me several times a day, which they didn’t; they called once and a day only. Contacting them back was limited to leaving them support calls on their website, for which you need to create an account, which I did not have (nor did I want to have; there are enough companies out there tracking me already).
Eventually they did catch me. I learned all they wanted to know whether there will be someone at home for the drop off, and if not – what should the delivery person do. Don’t ask me why they couldn't collect this information over the web at the same time I made my purchase; the bottom line was a three day delay.
On the fourth day I received an email telling me my order is in “backorder” status, with some obscure explanations as to what backorder means. I immediately asked for time estimates while pointing out I consider it unfair they took my money first and told me they don’t have the phone in stock later. I asked them to tell me what I need to do in order to cancel my order.
I didn’t receive a reply, but on the following two days I received daily emails telling me my order status is “backorder”. I replied the same as before; no answers were received.
The next day I received an obscure “credit memo”; I asked for clarifications. An hour later I received an email telling me I was refunded. It puzzled me: how were they able to refund me without knowing my bank account details? I emailed a question, to which I received an answer a few hours later asking for my account details. It seems they can read my emails when they want to.
Currently I’m still waiting for the money to make its way back to my account. In the mean time, note how bad communications can lose you sales: I did not ask to cancel my order; I asked for more info and for instructions on what I need to do in order to cancel my order. Neither was provided. The sale was lost because the seller chose to hide by not providing direct means of contact. What, exactly, do they have to hide?
Instead of communicating, Smooth Mobiles earned itself a lengthy post on the public Internet telling the world how badly they serve their customers.

If there is a point to this post then this is it: when I do have troubles with online purchasing, these seem to be the direct result of lack of professionalism on the sellers’ side. It makes me appreciate how good Amazon have been over the years: they sold me their first book back in the mid nineties, and although I’ve had my hiccups with them they generally know how to service their customer. It's not that hard, really.

Update from 19/5/2011:
My bad run continues. Last night I bought the Nexus S from an eBay shop (another Hong Kong seller with an Australian presence). The item description clearly stated a "Super AMOLED" screen, but when I asked the seller to verify this is the version they have - and thus prevent later embarrassments - I was told they currently only have the LED version.
If that is the case, why did they advertise the more expensive and the more sought after version? Those Hong Kong shops certainly seem to have a different set of ethics to mine.
I asked for a refund. For the record, I'm still waiting on the first Nexus S refund...
In the mean time, make sure you know what you're doing when you deal with these small time sellers.


babusmooth said...

hi i just got credit memo from smooth mobiles. just wondering, does it refund automatically or do we need to provide them our bank account number?
smooth mobiles service is really terrible.

Moshe Reuveni said...

To be honest, I don't remember. What I do remember is that despite the sluggish start they did take care of me.

babusmooth said...

but did they really refund your money?im really scared now, they have my $800.sigh.
people really need to avoid this kind of online store.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Yes, they did give me a refund. It didn't take too long, either.