In the Jungles of the Amazon

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I'm a great believer in the future of "cloud" computing. It seems to be the way forward for both large and small organizations to maximize return on investment and reduce the complexity of managing their own hardware. Not that I'm one to talk about simplifying technology requirements after the past three weeks of virtual notworkingness with new servers, Windows 2008, and Hyper-V (though, to be fair, it eventually evolved into mainly-workingness-with-odd-broken-bits). One thing it has exposed me to, however, is some of the problems that seem to be gathering in the cloud.

Like an increasing number of people, my shopping regularly involves a Web browser and debit card, rather than traffic queues and the search for a car park space. I'd like to think I get a better deal on prices as well, though that's not my primary motivation. And I tend to use companies that I know and respect, rather than chancing my luck with some fly-by-night I've never heard of. Though, thankfully, when I do have to go outside my usual comfort zone, obviously taking appropriate precautions, it's mostly been a problem-free experience (try buying inline Ethernet surge protectors from your "regular supplier" to see what I mean).

I'm one of the many millions of Web-based shoppers who recognize Amazon as a reliable and trustworthy supplier, and I regularly use our local (.co.uk) site to order a variety of stuff I need (or just want). Yes, music, films, books, the usual things; plus, increasingly, electronics and computer-related stuff such as cables and switch boxes. OK, so when I ordered two APC UPSs a while ago they "lost them in transit" and ended up refunding the money, but it was all pretty efficient and painless.

So what suddenly changed? Or has it been a gradual process that only recently rubbed sufficiently to be annoying? The problem seems to be that they are now a "store front" as well as a supplier. When you find something you need, especially stuff other than books, films, and music, it invariably comes from an "associate" that you've never heard of. In some ways, I applaud that. They're providing a great opportunity for small companies who would never be able to build an effective Web presence otherwise. But, in other ways, I wonder if it is damaging their core business. It has certainly changed my behavior.

Let me elaborate. The parcel delivered against one recent order contained, not the electric radiant heater ordered and confirmed, but 1000 empty DVD library cases. Instead of talking to Amazon (if you can actually find an email address or posting facility) I have to directly contact a supplier I've never heard of. In another case, a faulty mobile phone that was my wife's Christmas present had to go away somewhere (I've no idea where) to "be examined". OK, so both purchases were sorted out after a couple of weeks, but I'd have preferred to deal with somebody I know and trust (such as Amazon) rather than having to look at "ratings" and decide if I want to trust some other firm. The redeeming feature is that, I guess, you can go back to Amazon if it all goes pear-shaped.

But the final straw was trying to buy a couple of USB cables, a USB extension cable, and two UPS power extension cords to finish off the network upgrades that have generally blighted my festive season. I found what I wanted easily enough, and was impressed by the prices. But, reaching the checkout, I discovered that the five cables were coming from three different suppliers - each one charging postage and packing. And one of them was trying to charge 18 pounds for post and packing on standard 3-5 days delivery - on an order consisting of two USB cables costing around 3 pounds each! In total, for goods to the value of 17 pounds, I was expected to pay more than 26 pounds post and packing...

Instead, I went back to the main site and searched for products by specifying the name of one of the suppliers (not the 18 pounds delivery one) figuring I'd order all the stuff from one supplier. But examining the items in the list revealed that they were still all from different suppliers. Maybe each supplier puts their competitors' names in the search field to improve the number of hits? After about 40 minutes, I gave up and ordered the whole lot from one of my other regular suppliers (Dabs.com) who have never failed me yet - though I'm touching a large chuck of wood as I write this.

So what's gone wrong with the "cloud" approach in this particular scenario? Thing is, if I want to deal with people I've never heard of who work out of a back bedroom, I can use EBay. Have Amazon damaged their brand by allowing suppliers to hide within their product lists, and by not providing enough interaction in terms of getting support or actually submitting a comment? Or are they bravely promoting the concepts of the cloud and providing opportunities to small suppliers who would otherwise struggle to reach market?

I eventually ended up on some "Your Account" feedback page where I complained about the post and packing cost thing, but I have no idea where my feedback went, or if I was wasting my time. And, strangely enough, the next day I was talking to a friend who I know is an active Web shopper and told them about my experiences. And their response? "Oh yes, I know what you mean, that's why I only ever use Amazon for books and CDs these days..." Maybe this is an issue that new partakers of cloud-based services need to actively address. I can appreciate that part of the ideal of Web trading is to get rid of the need to handle emails and phone calls, but I reckon most people still value the capability to buy from someone they know, and actually talk to somebody when the need arises, or at least get some prompt response and a solution - without having to jump through hoops just to submit it.

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In the Jungles of the Amazon