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Amazon.com’s “Customers Vote” contest is pointless

December 4, 2008

Well, after three years of waiting, I was finally one of “the chosen ones”.  For those that don’t know, Amazon.com has run a contest for the past three holiday seasons.  It’s a customer voting-based contest in which Amazon places three items up for customers to vote on.  The item receiving the most votes will be sold to customers at a ridiculously low price.  The other two items are also sold at slightly less ridiculous prices.  Amazon only has a few hundred of these items available at these low prices.

The first year Amazon did this, it was a disaster.  They offered up a PlayStation 3, an Xbox 360, and a Wii for voting.  Well, Amazon didn’t realize that once the items went live for sale, the demand would be so great that it would crash their servers.  I remember trying desperately to get one of the items and I wasn’t even able to log on to Amazon’s site for about 45 minutes because of the traffic.

Amazon learned some lessons in the second year by removing the free-for-all approach and going with a “You’ve been chosen!” approach.  Customers vote on a series of three items.  Then, Amazon randomly selects customers for eligibility to purchase the item at the reduced price.  So instead of 10 million people around the U.S. all clamoring for 500 sale items, only about 10,000 or so are selected to participate.  The problem with this approach was made clear to me today.

I received an email from Amazon saying that I was eligible to purchase a sale item at a reduced price.  I wanted to buy a Kenmore mixer that normally costs $339 at Amazon’s already low price, but 500 would be available in this contest at $69!  Amazing!  Now, in all fairness to Amazon, they state very clearly in the email that I didn’t win the item, but merely won the chance to compete in a “race” to buy the item.  But this is where it doesn’t make any sense.

In order to purchase the item, you have to sit diligently at your computer until the contest starts.  For this particular item, it started at 6:30 AM Pacific time.  I sat there and watched the little countdown on Amazon’s purchase page.  As soon as time ran out, a button appeared saying “Add to cart” or something along those lines.  I clicked that button the instant it appeared.  And then I sat.  And I sat.  And I sat.  And I watched a little red circle spin on the Amazon page for about 5 minutes with a message telling me that I’m in line and not to refresh my browser.  After 5 minutes, a message came up saying “Sorry, the item is all sold out!”

So basically, I won the chance to lose.  Thanks for nothing Amazon.  From what I can figure out from the various customer posts in the Amazon forums, these “You’ve won the chance to compete!” emails go out to about 10,000 people.  10,000 people competing for 2,500 sale items (500 mixers, 1000 complete Sopranos DVD sets, and 1000 Beetle The Bard collectors sets).  That doesn’t make any damned sense!  Now, 75% of the votes cast were cast for the mixer.  That means that 7,500 out of those 10,000 people voted for the mixer.  7,500 people wanted that mixer.  Only 500 were available at the sale price.  Amazon pissed off 7,000 people to make 500 people happy. Now, again, Amazon never promised those 7,000 people that they’d be able to purchase the mixer at the sale price, but why even bother sending out the emails to so many people?

A number of people on the Amazon forums are saying stupid stuff like “Stop whining!  I bet you cry when you don’t win the lottery either!”  That’s stupid and here’s why:  the lottery isn’t a multi-stage event that requires you to pass numerous tests to even compete.  The lottery is more of the free-for-all approach that Amazon had that first year.  I had no expectations of winning that first year.  I knew that with only 250 Xbox 360s for sale for 10 million web surfers, the odds were not in my favor.  But since I had been selected to compete, I knew that the odds were much better for me to get one, which increased my reasonable expectations of winning.

While it was made clear to me that I hadn’t won the item but merely a chance to compete for it, it got my hopes up.  That email made me sit there in front of my computer with the Amazon page up for an hour counting down.  It got me pumped up to push that button when it appeared!  It fired me up!  And then I sat there and got angrier and angrier as I had to watch that spinning red ring without any progress.  Then I had the message saying the item was sold out!  Bitches!  They wasted my time because they sent out too many emails.  If I had simply received an email from Amazon right off the bat saying that I hadn’t been selected to purchase the item, I would have shrugged and gone on about my business.

This is what Amazon should have done:

  • With only have 500 items to sell, send out 500 emails to the people who voted for that item and tell them they can purchase the item for that price any time during the day of the sale.  This makes it fair for everyone, including the people who have to work during the day and can’t be at their computer at the exact moment the contest starts.  This also removes any geographical or Internet speed-based bias as the lucky winners have all day to make their purchase.
  • Any leftover items at the end of the day are made available to other random voters for the following day.

This approach would pretty much satisfy everyone.  People vote for an item, they don’t get selected to purchase it, they move on.  Others are lucky and win the item in a random drawing and can checkout any time they want during the day of the sale.  At no time during this particular approach would people get their hopes up only to have them dashed because they didn’t click their mouse button 1/100th of a second faster.

I realize that Amazon doesn’t have to offer these sales at all.  They’re being very generous here (even if the overall goal IS to drive people to Amazon’s site in the hopes that they’ll make other purchases while they’re there voting or trying to win an item).  I appreciate that fact and it makes me look forward to these holiday sales at Amazon.  But I don’t understand the shotgun email approach that just ends up pissing off thousands of buyers to make a few hundred happy.

Amazon learned quite a few things from their first contest and they made some great changes.  But they still have a few more changes to implement if they want to keep everyone satisfied.  I would love to see Amazon implement the changes I mentioned above, but I doubt they will as the goal of these contests is to lure in buyers and hope they make other impulse buys while they’re visiting.  Oh well.  I didn’t win a mixer.  It’s not the end of the world, but it did piss me off enough to write this long diatribe.  Bad form, Amazon.  Bad form.

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