back to article Amazon hit with $1bn claim that secretive Buy Box algorithm screws shoppers

Amazon is facing a £900 million ($1 billion) lawsuit that claims its Buy Box algorithm breaks competition laws by unfairly favoring products sold by the American giant and preferred vendors. This class-action complaint was brought by consumer-rights warrior Julie Hunter against the e-commerce goliath to the UK's Competition …

  1. sreynolds Silver badge

    It's the Amazon flywheel in motion...

    Lower some prices to screw the sellers so that you can shove customers to the higher priced products.

  2. Kev99 Silver badge

    Can she come to the US and do the same thing with the FTC? Assuming the MAGATs are no longer in control there.

  3. heyrick Silver badge

    Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

    When has this ever been true outside of consumer magazines? Selling is the art of careful manipulation of facts to extract money from customers. So believing that a shop would make any recommendations in your favour (from the local supermarket to Amazon) is naïve in the extreme.

    1. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

      Buying the traditional way (in person or by telephone) allows you to choose your supplier, whereas in this case you don't know who your supplier is (it may not actually be amazon). Consequently, you're forced to buy blind (the classic "pig in a poke") unless it's mainstream branded goods. But even then you typically have to do your own homework to verify that it's exactly what you want. That's a fundamental problem with all online purchases, but being able to identify and contact the actual supplier does alleviate it to some extent. There are still plenty of even online suppliers who will assist by providing pre-sales contact, and they're worth their weight in diamonds. Amazon is just not one of them.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

        Even mainstream branded goods are no guarantee on Amazon.

        Look for shaver heads. Notice the nice Philips package. Then notice that what arrives is some cheap Chinese tat in a stapled baggie, with not a single branding mark in sight.

        Kind of wish the CNIL (I live in France) would fine them €100 for each and every clearly non-original part masquerading as an original. Maybe then it might cost them more to do nothing, so they'll have to clean up the utter shitshow of fakery.

        1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

          Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

          If you're defrauded by the seller, Amazon refund you and ban the seller. Not sure what you're complaining about.

          1. heyrick Silver badge

            Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

            Maybe for you. In my world Amazon provide a return sticker to print out, with a promise of refunding you when the goods arrive (which they do). The seller? Still there a few months later. The products? There too.

            I even reported not so long ago a bait and switch with good reviews for a completely different product than that which was mentioned, yet with the same ASIN reference. The support person said she would pass the information along to their anti fraud guys (that's probably all she can do). The product? Again I followed up a few months later and... still there.

            So I rather imagine that it has to be a serious problem or receive many complaints before they'll kick out a "shipped by Amazon" vendor.

            1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

              Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

              "In my world Amazon provide a return sticker to print out, with a promise of refunding you when the goods arrive (which they do)"

              That's weird, I have never been asked to return stuff under those circumstances.

          2. KRCaddis

            Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

            Do you want to go through the hassle every time some moderately or inexpensive item is fraudulently represented as a name brand product- I think not. They may be almost-clones, but prove to be otherwise during use, another deceptive practice fooling buyers into believing they are bypassing the name brand's design, development, marketing, overhead, distribution, follow up and reputation expense. Cheating.

            1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

              Re: Far from being a recommendation based on price or quality

              I really don't care, it's no hassle to speak of. It takes a couple of minutes on text chat. I think it's good to punish the scammy dropshippers that way, plus some of the free stuff is useful. That free bottle of whiskey may not have been exactly what I ordered, but it was still a good drop :)

  4. Securitymoose
    Facepalm

    And this is news to just about nobody?

    Every time you go on Amazon you get their recommended' products stuffed in your face. Of course they will promote their own stuff. Presumably the crime is to not make clear that they are doing that even though it's b***** obvious to everyone that buys stuff from there.

    1. Shalghar Bronze badge

      Re: And this is news to just about nobody?

      If i understand the article correctly, its not only about the first twenty pages of "search results" before less favoured suppliers are listed (if at all) which is indeed §%$!!! obvious. If that sticks, i would very much like to see similar lawsuits brought up against google. bing and any other forced advertisment/"search" engine in the world.

      The complaint is also about the fulfiller after the buy button, the secretive selection which company actually ships the stuff.

      Issues can arise here, i had a case of a special battery charging device which somewhat never was shipped, calling the "support" after a month led to amazon removing the order without my consent, although it had been placed and confirmed at that time. No longer than a week later, the same product was available again, around 60% more expensive, from a different supplier.

      The main issue with any news concerning amazons behaviour towards $whoever is the total intransparency and i highly doubt that will ever change.

      Maybe its time any NDA is declared null and void whenever consumer watchdogs and other likewise institutions demand answers.

      1. Dinanziame Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: And this is news to just about nobody?

        If that sticks, i would very much like to see similar lawsuits brought up against google. bing and any other forced advertisment/"search" engine in the world.

        Looks like you missed this, then:

        Google hit with record antitrust fine of €2.4bn by Europe

        1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

          Re: And this is news to just about nobody?

          That's just shenanigans, obviously it's nonsense that will be overturned on appeal.

      2. Richard Jones 1
        WTF?

        Re: And this is news to just about nobody?

        Please try to read page 1 of the fraudster's hand book, "list something for less than anyone else, and hope orders flood in with cash". When it goes pear-shaped, scarper. If some other seller list the item, why should they honour the dodgy dealer's price? What ever happened to Caveat-Emptor, buyer beware?

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: And this is news to just about nobody?

      Yep. Most brand name online retailers, when you search for something defaults to "Most relevant", which generaly means it puts the stuff they most want to shift at the top of the list. But they offer a clear sort option allowing you to choose, by price or popularity to, usually price sorting by lowest->highest or highest->lowest.

      Sometimes, sorting lowest->highest brings up pages of cheap accessories first, but at least they have the option and sometimes you can overcome that with better search terms, or in some cases, the site is clever enough to not list all the spares and parts when you type in Acme Spile-Trosher. Amazon, with all their online shopping expertise, all their web design savvy, all their massive processing power, can't seem to figure out how to do what some non-tech based sellers can manage.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How is this different to promotional product placement on supermarket shelves?

    I agree it's not necessarily in consumer interests, but it's also not news.

    I also wonder if the also-ran vendors have such tight delivery and returns mechanisms as those signed up to Amazon's higher tier - although that is perhaps a problem of transparency and communication both on the part of Amazon and those other parties.

    In any case, there are other websites, and nothing stopping vendors selling direct. Amazon is not a hermetically sealed walled garden.

    / Didn't expect myself to be supporting Amazon when I got up this morning

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: How is this different to promotional product placement on supermarket shelves?

      The primary difference is that in a supermarket, the cheaper options are not hidden away in another room via a security door. Similar items and brands are on the same shelves in the same aisle. The most they can do to push you towards specific products is put them on the eyeline shelf and the other brands above or below eyeline. There are other small, psychological tricks they can try, but few are proven to actually work. If someone wants the cheapest option, it's simple for them to find it. Only the frit and veg is more difficult since they often sell bagged items by item count and loose by weight. The loose is almost always cheaper, but sometime it's worth putting a bagged item on the provided customer scales and checking :-) And the supermarket may well earn more if you buy their preferred option, but they don't actually care that much so long as you do buy something rather than go somewhere else. Personally, I use a number of shops based on price, quality and convenience and the mood I'm in at the time. I never get a full "shop" in one supermarket because they don't all sell the same stuff and based on my personal choices, not theirs.

      Supermarket buyers tactics and their stranglehold over much of the supply chain is another matter.

  6. toomanylogins

    Sale of Goods Act

    Amazon should always be considered the seller under the sale of goods act in the same way as a shop. This would level the playing field. They should be responsible for the warranty and the delivery and provide support. This copout that they are only a digital storefront is the problem. A simple rule change would resolve it and prevent problems like a Sabrent SSD that I have had to post back to the USA after it failed after three months. Haven't had a reply and I am out of pocket despite claims of a five-year warranty.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Sale of Goods Act

      I always buy stuff "shipped by Prime" for this exact reason. If there's a problem, I can send it back to Amazon and not have to fart around with vendors who-knows-where.

    2. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

      Re: Sale of Goods Act

      "Amazon should always be considered the seller under the sale of goods act in the same way as a shop. "

      They are. If a 3rd party seller won't respond, Amazon will refund you in full.

  7. Cereberus

    Raise a lawsuit or open your eyes and mind a little

    Don't get me wrong, Amazon will use any tactics they can to increase profits - they are a business after all however there are a few obvious issues with this from what I can see.

    Amazon put forward their preferred company to fulfil an order. Next to the buy it box there is (where alternative suppliers exist) a script that states you may be able to get this cheaper by using a different supplier. If you choose the convenience of just selecting buy it now then you take the risk of paying more, but they do advise this option is there.

    The other thing is if you go to a retail park with 2 supermarkets should each one have next to each product (that it applies to) that it is cheaper at the other supermarket? Should there be a person there to point this out to you, or flashing red lights to warn you away from the product?

    Ultimately you want to buy a product, the company supplying that product says you can have it for this much money, you then decide if you are willing to pay that amount. If you are they get your money and you (hopefully) get the product in good working order, or means of getting it replaced / refund if there is a fault. If you aren't they don't get the money and you don't get the product. You can then freely look elsewhere for the specific or similar product at a price you are prepared to pay, or hunt for the cheapest option and get it that way. Amazon are under no obligation to tell you can get things for less elsewhere.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Raise a lawsuit or open your eyes and mind a little

      "The other thing is if you go to a retail park with 2 supermarkets should each one have next to each product (that it applies to) that it is cheaper at the other supermarket? Should there be a person there to point this out to you, or flashing red lights to warn you away from the product?"

      If the retail park owners are acting as agents for all the shops on site and listing all their goods in one convenient place so you can more easily choose, then yes, they should. They should not be pushing products based on how much the shop owner is paying them and "hiding" the fact other shops also sell the same products at a different price. Amazon is not only the retail park owner, they also have the biggest supermarket of their own on the retail park. If you provide an aggregation service and are also a supplier, them there is a clear conflict of interest, especially if you are also a major supplier. That's why we have regulations, regulations and laws. The US discovered this back in the 1800 with oil, steel, railroads etc. They called them "robber barons" because they used their power as suppliers to control the markets and remove the competition.

  8. johnnyblaze

    Known fact

    Glad someone has the balls to finally step up and take Amazon on, at least in the UK. I 100% agree with the assessment - Amazon have been promoting their own products and preferred resellers stuff over others for years, and everyone knows it. It's also widely known that Amazon will keep an eye on high selling products, and if worthwhile, will create their own version, undercut the seller and promote theirs in preference. Just try and be a seller on Amazon and you'll see how hard they make it!

    Now she just has to prove it!

  9. Martin Summers

    The worst thing Amazon ever did was allow third party sellers. I rarely even bother with them anymore as there's a strong likelihood that you will not get it, it will arrive ridiculously late from some Chinese seller lying about delivery times, arrive damaged, it will be fake or poor quality.

    What I tend to do more now is find suppliers of the product I want, off Amazon completely.

  10. teebie

    "more than half of all physical product sales on our UK store are from independent selling partners"

    And what proportion of them are independent selling partners with Pro Merchant accounts? Which are part of what is being complained about.

  11. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

    what about co-mingling

    This is where multiple sellers for the same product have their stock put in the same bin. So if you pay extra to buy from the trustworthy seller, you may actually get the fake item from the scammer.

  12. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Without merit?

    First off, is "without merit" some sort of legal term or just something every $big_Corp happens to say whenever they are accused of something because all their PR departments have come to the exact same decision to use that particular phrase?

    "An Amazon spokesperson told The Register the complaint to the tribunal is "without merit."

    According to the spokesperson, Amazon is "confident that will become clear through the legal process,"

    So, if they are so "confident" the case has "no merit", surely that will come out in the pre-trial evidence collection and assessment and the case will be thrown out. If it does go to court, then clearly the judicial system system thinks it DOES have some merit and Amazon are clearly wrong in their opinion ;-)

    1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

      Re: Without merit?

      No, there's a difference between something lacking merit, and something obviously lacking merit at first glance.

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