Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET on January 17, 2019.
There’s a Gatorade button attached to my basement fridge. If I push it, two days later a crate of the sports drink shows up at my door, thanks to Amazon. When these “Dash buttons” were first rumored in 2015, they seemed like a joke. Press a button to one-click detergent or energy bars? What even?, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reasonably inquired.
They weren’t a joke. Soon enough, Amazon was selling the buttons for a modest fee, the value of which would be applied to your first purchase. There were Dash buttons for Tide and Gatorade, Fiji Water and Lärabars, Trojan condoms and Kraft Mac & Cheese.
The whole affair always felt unsettling. When the buttons launched, I called the Dash experience Lovecraftian, the invisible miasma of commerce slipping its vapor all around your home. But last week, a German court went further, ruling the buttons illegal because they fail to give consumers sufficient information about the products they order when pressing them, or the price they will pay after having done so. (You set up a Dash button on Amazon’s app, selecting a product from a list; like other goods on the e-commerce giant’s website, the price can change over time.) Amazon, which is also under general antitrust investigation in Germany, disputes the ruling.
Given that Amazon controls about half of the U.S. online-retail market and takes in about 5 percent of the nation’s total retail spending, it’s encouraging to see pushback against the company’s hold on the market. But Dash buttons are hardly the problem. Amazon made online shopping feel safe and comfortable, at least mechanically, where once the risk of being scammed by bad actors felt huge. But now online shopping is muddy and suspicious in a different way—you never really know what you’re buying, or when it will arrive, or why it costs what it does, or even what options might be available to purchase. The problem isn’t the Dash button, but the way online shopping works in general, especially at the Everything Store.
“They sent the wrong tea lights,” my wife announced recently, after tearing open the cardboard box Amazon had just delivered. “It’s the wrong brand, and 50-count instead of 75.” This is not so unusual, actually. Amazon moves a huge volume of goods, and its warehouse workers are poorly treated humans, not just robots. Errors are bound to happen occasionally.
On top of that, Amazon is more than willing to fix its errors. In most cases, you can return an item for a refund or exchange with a few button presses on the website or in the app. And when Amazon messes up, as in the case of our tea lights, the company usually offers free return shipping, and even free UPS pickup, so you don’t even have to leave the house to rectify the error. These are some of the reasons Amazon consistently ranks high in customer-service satisfaction: The company appears to give people what they want, including correcting problems when they arise.
But a customer-service orientation masks how Amazon has changed consumer expectations and standards as they relate to retail purchases. At BuzzFeed News last year, Katie Notopoulos wrote about how terrible Amazon’s website is, prompted by its offering her a subscription deal for bassoon straps (a product Notopoulos reported needing to replace once every two decades or so), and a warranty for bottle brushes (which cost $6.99).
Notopoulos’s examples just scratch the surface of all the possible confusions that can arise when shopping on Amazon: Products are offered for “Prime” delivery, which is supposed to mean two-day shipping. But sometimes Prime means four days or longer. In other cases, one color of a given product—neoprene AirPods-case cozies, for example, which I recently purchased—might be available via Prime, but another might not.
Even determining what’s available to purchase, via a keyword search on Google or Amazon, produces confusion far broader and deeper than the price fluctuations obscured by a Dash button. I recently tried to search for a heat-pump-compatible thermostat on the site. I got a litany of results, all thermostats for sure, but it was difficult to figure out which ones really worked with a heat pump. Eventually I gave up and resolved to visit Home Depot, which I still haven’t done. Another time, I tried to look for a 5-by-8-inch picture-frame mat on Amazon. But every other possible combination of mat came up instead: 8-by-10, 5-by-7, 8-by-8, 5-by-5. A hedge-trimmer battery I purchased came with a charger, but I didn’t realize it from the product description, so I ordered a duplicate charger as well—that charger arrived first, for some reason, and I had opened the packaging so couldn’t return it.
Apparel and other items with many options are particularly confusing. Determining if Amazon has the color-and-size combination you’re after for a particular dress or pair of sneakers can be disillusioning—as I write this, for example, Adidas Samba shoes are available for $72.95 in a men’s size 9 without Prime shipping, but for $57.58 in a size 12 with Prime two-day delivery. And because different configurations might ship from different sellers warehoused in different places, the chances of getting something different than you thought you ordered is high. As my colleague Alana Semuels has reported, Amazon is an aggregator of goods from various sources, which makes counterfeit products more common in some cases. In others, it can be hard to discern that some items sold by third parties on Amazon Marketplace, such as electronics or watches, are “gray market” products—authentic, but sold without domestic warranties or support. Cheap goods from China also proliferate on Amazon, some of which can be dangerous or duplicitous, from exploding USB chargers to perfume laced with urine or antifreeze.
It’s a far cry from Amazon’s beginnings as a retailer of books—“among the world’s most reliable, durable units,” as my colleague Derek Thompson recently put it. There’s no ambiguity about what you’re getting when you buy a particular book, CD, or DVD. But as the retailer expanded into the Everything Store it has become, it also changed consumers’ expectations about the experience of shopping.
That brings us to Germany’s Dash-button ban: It’s difficult to know exactly what the product costs when you press the button to order it. Prices on Amazon sway up and down in mysterious ways, driven by computational pricing models that consumers can never see or understand. If configured to do so, pressing the Dash button can send a notification to the account holder’s smartphone, which can be followed to confirm pricing and cancel the order if desired. From the perspective of German law, this isn’t enough; the default behavior is for the purchase to complete, absent sufficient information.
But consumer-protection laws like the one in question only eke out marginal victories against the broader retail situation that Amazon inaugurated. The products available to purchase in the first place still feel arbitrary, as do their changing prices, their seemingly inconsistent availability and shipping times, the reliability of their arrival (thanks in part to Amazon Flex, the company’s gig-economy delivery service), and not to mention whether you actually get the product you ordered.
Amazon doesn’t necessarily agree that it has altered online commerce so significantly. “There is an important difference between horizontal breadth and vertical depth,” an Amazon spokesperson told me. “We operate in a diverse range of businesses, from retail and entertainment to consumer electronics and technology services, and we have intense and well-established competition in each of these areas. Retail is our largest business and we represent less than one percent of global retail and around four percent of U.S. retail.”
But there’s a reason that we used to have shoe stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, bookstores, and all the rest: Those specialized retail spaces allow products, and the people with knowledge about them, to engage in specialized ways of finding, choosing, and purchasing them. On Amazon, everything gets treated the same. The problem with an Everything Store is that there’s no way to organize everything effectively. The result is basically a giant digital flea market. Amazon is so big, and so heterogenous, that the whole shopping experience is saturated with caprice and uncertainty. It’s not that Dash purchases alone might produce a result different from the one the buyer intended, but that every purchase might do so.