How to avoid a bad shopping trip on Amazon

We’ve got some simple tips you can take to keep Amazon’s Alexa from eavesdropping into your conversations and potentially sharing them. USA TODAY

For most Amazon shoppers, the experience is likely a seamless one: you search for a product, perhaps read reviews and see related items, and if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’ll likely have it delivered quickly.

It should be that simple – especially when Amazon’s $178 billion in annual sales rank the company as the largest Internet retailer and marketplace in the world.

Alas, shopping on Amazon doesn’t always go smoothly. You may have heard of a Georgia woman recently charged $7,455 to have three cartons of toilet paper delivered (yes, she was eventually refunded). Or a Montana mom who, when trying to return a t-shirt that was too small, was asked to send a picture of her as proof to the Amazon third-party seller. Sheesh.

The following are a few ways to reduce the odds of a bad shopping experience on Amazon – especially among third-party sellers, companies that use Amazon’s site as a sales platform and now account for about 52% percent of all sales. Nearly a quarter of all third-party sales are from global sellers, according to Amazon, which means they could be an overseas company.

Difficulty getting in refunds from third-party sellers has been at the heart of recent stories about shopping on Amazon gone bad. Consider these tips to avoid any hassles.

Shipped by Amazon — not ‘Fulfilled By’
Stick to products sold by Amazon and not fulfilled by them.

(Photo: Screenshot of Amazon.com)

“Read the fine print,” suggests Michelle Madhok, a New York-based online shopping expert and founder of SHEfinds.com. “I’d recommend only buying things that are shipped by Amazon, and not fulfilled by Amazon,” because third-party seller disputes are becoming an “increasing problem on Amazon.”

Some third-party sellers ship their products to Amazon’s fulfillment centers and let Amazon take care of the shipping and packing, a service called Fulfilled by Amazon. These products can be eligible for Amazon’s Prime two-day free shipping services. Others ship from their own warehouses and generally aren’t Prime eligible.

Instead, Madhok advises looking for products that say, "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com."

Based on Madhok’s own experience, third-party seller issues include long delivery times and low-quality items, especially from China.

“I saw a great price on a fancy brand of candles I wanted, but they weren’t any good,” she said. Madhok says she complained to Amazon and got her money back. “I also bought a Halloween costume that said in small print delivery would take 6 or 8 weeks, so I cancelled it.”

But you might not to return items too many times as it could lead to a ban by Amazon, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. That said, Amazon responded in a statement that it is rare for a customer to receive a ban for abusing their service for a long period of time.

More:Woman charged $7,000 for Amazon toilet paper delivery gets refund — more than two months later

More: Here’s what to check on Amazon to avoid a crazy $7,000 shipping bill

Counterfeit concerns
This Rubik’s Cube copycat doesn’t claim to be the authentic puzzle, but be aware there are counterfeit items on online shopping sites.

A report from the Government Accountability Office revealed many products purchased from third-party sellers on five major e-commerce sites, including Amazon, were not only counterfeit but potentially harmful to your health. Some “knock-off” cosmetics were found to contain poisonous substances like mercury or cyanide, toys and other items contained lead, and unofficial iPhone adaptors may be more prone to fire or causing electrocution.

Madhok says some third-party sellers “scam” Amazon by closing down and opening up under another name after they’re paid by Amazon. “Customers will have money refunded, yes, but it’s deceptive,” she adds.

More:Shoppers: Fake Fingerlings sold through outside sellers on Amazon, walmart.com

Read the return policy

Before you buy, read what the third-party seller offers by way of returns or refunds.

Amazon says it offers an A-Z Guarantee, “so that customers can buy with confidence on Amazon.com, whether they purchase from Amazon or a third-party seller, and whether they’re based near or far.”

Third-party sellers must either provide a return address within the United States, provide a prepaid return label, or offer a full refund without requesting the item be returned, it said.

Do your homework
Be suspect if overseas sellers have several overzealously positive comments.

But it’s up to you to look closely before you buy to see if it’s coming from Amazon or a third-party seller – even if it’s a “Sponsored” item. If it is a third-party seller, like Xiaxue or iFunda, you can click on the name of the company, which link to a small bio and might say if it might say if they’re overseas (Amazon says companies do not need to disclose their locations).

It’s also recommended to read the reviews from previous customers — before you buy – though Madhok cautions many are written by employees or friends of these overseas companies. Therefore, watch out for overzealous comments, often with spelling and punctuation errors.

To complicate matters, Amazon shut down its Customer Discussion forums last October, therefore shoppers don’t have an official place to ask questions and receive feedback from other Amazon users.

As a result, shoppers should look elsewhere for reviews of third-party sellers or its products. Use a search engine like Google to type in a query, or turn to friends, family and colleagues over social media. You can also read reviews of products at other shopping sites.

For example, the Q18S smartwatch Amazon sells through third-party sellers is also available on, say, Wish.com, or other online retailers and marketplaces.

Additional buyer protection

“As a general rule of thumb, always shop with a credit card that offer good purchase protection,” advises Madhok, “even though Amazon is good about refunding money if there’s a dispute.”

Having this extra layer of protection, and peace of mind, is important, regardless of where you shop online.

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