Economy

Is Amazon.com Screwing You Over?

Amazon is charging -- and pocketing -- exorbitant shipping and handling fees, and someone somewhere is getting rich from it.

Do you trust Amazon.com? I did -- until recently -- when a friend went online at Amazon to buy a hair color product called Touch of Gray. It was selling on Amazon for $7.56, and an order was placed for six pieces, total $45.36. However, on the last screen just before clicking acceptance, my friend noticed that shipping and handling was being billed at the incredible rate of $28.50 (about 64 percent of the cost of merchandise)!

This seemed ridiculous, especially for items that weigh only a few ounces. But it was even more ridiculous when we went to the Web site of the supplier, AmericaRx.com. On that website shipping and handling was only $6.48 (or $22.02 less) to deliver the same six items within the same 3-5 business days time frame.

So we called Amazon.com, thinking this was an error. I mean, Amazon.com wouldn’t deliberately soak its trusting customers this way, right?

The first Amazon customer service representative said that Amazon had no control over shipping costs and they were determined by the third party providing the item. When we informed him that this third party was charging only $6.48 to deliver those same items from its Web site -- not the $28.50 Amazon was charging -- he said, “Sorry, nothing we can do about that."

So I asked for his supervisor. When he came on the line, he told me that with items from a third party, Amazon charged the per-item shipping cost for each item, even if all the items were the same, were being shipped in the same package, and would actually cost much less to ship. I asked who was pocketing the extra $22.02 in shipping and handling (which was surely gravy to someone, since it wasn’t being paid to UPS or any other shipper). He said it was Amazon.com.

I asked if he thought this was fair, let alone honest. He said this was their policy, and that was that. He did add, by way of justification, that Amazon’s policy of charging for shipping and handling by the higher "per-item" rate for multiples of the same item, even if all items were shipped together, was available on a Help screen a number of menus and clicks away. (As if Amazon customers always go straight to the Help screen before placing an order.) But even if one did go to the screen he suggested, as I did, one would not find any such warning or policy.

When I asked to speak to a higher-up supervisor, I was told he was in a meeting. When I asked to speak to that supervisor’s supervisor, I was told he was in the same meeting. And so it went each time I asked to speak to someone who could speak with authority about this policy. Apparently, all of Amazon’s who-knows-how-many thousands of customer service employees and supervisors were at that meeting (which I must assume had a very large conference table).

I guess it is possible that the Amazon.com customer service representative I spoke to was mistaken when he told me that Amazon pocketed those extra shipping and handling charges, and that was their policy. But that is one of the reasons I tried so hard to speak to a supervisor; so I could confirm the accuracy of what I was being told.

But if the representative I spoke to was not mistaken, then considering how many millions of orders Amazon processes each year, I am guessing the amount of money Amazon could make this way might amount to tens of millions of dollars.

Hopefully, an Amazon supervisor will eventually come out of a meeting and read this article. Should that happen, perhaps he or she will correct any information that I might have been given in error. Or, failing that, at least justify to Amazon's customers how a practice like this could be allowed to be company policy.

Steve Brown is an East Coast writer-activist and fund-raising consultant. He is a director of WBAI-Pacifica Radio in New York (99.5-FM) and sits on the boards of several non-profit media and cultural organizations. He spends a significant portion of his time advising (pro bono) progressive organizations on how to raise money, attract new members, enhance their public profiles and fulfill their missions.