When Matthew Legault graduated from high school in June, his parents figured they’d recognize his hard work by buying the parts he needed to build his own personal computer.
They placed an order with Amazon and it arrived at their Calgary home quickly.
But when Matthew opened the graphics card — a $690 part — he discovered the plastic casing had been hollowed out and filled with a putty-like substance to give it weight.
“It was actually a bit of a shock,” he said. “Everything looked pretty official up to the point where I pulled it out and took a second look.”
The real shock came, though, when Matthew’s father tried to get a refund.
François Legault followed Amazon’s return instructions and sent the item back, expecting a refund.
Instead, Amazon said in an email there would be no refund until the “correct” item was shipped back.
On top of that, the Amazon rep said the returned, fake item had been thrown out, to protect other employees.
“It was absurd,” said François. “It’s just a piece of plastic so I doubt there’s any danger to their employees. And secondly … now they’ve destroyed the piece of evidence.”
Amazon repeatedly claimed it had shipped the correct item.
Legault repeatedly explained he had received and returned “a complete fake” and attached photos to prove it.
Telling customers the item they’ve returned has been disposed of is a great way for Amazon to “end the conversation,” said marketing specialist Marc Gordon, who coaches both small companies and big-name multinationals on interacting with customers.
But “that’s impacting the quality of service they provide.”
Service, Gordon says, may be affected as customers who flocked to the online retailer during the pandemic return to brick-and-mortar stores, forcing Amazon to re-organize.
“They don’t have the time or the resources to deal with every customer complaint, every inquiry, every problem,” said Gordon. “They want this done and they want to move on to something else.”
In an email, Amazon’s Canada spokesperson Ryma Boussoufa said: “Not every returned product can or may legally be resold or donated for hygienic or product safety reasons. In those cases, we will recycle products where possible.”
‘Slap in the face’
François says his history with Amazon should have stood for something — he’s been a loyal customer for years, and rarely returned anything.
“The box had obviously been tampered with,” he said. “We kind of expected that Amazon would have better quality controls, better procedures to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen.”
“They’re basically saying that we’re trying to defraud them,” said François. “We’ve never had a pattern of returning things, or anything of that nature.”
An Amazon rep had, at one point, said the decision was final.
“That’s a little bit of a slap in the face,” said François. “They’re basically shutting this down and saying that there’s nothing else to discuss. And unfortunately, I beg to differ.”
After Go Public made inquiries, the company refunded François and apologized for taking almost five months to resolve the “unfortunate incident.”
Amazon reported global profits in 2020 of over $386 billion US, a 38 per cent increase over the previous year. It doubled its workforce between 2020 and 2021 and rapidly expanded.
But last year, growth was slower — a 22 per cent increase over 2020 — and growth for the current year is expected to be slower again, according to industry experts.
Last month, Amazon confirmed it would be laying off some 10,000 employees worldwide.
The returns customers make every day are a major expense for Amazon, Gordon says.
Online retailers in general lose an average of 21 per cent of a returned item’s original value — once costs for shipping, processing and restocking are factored in — according to a U.S.-based study by Pitney Bowes earlier this year.
Go Public asked what percentage of orders were returned last year, but Boussoufa wrote that the company doesn’t release that data “for reasons of commercial sensitivity.”
More returned products ‘disposed’
Go Public heard from more than half a dozen others who said they, too, were frustrated by Amazon’s policy of disposing returned items before a dispute was resolved.
Allan Papernick of St. Davids, Ont., ordered a $280 Citizen watch last April. But it was difficult to read the black hands on its black face, so he sent it back.
Amazon repeatedly told Papernick he had sent back an “older model” watch, which it had then discarded. It asked him to return the correct item.
“If I was scamming them, then let them send that item back to me,” he said. “Getting rid of it is a weird business practice, to say the least.”
He threatened to sue for $10,000 and received a full refund the next day.
Amazon did not answer when Go Public asked whether all outgoing packages are individually inspected to confirm the contents. But every returned item is carefully inspected “to accurately determine its condition,” according to Boussoufa, the spokesperson.
Other customers, like Justin Tabbert of Ottawa, say they will never again order from Amazon after similar, frustrating experiences.
He spent about $700 ordering RAM for his computer last April, but says his package had been opened and was missing half the order.
When he sent it back, Amazon complained it was “missing components.” It ended up resending the full order, but the issue’s still not resolved.
“Now they are saying they will charge me for another [order], because in their view, they’ve sent two,” said Tabbert.
Make an unboxing video
Gordon says Amazon’s tactic of insisting a customer return an item they say they don’t have is designed to put the onus back on the customer to fix the issue.
“The problem is, it doesn’t work,” said Gordon. “You just end up with a really irate customer who feels that they’ve been taken advantage of, or misled or screwed over.”
He says anyone worried about not being able to get a refund if an online order has problems, should make an unboxing video. Have someone grab their phone and film when a package is opened.
“If it’s exactly what they ordered, great, they can delete the video,” said Gordon. “If it is, in fact, something that’s been substituted or fake or fraudulent, well, it’s right there in the video. There’s no denying it.”
As for Matthew Legault, the high school grad is happy his computer is up and running — he uses it to play games with friends and is learning how to write computer code.
His father says the Amazon dispute has taught him something, too.
“This whole experience has really motivated me to shop local again,” said François.
Amazon has “lost a lot of business from us.”
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.
We tell your stories, shed light on wrongdoing and hold the powers that be accountable.
If you have a story in the public interest, or if you’re an insider with information, contact GoPublic@cbc.ca with your name, contact information and a brief summary. All emails are confidential until you decide to Go Public.
Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.