Why I stopped shopping at Amazon.com: A reading expert sounds off... (Hochhauser)

Copyright 2000 by Mark Hochhauser

By Mark Hochhauser, Ph.D.
Readability Consultant


I've shopped at Amazon.com for several years. But I decided to quit shopping there because of:


1) Their new privacy notice. The revised notice (not a "policy") states that they gather information about consumers every time they search for a product.  That means to me that they've developed a profile on me based not only on what I buy, but what I'm looking for. I don't want them to know that much about me.

It may only be a matter of semantics, but according to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (2000) a "policy" is a procedure based on material interest, or a course of action used to guide decisions, while a "notice" is more of a warning or announcement. What does it mean for consumers to be protected by a privacy notice instead of a privacy policy?


2) Difficulty in canceling my account. How do you cancel your online account at Amazon.com?  You can enter your account to make any changes, but I didn't see any way to cancel an account.  When I e-mailed them about canceling my account, here's the response I received:


Customer privacy is an issue we take very seriously.  Please rest assured that Amazon.com is *not* in the business of selling customer information.

 We have developed, and may continue to develop, business relationships and co-branded sites with other online companies (such as Greenlight and toysrus.com).  We will make it clear when an affiliated merchant is involved in any transaction you may make via our web site.

 If you would prefer not to share your personal information with an affiliated merchant, you may always choose not to shop with that merchant.  In either event, because the customer information shared with these jointly owned or co-branded businesses is limited to information regarding your transactions with those merchants, information about your other purchases at Amazon.com (such as books and music) will never be shared with any jointly owned or co-branded business without your consent.

 Please note that it is fairly easy to tell when you are dealing with an affiliated merchant, and we do not share your information with non-affiliated third parties (i.e., direct marketers and spammers).

 In the unlikely event that Amazon.com Inc., or substantially all of its assets are acquired, customer information may be one of the transferred assets, just as with a bank or other physical store that keeps customer records.

 I hope this has addressed your concerns about our Privacy Notice.  If you wish to close your account, however, please write back to us at account-close@amazon.com and we will do so.

 Please note that we cannot totally remove account information from our system, as it is part of our business transaction records. (Italics added.)

 Please feel free to write back to us if you have any further questions or concerns.  Thank you for shopping at Amazon.com.

 Best regards,

 Nathan H.

Earth's Biggest Selection


So they own my account information--forever. Note that the web page does not tell you how to cancel your account. I only found out from their e-mail.  They make it easy to become customer, but almost impossible to become an ex-customer.


3) Dynamic pricing. Amazon.com recently got caught charging different customers different amounts for the same product. They claimed it was a marketing experiment (which would not be repeated) but I'm not sure I believe them. How do you know if the price you're being charged is the only price for the product you're buying? Maybe some consumers pay more, some less. There's no way for you to know.


4) Conditions of use. According to Amazon.com's "Conditions of Use" --

Confirming Price and Availability

We cannot confirm the price of an item until you order, but please note that we do NOT charge your credit card until the date we ship your order to you.

Despite our best efforts, a small number of the more than 4.7 million items in our catalog are mispriced. Rest assured, however, that we verify prices as part of our shipping procedures.

If an item's correct price is lower than our stated price, we charge the lower amount and ship you the item.

If an item's correct price is higher than our stated price, we contact you for instructions before shipping.

After we have received your order, we will also inform you by e-mail if any items in your order prove to be unavailable.

Given their experiment with dynamic pricing, just what is their "correct price?"  How does dynamic pricing (which they say they're not doing any more) fit with their conditions of use?

With all the articles written about Amazon.com's privacy notice, nothing has been written about their "Conditions of Use"--which is written at a 3rd-4th year college reading level. Based on 1998 census data, about 24% of adults have a bachelor's degree or more. Since literacy researchers know that people often read several grades lower than their highest level of educational attainment, it is clear that most consumers will have a hard time understanding those "Conditions."

As unreadable as many privacy policies are, I suspect that Terms of Use/Conditions of Use are even more complicated and legalistic.  Maybe that's why columnists and privacy advocates haven't taken as close a look at them as they have privacy policies. Yet the two are linked.

My "readability analysis" of Amazon.com's "Conditions of Use" shows that it's a hard document to understand because it has too many long and complicated sentences, and too many big and unfamiliar words. The writing style is weak, and does not meet plain English criteria.


Readability Statistics Amazon.com's
Conditions of Use

Based on 57 sentences  

I. DOCUMENT STYLE ANALYSIS a) Reading Ease Difficult b) Human Interest Interesting c) Reading Grade Level
[24% of adults have a college degree]

 Grade 15-16 (3rd-4th year college)

d) Overall Writing Style Weak e) Plain English Grade D (62%)

II. SENTENCE ANALYSIS a) Words per sentence 28 [15-20 is best] b) Active voice sentences 52% [60% is best] c) % Simple & Normal Sentences 53%  [80% is best] d) % Wordy, pompous & complicated sentences 47% [20% is best]

e) Sentences written at grade 16-20

47% [5% is best]

III. WORD ANALYSIS a) Syllables per word 1.7  [1.5 is best] b) Big words (more than 2 syllables) 21%  [10% is best] c) Text Statistics
    < 1450 = common words
       1450 = normal words
    > 1450 = uncommon words


5) Privacy certification. Many online sites have TRUSTe certification, although Amazon.com is not one of them. In fact, Amazon.com does not have any privacy certification on their web site at all!

As a general observation, the TRUSTe "Site Coordinator's Guide" identifies "Readability" as one of "Truste's Required Guidelines." That guideline states that "The privacy statement must be easy to read and understand. Use language that will not confuse or frustrate users. We suggest writing at an eighth grade level without any legal jargon."

I have not seen any privacy policies written at an eighth grade reading level, even those at web sites with TRUSTe certification. I emailed TRUSTe about this contradiction, but did not receive a reply. What good is a privacy policy if people can't understand it?

I don't like Amazon.com's privacy notice, the impossibility of truly canceling my account, a potentially contradictory pricing strategy, complicated and confusing "conditions of use" and a total lack of privacy certification.

I'm taking my business elsewhere.


A biography of the author:

Mark Hochhauser, Ph.D., researches, writes, and consults on the readability of written information. 

The online version of the article does not contain the chart with that data; contact Mark for more information.

Mark Hochhauser, Ph.D.
Readability Consulting
3344 Scott Avenue North
Golden Valley, MN 55422
Phone: (763) 521-4672
Fax: (763) 521-5069
E-mail: MarkH38514(at)aol.com