A University of Michigan survey released last week showed the first year-to-year drop in consumer satisfaction with e-retail.

Share story

A University of Michigan survey released last week showed the first year-to-year drop in consumer satisfaction with e-retail. One of the biggest disappointments was with Amazon.com, a traditional leader in making customers happy.

But that’s not the problem here.

In November, Strategic News Service analyst Mark Anderson issued a scathing indictment of Amazon, charging that blockages in its ordering process could “cost the company a point or two in year-to-year sales.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

An adviser to presidents, chief executives and fund kingpins all over the world, Anderson is not the kind of customer you want to cross. But that’s not the problem, either.

During fall’s online-buying season, Amazon experienced periodic breakdowns affecting not only customers but online vendors associated with the e-commerce giant. As bad as this all sounds, the real problem isn’t that Amazon is frustrating analysts, vendors and customers.

It’s that Amazon doesn’t see a problem.

When I called it for comments on the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index and ticked off the list of problems cited by Anderson and others, Amazon essentially responded with a shrug.

“We put the customer at the center of everything we do,” a spokesperson repeated several times.

What about the 4.5 percent drop in Amazon customer satisfaction?

Eighty-four percent is an excellent score, the company said, rightly so. But from the previous year’s 88 percent, also one of the biggest falloffs.

What about difficulties logging in to the site, getting orders to process and contacting third-party vendors?

“I can’t offer any insight on that one,” the spokesperson said.

And last fall’s outages? “Those were isolated issues.” Nor has the company received a rash of customer complaints in any particular arena, the spokesperson said.

Anderson chuckles when told of such sentiments. Amazon has denied problems to him, too, he said, and to others he’s talked with.

The goal here isn’t to beat up on Amazon, a company that transformed the retail landscape in America to where many depend on it as though it were a grocery store. Despite its drop (from one of the highest scores ever), Amazon remains an industry leader in customer satisfaction.

Other big e-retail players, including eBay and Charles Schwab, took a hit in the Michigan study. Overall, customer satisfaction with e-commerce declined 2.7 percent to 78.6, and the subcategory e-retail by 4.8 percent.

Amazon is a still a great company and consumer-satisfaction leader. But if there are leaks in the dike, one would hope for more acknowledgment and sense of urgency.

The causal factors, having to do with diversification of Amazon’s business, are not going away on their own, warned Larry Freed, chief of ForeSee Results, an online customer-satisfaction management company and partner in the study.

“They’ve changed their model to become a platform rather than provider,” Freed said. Amazon has increased product lines, added lots of third-party vendors, diversified its businesses.

“It makes sense as an aggregator, but as a retailer it creates a confusing environment for the shopper,” Freed said.

As for customer feedback, I’m puzzled why Amazon hasn’t received more complaints. One reason may be that, unlike many online vendors, Amazon does not routinely query customers with “how’d we do?” e-mailings.

The question also might be raised: At what point does a company owe an explanation to customers? In a publicly traded corporation, do shareholders have the right to know about macro issues affecting business outlook — even if they are complex and technical in nature?

As the sector continues to scale, any Amazon problems are sure to reflect e-commerce’s problems as well. How the company comports itself, for better or worse, could set a standard for the industry.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.