Trials and Tribulations (V)

The Shopping Nightmare

I do 98% of all my music shopping online. I know that I’m helping the demise of the record store swiftly along, but I need to save cash to feed my habit(s) and I simply cannot pay some of the outrageous prices my local shops ask for releases that often cost me one half to one third of that asking price online.

Still, shopping online – although it does have its pleasant sides – is often a Hegelian nightmare of gargantuan proportions. I cannot shake the feeling that people employed by any of the regularly frequented online outfits manage to rise to their level of incompetence within a minimum of one hour after having been hired. The level and intensity of stupidity is at times unmeasurable and the software employed, the logistics planning and just about every aspect of shipping and handling seem to have been entrusted to a group of autistic preschoolers with a serious attention deficit disorder. Communication skills are those of single-cell organisms and if you do get a message, it’s usually of the simplest boilerplate type, held together by too many returns (or none at all) and a hefty dose of play dough.

So, without further ado, here goes part V of the always popular – but recently neglected – “Trials & Tribulations” series:

01) The Amazon Spelling Bee
Have you ever mistyped anything in an Amazon query? Yes? How did it feel when that ghastly “Your search ‘xyz’ did not match any products” turn up? And shouldn’t there be a preposition in there? This has got to be the most idiotic oversight that has made it through a gazillion revisions of any Amazon website unleashed on an unsuspecting buying public. I mean, just about every piece of software, most search engines, and every other website offer a spell check or at least try to correct you when you bungled your query, but not Amazon. If my testing is any indication (I just love misspelling shtuff), some of the more popular typos will indeed lead you to what you were searching for (leave out an -e- in Beethoven on and you will reach your goal despite your error in judgment), but if you add one -z- too many to Thin Lizzy … you’re screwed. Nothing with “Thin” in it, nothing with “Lizzy” either. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Niente. I wonder how many trillions of dollars were lost by not providing alternative search results. Not that anyone at Amazon seems to care.

02) The Design Monkeys
Speaking of Amazon. I think I started shopping there two minutes after I had set up my first dial-up connection eons ago. Since then, the various Amazon sites have turned into such crowded, totally cluttered and butt-ugly design abominations that anyone with any sort of aesthetic sense would probably stick two blunt pencils into each eye (and one up the rear end) after repeated viewings. What was once a site that had at least a fraction of usability has degraded into the epitome of scrolling and usability hell. 50 different font cuts, 30 different sizes, 90 different colors, varying line heights, information buried deep within the recesses, important information not available, a trillion images strewn about, javascript this and scrolling that, a massive player, reviews interspersed with “also buy that” and “recommended” sections, ringtone ads, a totally confusing grid (is there actually one?), this centered and that not, a mile-long page for even the most negligible release, a quadrillion links from everything like “explore more” to “this way to the bathroom“, a hierarchy of information that is a logistical nightmare, the right answer to a specific question buried three clicks deep and a mile away from where you need it (and suspect it) … the list is literally endless. Good grief. Who works there? Do they actually get paid for the shite they produce? It’s a pity they didn’t keep the blink tag. That would have at least enabled us to have epileptic seizures and be done with it. Presently, only eye cancer can save us from this negligible design stew. By the way, all Amazon sites have gone through a redesign lately. The design team is now officially eligible for the “E.T. Design Award of the Year” (a plastic kid’s phone). For the next iteration I would suggest more font sizes, more colors, more buttons, 7 columns, 72 rows and three different players. I would also abandon the shopping cart. Useless.

03) “Yep, we’ve got it“: The In-Stock Myth
I don’t know about you, but these past two or three years I’ve increasingly had the tendency to fall into that “we’ve got it right here for you” booby trap which – more often than not – blew up right in my face. Ka-bloom. I order this CD of which there are four left, put it into my shopping basket, finalize the purchase and hit that “Pay up, dude” button. I then receive the mail stating that my order is being processed. Here comes the bummer (and I have checked this several times because it happens more and more often): I check my order status and what was once available is suddenly not available anymore. “Will be sent in like 10 to 14 days, man. Relax already.” Hell, they just said they still had some. Of course, a hundred customers probably hit the “Pay up, dude” button at the same time I did, relegating me to the furthest wooden tourist seats in the back of the line, but, see, that’s not the case. My order status says it’s not available anymore until they have stocked up again whereas the site, often for another day or two, still blurts: “Just 4 more available! Buy Now! Dude!” Another way to make the customer feel like the lowest life form on the planet who should have never, ever bought anything from these monkeys. Oh, yeah, “… only on Amazon“. Of course.

04) Ignoramuses Abound: The Official review
Why have official reviews on sites like Amazon when the people reviewing the product would rather be dead than actually listen to the CD? I’m not even going to cite the kind of either pedantic or incredibly shallow (take your pick) crud some reviewers publish there, but reading any of it is usually a complete waste of time. Besides, sites like Dusty Groove America don’t have bad CDs. It doesn’t matter that the product they are selling is not even a footnote in music history, has been trashed for its horrible remastering and the faulty liner notes. You will invariably be told with a a large ladle of hyperbole that the product is just bloody fantastic. Which brings us to …

05) Ignoramuses abound: The Customer Review
Why have customer reviews if most of them are crap? Most CDs which are considered sonic waste products are epitomized to the high heavens, those that sound decent are relegated to the sonic slush pile. No matter how irrelevant the product is, there’s always one customer who will tell you that this particular release is a God-given addition to the category of “Best Things since Sliced Bread“. Now, I don’t mind getting a somewhat objective opinion on why that release is so good and I do appreciate customers trying to save certain releases from the slush pile of music history by supplying creditable information as to why I should get that release, but 99% of the time the review is completely without any utilizable information whatsoever. You know, the “Blue is Blue because it’s Blue” type of review. Add to that dyslexia and literacy issues that plague most online sites today (don’t even get me started on the degradation of language abilities across all continents, countries and cultures) and what you (have to) read is usually an outrageous waste of precious screen real estate. “Me likee that thar CD. YMMV. Yo!” Yeah, right.

06) “We’ll Nuke It for You Free of Charge
I’ve talked about packaging (*giggle*) and handling (*scream*) issues before, but these past two or three years things have gotten a lot worse. If you buy anything that is not of a standard size or happens to sprout meticulously-crafted special packaging, chances are that either the online shop or the shipping outfit WILL mangle it beyond recognition. It’s in a digipak? We’ll bend the hell out of it. Is it over-sized? We’ll stick it into a box which is three millimeters too short. Is it really big? We’ll put it into a sixteen gallon box … without any padding material. Are you a collector? Take a flying … I’m sure you’ve had your experiences with all of that as well, but the last thirteen (I’m not above counting) Amazon shipments and every single shipment from an outfit in Germany named Zweitausendeins had busted items enshrined in the sub-par packaging materials used. Busted jewelcases, dented digipaks, torn booklets, dented boxes, missing parts, … the list is endless. Of course, I could play the return game endlessly but it ain’t worth it most of the time. My time is too precious to run back and forth between home and post office incessantly to replace a CD that cost me $5. And they know it. Wankers.

07) The Global Citizen
Because the US dollar has gone and rotted on us Europeans, shopping has become both more satisfying and more frustrating. As Europe adds a hefty amount to the price tag of just about any item sold within the EU – and that’s just because we happen to live here – it has become even more lucrative to find items abroad, usually at a fraction of the price, even when shipping costs are added to the equation. The problem is that what was once reliable – shop A is cheap and shop B isn’t – has changed drastically. Today, at least in my experience, you have to hunt around a myriad of online stores repeatedly to find the cheapest offer. One day later, what was cheapest in shop A has suddenly increased by 50%. It’s almost as if people randomly hit buttons in their Excel spreadsheets to make prices jump up or down. For the fun of it. $7.99 on Monday, $15.56 on Tuesday and $4 on Wednesday. It seems to be the most popular corporate arcade game today. Who would have thought that price calculation could be such fun?

08) The Postage Horror
Sometimes I get the impression that certain online shops are currently preparing for World War III. You know, finding suitable digs in the Colorado mountain ranges, buying truckloads full of food supplies for their employees to be evacuated to some deep cave there, gas, electricity … the works. There is no other explanation aside from corporate entertainment outrunning their annual budget. You know how it goes: You hit some site that offers an item for $11, you hit “Checkout” and make sure they still have the same price listed there … and you find a $30 shipping and handling fee. If you are lucky … because some sites, after you have gone through the whole procedure, will simply tell you that the item cannot be shipped to your region. Which brings us to …

09) “International Delivery Available
There must be some corporate agreement to add “International Delivery Available” to every damn item you offer on any site, anywhere. Even if you don’t even deliver to the next state in your own country. I don’t know how many times I ordered an item from some (especially American) outfit only to be awarded the “Idiot of the Day Award” via an e-mail stating that, yeah, you guessed it, “international delivery is not available“. Of course not. How could I have misread “International Delivery Available!“? I have no idea. I must be deaf, dumb and blind. Of course, if you do waste a minute on trying to complain, you are immediately awarded the second prize of the day, which is usually the “You Just Wasted 5 Minutes of Your Life Writing an E-Mail Which We won’t Answer” award. I have my hallway plastered with those.

10) “Cracked, Dented …and Bewildered
Item: New.” Ever read that on some marketplace or other site? Yes? The hell it is. I’ve had cracked items, smudged items, busted items, soaked items, spray-painted items, barfed-upon items, stepped-upon items, … you get the picture. If you are a regular online customer, you almost expect this kind of misinformation, but it is frustrating nonetheless when it does happen. Especially if the seller starts an e-mail war with you, invariably stating that the item left his place in “as-new condition“. Difficult to prove that it wasn’t that bearded mail person who opened your package, took out the item, drove an SUV over it, had his/her kids play “Ultimate Frisbee” with it, wrapped it up again, added some butter to the wrapping paper, placed it carefully in the box again … and then delivered it to your door in a shiny new and undented box, tape in place and obviously untouched. I demand the death penalty for sellers who are lying through their teeth.

12) Item Description
While we’re at it: “First edition. Released 1989. Remasterd by Joe Tarantino at Fantasy Studios. Original liner notes by Nat Hentoff. As new.” You check online, decide that it’s the only release of that particular recording worth getting, you get stoked by reading the rave reviews for that release, get excited because you are getting hold of that release at a reasonable price. In short, you rejoice. Four weeks later you open the shipment up and get this: “Third edition. Released 2003. Remastered by some dude at EMI. No liner notes aside from the ones spewed across a single illegible page by a musical illiterate. No track info. Incorrect track lengths. Wrong cover. Was salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.” Actually, what you got was the only reissue universally trashed for the lowest possible quality standard imaginable. Ain’t online life fun?

13) “Send All My Stuff in One Shipment
You do know that you have that option, right? It does come in handy when you order stuff that isn’t available until restocked together with items that are in stock. Get what’s available and have the rest delivered later. Good thinking, design monkeys. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work. I don’t know how many times I’ve ordered stuff from that was in stock and they split up my shipment because the logistics monkeys deemed it necessary. You know, 3 CDs of which two just have to be shipped in a different box. You then receive a message that box one (with two CDs) has just shipped and two seconds later another message stating that the 3rd CD has just … you get the picture. Then you wait. Box two arrives first (after two or three days) … and box 1 appears at your doorstep two weeks later (I’m not kidding; happens all the time). Utterly baffling and probably the most uneconomical way of doing things. That’s life in the U.K. for you.

14) Make a killing at “Wounded Knee
Wounded Knee” is a synonym for the various Amazon marketplaces. It’s not my term, although I am presently unable to unearth the forum post that first brought that term to my attention (it was an old post on a Rolling Stone Magazine forum). I thought it was certainly a politically incorrect term (a reason for me to enjoy it), but I also thought it aptly described a tendency of Marketplace dealers to rip off both you and your hide. Come on, people. Just because an item is a bit more rare, it does not mean you have to add $300 to the price tag. As an uninitiated customer I used to think it was a typo, you know, accidentally entering a $300 price tag instead of §3, but I quickly learned the error of my ways. There are people out there who will slap a couple of thousand percent on any item that, usually for a day or two, seems to be unavailable on the same site. Enter the item, check if anyone else is offering it and if not, type in $700 as an asking price. Is it a rare boxed set? Make that a thousand. Stupidity is limitless.

15) The eBay Myth
eBay is a place to make a killing or at least a place where – with a bit of luck – you can get some items at a reasonable price. Maybe that was the case 5 or 10 years ago, but today everyone is in on the game and what once made eBay a place to frequent has morphed into a global myth. Maybe I’m not patient enough anymore, but there are just too many people with a disdain for money on the various eBay sites, you know, the ones with a million to spare who will invariably outbid anyone by entering $600 for an LP that is worth $6. Just to have it. They’re usually Japanese … or used to be … difficult to tell nowadays because eBay made it impossible to see who is who. I haven’t been on eBay since the beginning of 2007 and I don’t intend to go there anymore either. Well, perhaps for entertainment and to watch people spend 2500% more than the asking price for the same item on any of the major second-hand sites.

16) Delivery “Next Door
I live in a small town, close enough to civilization (although not noticeable) and far enough away from crime, drugs, pin-stripe suits and McDonald’s. I’m not far away enough from the idiosyncrasies that are the mysteries of the German postal system though. Apparently, postal workers are paid too little to offer any sort of service. So, after 14 years of having lived here, they learned that leaving my packages with any next-door neighbor used to be cool with me. It was, because it worked. The problem today is though that said postal workers (the delivery monkeys) do not deem it necessary to inform me of the fact that they did leave a package with my 78-year old neighbor and after I wrote three mails of complaint to the online site I purchased said item(s) from, the lady usually gets out of her wheelchair, pulls her tired bones over to my front door and rings the bell: “I’ve had a package lying around for you since the first of last month. Would you mind picking it up?” On top of that, the delivery monkeys don’t even ring my doorbell anymore. Because I have a day job, they assume I’m not there. Even when I am at home, nursing some destructive disease or a mere cold, they run next door, leave the package there, do not fill out any notification and drive off. Needless to say I also left the same note on my front door for two consecutive years around the end of the year: That one week where they do ring in hope of scrounging together some sort of tip or extra cash, they are forced to stare at a big red A4 paper with a major expletive on it. I guess that’s why they don’t ring the bell anymore either.

How about you?
Any shopping nightmares?

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Volkher,

    I know this was meant to be mostly an ironic look at your own shopping experience but I work for one of the outfits you criticized and I can tell you that your post only scratched the surface. You would be surprised about what we can actually get away with. The return rate of shipments as well as complaints reaching us are only a fraction of what we do in fact screw up.

    Enjoyed reading your post and laughed out loud several times while sitting in an office that you took several swings at. Made my day. Thanks! Great site, by the way. I’ll be around again.


  2. “Mr Smith” 🙂

    it’s not difficult to figure out who you must be working for. It’s great to know that my experience does resonate with people giving me the crappy end of the stick. 😉 I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but – please – don’t keep up the good work. 🙂


  3. I just got a Zweitausendeins package by post and 6 of 7 CDs Jewelcases are broken. I think I have to do like you and have a box with 100 jewelcases at home to put the CDs in there. 🙂


  4. Michael,

    two weeks ago I complained and attached some photos to my mail of the botch-job they call packaging. They’ll never learn, but I was immediately sent a replacement for the broken cases free of charge and a few more because I had complained about this happening every single time. Those replacements got here in good shape. 😉

    Try it!

    “Viel Glück”. 🙂


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