Amazon Knows You Better Than Yourself

Discussion
Mar 28, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

There’s no doubt in the minds of many that Amazon.com fits the role of a big brother.

The question is whether it’s the kind of big brother that looks after younger siblings, offering them advice that keeps them safe and on the right track (similar to Wally Cleaver
in the old “Leave It to Beaver” series), or if it’s Orwellian and sinister with free shipping attached on orders over predetermined amounts.

For those who freely share their preferences and purchasing history with the company, Amazon is clearly the reliable big brother who understands their needs and uses its own
wider knowledge to assist them in making wise buying decisions.

Analyst David Garrity with Caris & Co. is among these who see a benevolent big brother when they look at Amazon. “One would argue that this is the basis on which a great
relationship with a customer was founded,” he told The Associated Press. “If only our significant others were like this.”

Others such as Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center know 1984 has passed but see Amazon’s data gathering as evidence Orwell’s story has gone from fiction
to fact.

According to Mr. Hoofnagle, Amazon is “constantly finding new ways to exploit personal information.”

Some have expressed concern over a recent patent filing by the retailer for technology that tracks shoppers gift-giving activities while including personal information such as
the age of those receiving the gift. Federal law prohibits gathering data on children under the age of 13.

Moderator’s Comment: What are your thoughts on the value of collecting data on consumers and their right to privacy? Does the current state of security
in this area make the pledges by companies to protect personal data more a statement of aspiration than a promise of performance?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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11 Comments on "Amazon Knows You Better Than Yourself"


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Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 11 months ago

The benign aspect of Amazon is that it’s permission-based. No one is, in any way, required to give out information that they don’t want to. Honestly, I’ve been aggravated that Amazon hasn’t made better use of the information that they have about me – which I have given freely.

Where I, personally, need to draw the line is Amazon creating databases on the people for whom I buy gifts, because they have not given permission.

I think it would be worthwhile for Amazon to remove from their database about me anything I’ve bought and shipped to another address because it is likely that it is not for me, and I’m not, in fact, interested in Fisher Price toys personally. However, if they chose to e-mail me information about the next level of Fisher Price toys as the person for whom I presumably bought them ages, and restricts the information to me, then I have no issue. I strongly would draw the line at them contacting anyone to whom I’ve sent something.

Mark Hunter
Guest
Mark Hunter
15 years 11 months ago

Personally, I like the relationship I have with Amazon only because my purchases have been narrow – business books only. Therefore, the recommendations they make deal with business books only. Problems start up when they start making assumptions based off of purchases I might make in other areas and start bombarding me with information about those areas when in reality my purchase was a one time event. As soon as they start doing that I’ll start ignoring everything they send me. In essence, I feel it’s hard for a company that serves as many categories / channels as Amazon to pull this type of “customer information nurturing” successfully.

Steve Weiss
Guest
Steve Weiss
15 years 11 months ago

Whenever Amazon recommends a book to me based on my past shopping habits, I feel put off by their smugness. I am not the sum of my past decisions but the total of my possibilities. Database management presumes there is some consistent knowable me that is quantifiable in terms of my shopping. I realize a research industry has grown up around this hypothesis, but man…you’re jamming my frequency.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
The sum of your purchases does not a profile make. What it makes is an unintelligent database. Thus, as others remark, shoppers are either surprised by its lack of use, or troubled by their in ability to use it effectively. As one mentioned, that if you have a narrow pattern, the assumptions may work out nicely. Assumptions based on suggestive selling can be tricky. Complimentary selling can be much more highly effective. What’s effective at Amazon, whether each path is successful or not, is that they are ‘working it.’ The are consistently trying to determine what ‘it’ is and looking always for new and innovative ways to expand their offering and to expand their sales. My experience with Amazon, however, has been less than stellar. That is in direct contradiction to what I hear most often both here and elsewhere. I tend to find them pricey and their execution lacking. Their continued levels of success would seem to place me at a very low percentage of their customers.
Ryan Mathews
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I’m the opposite of Mark. My Amazon purchases are so wide and diverse they apparently have no clue who I am (based on the recommendations they send me). If Big Brother is this incompetent, none of us has anything to fear.

James Tenser
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
Amazon is walking a tightrope between its competitive desire to anticipate customer needs and the concerns of privacy advocates about the potential misuse of personal information. While they may seem strident at times, the privacy advocates perform a public service when they focus attention on this issue. Ideology aside, most of Amazon’s automated alerts and suggested purchases are welcome when they are relevant to our needs of the moment and unwelcome intrusions the rest of the time. Here’s the catch: Amazon can ensure relevancy best by capturing more and more detailed information about each of us and then processing that data through sophisticated algorithms. But the accumulation of such data does pose some frightening potential implications for misuse. I’d favor a system that puts the user in complete, interactive control of his or her information profile. Ideally, it should permit me to expose just the information I want to each commercial entity I choose to do business with. It should also let me withdraw my record from any marketing organization at any time. In an… Read more »
Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 11 months ago

Amazon always tells you why they recommended something–their information gathering is pretty transparent. They do a reasonably good job, but their guesses are hardly eerie. I think the best feature is actually when they show you what else other people who bought the same thing bought in addition. That’s usually pretty relevant.

I *want* them to get better at this. It’s the only way online stores are going to get to the top of the customer service heap. Good retail stores have sales associates who can make recommendations about things you might like. They ask you if you like this or that and say, ‘well then, you should look at this as well.’ That’s all Amazon is doing and, if they do it well, your shopping experience will be better.

As long as they consistently ask for permission before doing anything involving a third party transfer of that information.

David Morse
Guest
David Morse
15 years 11 months ago

I’ve been doing a lot of research on ethnic marketing as of late, and I’ve been buying a lot of books from Amazon. It’s been interesting to see them hone their recommendations. At first, they’d recommend anything related to either ethnicity or marketing. I bought a book on Jackie Robinson and I started getting all these recommendations for sports books, not my primary need right now. But they’ve been getting closer and closer to my specific interests. Their recommendations help me learn about what else has been written on my subject. The net result: I’m buying more and more .

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 11 months ago

No, George, Amazon does NOT assist shoppers in “making wise buying decisions.” Instead, they just want customers to buy, period. Wisdom has nothing to do with it.

Karen, I’m with you. I am a frequent Amazon shopper, and I don’t appreciate their thoughtful intrusions. I’d rather be anonymous. Who’s with me? Who’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

This is the perfect application for Avatars.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
Can’t say that I’m mad (a little silly maybe), but I’m with you Doc. I have the greatest respect for the Amazon architects of e-commerce, but I’m amazed at the apparent simplicity of their preference algorithms. Here are three examples from my “Recommended” list that illustrate their shortcomings: 1) About 4 years ago, I decided to search Amazon for every Philip K. Dick novel that I had NOT read. I found three and ordered them. Since then, every book of his that I HAVE read clogs the top of my Recommended list. 2) My daughter is using my Amazon account to get used copies of the books she needs for her trendy college liberal arts courses. I now have recommendations in the fields of Jewish mysticism, Black Abolitionism and abstraction in 20th Century American painting. (OK…interesting stuff, but still.) 3) I’m now on book 11 of the Patrick O’Brien “Master and Commander” series, none of which have I purchased on Amazon because they were lent by a friend. None of the other 15-some odd novels… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 10 months ago
Gosh, I don’t know what I’m doing right (or wrong?) but Amazon has never sent me an email trying to sell me anything. Maybe once upon a time I opted out but if I did, I can’t remember. If I did, it obviously works so those of you who find their sales pitch annoying could actually try it instead of complaining about how mad you are. When I log onto the site – either US or UK version – I do find a list of recommendations, none of which have I ever accepted. Along with the info that other people who have bought what I bought…bla bla bla. Again, it is my choice whether or not to care or act on such details. Almost without exception I refrain from imparting more information to any company from whom I buy than is absolutely essential for that particular sale. Later, if any of them try to sell me something else, I have a clever button on my computer that deletes their message at my will. More than… Read more »
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