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Amazon reveals more on Amazon's Choice picks, but senator unimpressed

The product recommendations program has been criticized for potentially steering customers to buy inferior goods.

The Amazon application seen displayed on a Sony smartphone
Concerns have mounted over Amazon's management of its massive online store.
Photo Illustration by Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Amazon is defending its Amazon's Choice product recommendations, following critical questions about the program from two Democratic US senators.

In August, Sens. Bob Menendez and Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to provide details on how it selects products for Amazon's Choice. They said they were concerned the program may be promoting inferior products and misleading customers into buying them. The letter was prompted in part by a story from BuzzFeed that mentioned several shoddy products and items with inauthentic reviews that received the coveted Choice label.

Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, responded in a letter last week, saying: "We know that customer trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so we strive to protect customer trust in Amazon's Choice selections."

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He said Amazon has bolstered its process for removing fake reviews and outlined several efforts the company has made to stop inauthentic reviews, such as by working with social media sites to take down groups set up to pay for reviews.

Huseman added that "a broad variety of factors" are considered when bestowing the Choice label, including "popularity, available inventory, customer reviews and ratings, pricing, customer service contacts, return rates, and product quality."

Menendez was unimpressed, saying Monday that Amazon's response failed to show that Choice listings meet quality or safety standards.

A screenshot of electric toothbrush listings, with an Amazon's Choice label on the product on the left, and a best seller label on the product on the right.

Screenshot from Amazon

"What is clear is that Amazon does not consider product quality, as shoppers would expect, to be any more important than other factors, such as how many units are in their warehouse," he said in an emailed statement. "I am left with more questions than answers and have less confidence that Amazon Choice is helping shoppers choose the best quality products available."

This back and forth comes as Amazon has faced criticism over how it manages its massive online store, with concerns cropping up about dangerous product listings and fake reviews. The company also has to contend with some sellers taking over old product pages and updating them with new products, helping them piggyback off previously positive reviews for unrelated items. BuzzFeed's story mentioned several of these so-called recycled reviews pages, which Amazon has since taken down.

Amazon is typically secretive about how Amazon's Choice works, often sticking mostly to describing the program as highlighting "highly-rated, well-priced products that are available to ship immediately." But in the letter to the senators, it provided a handful of new details about the program:

  • Amazon bestows more than 2 million Amazon's Choice labels on products every month. That compares to the hundreds of millions of listings on Amazon's site.
  • Algorithms and other tools are used to make these selections, while Amazon workers monitor the program and remove the Choice badge if problems are found with any listing. These employees don't manually review every item given a Choice badge and they don't complete quality checks on the products.
  • Products usually need an average of 4.0 stars out of 5, or above, to get a badge though Amazon will approve products as low as 3.5 stars. Amazon may exclude a product from Amazon's Choice eligibility if it has a high percentage of 1-star ratings.
  • Sellers aren't allowed to pay to join Amazon's Choice, but the company said a few products -- currently, 73 unique items -- benefit from Amazon working directly with vendors to ensure "great pricing,  guaranteed shipment availability, and strong product capabilities and features." These items, which are in product categories that have a lot of variety, like TVs and laptops, do appear to get a leg up on receiving Amazon's Choice badges.
  • Items sold by third-party sellers make up over 56% of units sold with an Amazon's Choice badge. That point may defuse the senators' concerns that Amazon could be using this program to promote its own products, potentially disadvantaging smaller sellers on its site.

Menendez, Blumenthal and Sen. Edward Markey last month sent a separate letter to Amazon, calling on it to investigate unsafe products on its site, following an investigative report from The Wall Street Journal. Amazon was asked to respond to those questions by next week.

Here's the full letter response from Amazon's Huseman:

8.16.2019 Menendez Reply Re_Amazon's Choice by Ben Rubin on Scribd