The Web Is No Place for Arm Twisting

Corporate "cyberbullies" violate original spirit of e-commerce.

The phenomenon of "cyberbullying" is a hot topic of late. Teens are taking the hazing, teasing and gossip-mongering that used to be confined to locker rooms and school cafeterias and spreading it globally via e-mail, IM and social networking sites. Without trivializing the real pain and suffering that vulnerable adolescents are experiencing as a result of cyberbullying, I would suggest that a different form of cyberbullying is exploiting defenseless online consumers.

Web shoppers are not being made the subject of taunts or rumors by the online retailers they frequent. However, they are experiencing a type of corporate arm-twisting that completely goes against the communal, innovative ethos of e-commerce. Let me give a few real-life examples (if virtual retailing can qualify as "real life").

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Fandango, the online purveyor of movie tickets, states on its Web site that it "entertains and informs consumers" and offers them "the ability to select a film and conveniently buy tickets in advance." The Web site is chock full of movie-related news and games, and the company does allow customers to buy movie tickets via Web or phone. However, there are a few caveats that go along with their consumer offering.

To use Fandango's most convenient print-at-home ticket-buying option, you must register and create a Fandango account. If you mistakenly buy a ticket for the wrong time, theater or film, you're out of luck - there are no refunds or exchanges. And of the biggest concern, Fandango enters exclusive deals with movie theaters, meaning consumers cannot use alternate online purchasing mechanisms, such as those provided by Yahoo and Google, to buy tickets at many theaters.

If Fandango is truly interested in giving customers maximum convenience, why not just allow them to print tickets at home without registering? Print-at-home sales would probably increase and customers could be enticed to create accounts with other, non-commercial incentives - such as social networking features to discuss their favorite films with other Hollywood buffs or access to exclusive sneak preview content.

E-commerce is supposed to be an open marketplace, which also casts a shadow of doubt on Fandango's anti-competitive exclusive deals with movie theaters. Why not give customers a fair choice and win their business by offering the most convenient and innovative customer service? Isn't the Internet supposed to be all about innovation?

And as far as offering refunds or exchanges goes, understandably Fandango does not want customers to change their minds at the last second, but we all know how easy it is to make a mistake when executing an online transaction. Even providing customers a five- or 10-minute grace period to review their ticket orders would be a giant step forward in the convenience the company claims to offer.

Amazon's Bully-on-Demand

Amazon requires customers to create an account to make any type of purchase, but one-ups Fandango by allowing shoppers to cancel an order before it is shipped. However, where the e-commerce titan has really been engaging in bullying behavior is in the area of POD (print-on-demand) publishing.

POD publishing allows books to be printed as they are ordered, eliminating the need for printing, storing or delivering large print runs in expectation of sales. This has opened up the opportunity to create and sell books to a wide variety of independent authors and publishers, giving readers a range of choice they never previously had available. POD publishing is a perfect example of the democratic, "do-it-yourself" spirit of the Internet.

Yet Amazon, one of the original pioneers of e-commerce, has been brazenly leaning on POD authors and publishers to use its proprietary BookSurge POD publishing service. Amazon has been informing the creators of POD books that unless they publish through BookSurge, the "buy" button on their book pages will be turned off. This would still allow them to sell books on Amazon via third-party seller or consignment, but remove the easiest and most profitable selling method.

Especially considering Amazon's proud heritage as one of the original e-commerce vendors and a source to find virtually any book ever printed, it is sad to see the company stoop to such means of squeezing out a few extra bucks from its POD clients, most of whom already make very little, if any, profit. Furthermore, customers who may be interested in having easy access to independently-produced literature that is generally unavailable in bookstores are being cut off. This short-sighted policy produces no winners, not even Amazon comes out ahead.

eBay-PayPal Gang Tactics

Finally, I would be remiss not to point out some shenanigans eBay, another veteran of the "cool" days of early e-commerce, is attempting to pull in Australia. According to the Associated Press, eBay is seeking permission from the Australian government to require customers in that country to use the eBay-owned PayPal electronic payment service to make their purchases. The company says this will better ensure trust and security by more efficiently preventing fraud.

Yeah, right. PayPal is a fine service, but let's get real here. Indirectly or otherwise, eBay will increase its profit from each Australian transaction by ensuring it collects all the commissions and fees from payment processing. There are other safe ways to electronically execute transactions, and if a seller and buyer would instead prefer to privately handle payment, why shouldn't they have that option?

Come on, cyberbullies. Let's return e-commerce to the open, competitive, innovative space it started out as. After all, even the toughest kids on the playground usually outgrow the urges to twist arms and seize lunch money at some point.