Amazon (AMZN) is struggling to prevent sellers from using fake reviews to manipulate their ratings and mislead consumers, something which could hurt Black Friday shoppers, new research by consumer group Which? revealed.
Which? looked at listings for some of the most popular Black Friday product categories, including tablets, smartphones and wearables, as well as headphones and mobile phone accessories, where it has previously found evidence of concerning review activity.
It found “blatant evidence” of sellers incentivising shoppers to write positive reviews, using free gifts or vouchers.
“Despite exposing this practice in previous investigations and it being in breach of Amazon’s site policies, this appears to be a persistent issue,” Which? said.
In a number of cases the products were also labelled with the “Amazon’s Choice” endorsement and had comments within reviews such as: “wouldn’t have placed this review but for the fact that I am hoping to claim the free gifts offered by doing so.”
It also found large numbers of positive reviews uploaded in a suspiciously short space of time, as well as a tactic called “review merging” – where sellers merge dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings as a way to transfer positive reviews from one to the other.
It appeared that an account had even been hacked and used to leave a five-star review.
Which? said Amazon has policies that prohibit sellers from engaging in this type of activity, and has mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, but there is concern its approach is not effective enough.
With many high street stores forced to shut due to the UK’s new lockdown restrictions, it’s likely that more people than ever will turn to online shopping in the weeks ahead.
Which? research has found that 34% of consumers planned to buy something on Amazon this Black Friday, compared to 16% at John Lewis and 7% at Currys PC World, which adds to why such behaviour is particularly troubling.
The consumer group quoted data from ReviewMeta which shows there was a more than 30% rise in the proportion of “unnatural reviews” on Amazon between March and August following the first lockdown.
Previous research has also revealed that people could be more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products online if they have been boosted by fake reviews.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has estimated that £23bn ($30bn) a year of consumer transactions are influenced by online reviews and many people will be looking to use them as a helpful guide to get a good deal in the sales.
Which? called for firmer action to address the recurring problems caused by fake reviews on online marketplaces and other platforms, so that consumers can shop online with confidence.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of home products and services, said that “with people more reliant on online shopping than ever before due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s vital that online platforms step up and do more to protect their users from fake reviews, otherwise the regulator [CMA] must be prepared to swiftly step in with strong action.”
Which? suggests that if a product has an unusually high number of reviews relative to others in that category, especially if these reviews are overwhelmingly positive, consumers should exercise caution.
It also advised shoppers to read reviews and look for suspicious repetition or signs of incentivisation; check negative reviews to see if there are recurring issues; and be careful when it comes to brands they don’t recognise.
Black Friday spending in the UK is predicted to increase by £400m this year, despite fewer people participating in the sales, according to annual research from shopping comparison site Finder.
UK shoppers are expected to spend an estimated £6bn in 2020’s Black Friday sales. This is an increase of £400m on 2019’s estimated figure of £5.6bn. It means the average spend this year has also risen by £45 – 18% – to £296 from last year’s £251. In 2018 the figure was £235.
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