Buyer (and seller) beware

Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!

Make of that what you will, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shopping is not what it was. It feels far riskier — and creepier —both for customers as well as vendors.

Who makes those insanely specific t-shirts on the internet?
One site, Sunfrog, implores a user to enter a range of my data (name, city, birth month/year, hobbies, job), and then generates hundreds of customized t-shirts — “just for you!” — in seconds. Another company boasts more than 10k variations of a single t-shirt phrase, with personalized names ranging from Aylin to Zara. Its catalog includes classics like “Never Underestimate A Woman Who Loves Stephen King And Was Born In April,” and “I’m a Tattooed Hippie Girl Born With a Mouth I Can’t Control.”

But as it turns out, the key to these operations (huge volume) can also be its curse — and oftentimes, these “algorithmically-generated” products can go terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s an understatement…

As it turns out, Fowler’s algorithm had served as a sort of demented Mad Libs, generating phrases like “Keep Calm and Rape Them,” and “Keep Calm and Grope On.”

If only that was the only one.

Last year, an Amazon retailer by the name of “my-handy-design” made an unwelcome splash on the internet over its questionable iPhone accessories. A series of cases featured a seemingly random (and, consequently, NSFW) variance of images, including old men suffering from diarrhea, heroin spoons, toenail fungus, and “a three year old biracial boy in a medical stroller.”

As well as being potentially upsetting for the shoppers that might stumble across them, these not-quite-real-but-existing-nonetheless products and the algorithms behind them can have disastrous effects on the businesses involved.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops
“It almost felt like somebody broke into your house or your personal life and started to take things away from you,” says Richard Burri, whose office stationery store was affected by the error. He and his wife estimate that the various computer algorithms working together would have cost the business between $100,000 and $150,000. Fortunately, the majority of the firm’s human customers who had bought one penny items agreed to return them when contacted.

Others found that buyers weren’t always so obliging. Shamir Patel sold pharmaceutical products via Amazon. He also asked customers to return one penny products, but he says about half of them refused to do so. The cost to his business, he calculates, was around £60,000. “You were a bit powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls. “You were literally just watching your money flush down the drain.”

But, of course, it’s not entirely the fault of the machines. Sometimes this is all deliberate.

The strange brands in your Instagram feed
What Ganon does is pick suppliers he’ll never know to ship products he’ll never touch. All his effort goes into creating ads to capture prospective customers, and then optimizing a digital environment that encourages them to buy whatever piece of crap he’s put in front of them. And he is not alone.

What a time to be alive.

Jenny Odell’s special investigative report for the Museum of Capitalism: “There’s no such thing as a free watch”
One interesting detail about this mystery company (in its many iterations) is where it draws the line in terms of deception. While the entire business model is obviously misleading, their FAQ sections sometimes include reassurances following the question “Is this a scam?” and always take care to mention that credit card details are handled by Shopify. The sites often include icons for Norton Secure and McAfee Secure, as if to provide even greater assurance. On a Reddit thread in r/Scams, in which people complain about the watches and discuss finding $1-2 versions on Amazon and Alibaba, Soficostal butts in only once, in response to a poster speculating whether it might be a credit card scam. Soficoastal writes, “We don’t have our customers Credit Card numbers. They are safely processed through Stripe or PayPal.” The negative posts then continue – “it’s just some lookalike from China worth peanuts … they gib you on shipping,” says one user – with Soficoastal remaining silent.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The problem with buying cheap stuff online
Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote.

Happy shopping!

Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.