Sunday, December 9, 2012

Spoiler Alert! How Amazon Stole Christmas

No two households are exactly alike, but in our house we’ve
always celebrated a pretty traditional Christmas. We get the Christmas tree, wrap the presents in holiday paper and bows, then sit around and agonize over the alluring beauty of it until Christmas. We examine all the colorful boxes, compare their different size, weight, and sound. Find our names on the labels and fantasize about what they might contain. Or try to thwart each other’s guesswork by wrapping gifts in mismatched boxes and adding objects to alter their weight.

My grandmother used to say, “the dreading is worse than the doing,” and she was generally right. But the same principal seems to work in reverse; anticipation is better than action. Opening presents is fun, but the real joy of the holiday is in the approach. Looking back on our childhood years, it’s not the gifts we remember but the nights we couldn’t sleep from sheer excitement, the days spent in happy contemplation of the pleasures that awaited us, and all the different forms that they might possibly take.

Like most children raised in this tradition, I also used to turn it into a treasure hunt. After the tree went up but before the gifts appeared beneath, I thought it was excellent fun to poke around in every closet and cupboard in search of the booty. This came to a screeching halt one year - when I accidentally succeeded.

I stood there in my triumph with nothing for reward but a growing disappointment. There was no celebratory atmosphere. No laughter and smiles and “thank you”s and hugs. No one was going to help me set it up and play with it; I had to leave it as I’d found it and pretend it never happened. Christmas was still weeks away, and now I had nothing to look forward to. Worse, when my brother was discovering what secrets his box held, I was going to be putting all my effort into faking my surprise. This is when I realized I had robbed myself of the best part of Christmas.

Amazon has been, on the whole, an exceptional company to deal with. As a rule, I am not a fan of corporate monstrosities, but Amazon has done admirably at withstanding reproach. Somehow, as the company has grown they’ve managed to keep site of a basic tenet that almost never survives rapid expansion: the more you give the customer, the more they give back. There are few places, particularly online, where you can shop without the paralyzing uncertainty to which low and middle class consumers like myself are accustomed: should I spend the money? Is it the right decision? Will it be worth it? What if it’s the wrong size, or doesn’t work, or looks nothing like the picture? I can’t afford to waste the money... Amazon understands that, in business, you have to spend money to make it. For every guilt-free return they accommodate, they earn countless years of loyalty and future purchases.

Of course, no company of that scale is without its Scrooge. Every year at this time, hundreds, if not thousands, of duplicate gifts are purchased. That means a massive influx of post-holiday returns. To maintain consumer confidence, Amazon makes the return process as painless as possible. But at some point, somewhere, a board meeting or two have been held to discuss methods to increase revenue and cut company costs. And some suit-and-tie made a suggestion, and the board was convinced it was genius.

A few days ago, my father saw something new appear on my brother’s wishlist. He promptly purchased it as a Christmas gift, only to notice afterward that it was marked purchased on my brother’s list. Disappointed, my dad concluded that my brother must have purchased it for himself and that he would have to get something else. Fleetingly, I wondered if the purchase it could refer to was my dad’s, but I dismissed it. Amazon wouldn’t willfully spoil my brother’s surprise. That would be absurd.

somebody may have purchased this for you recently
Then the other day, something else happened. I had stumbled onto a product similar to an item I had in my own wishlist, and decided to bring it up to compare. But when I tried to click the link from my wishlist, it prevented me. Instead I received the message, “somebody may have purchased this for you recently” and asked me to confirm that I wanted to proceed. All of my other links were still clickable. Something told me there was no “may” about it.

A quick google search led me to instructions on Amazon’s site directing me to my profile settings. Tucked at the foot of the page was a little check-box next to the words, “Don't spoil my surprises”. Great. The problem is - it was already checked.

If you are one of those unusual people who have ever engaged yourself in an ongoing series, you may be familiar with the tremendous taboo of revealing critical plot information to someone not yet up to that point in the story. In other words, spoiling the story. Your neighbor may know how it ends, but you want to get there on your own. By divulging that information they are robbing you of the experience.

The same principal applies to gift giving. The joy of gift exchange, at least for myself and I think at least a few others, is not the acquisition of things. If that were the case, we could all spare ourselves the runaround and put the money we spend on gifts toward whatever we want from our own lists. But it’s not a gift when you give it to yourself. There’s no mystery. No suspense. And no human connection. The pleasure of opening a gift is in not knowing what to expect. The pleasure of giving a gift is in imparting that joy to others. There is nothing like being the source of a smile that answers to a special discovery.

Of course, not everyone feels the same. Some would rather spare themselves a little inconvenience down the line. Amazon would certainly like to spare the expense. For that reason, it is more than reasonable to provide the option to be informed which items off your list you’ll be receiving as a gift. It’s even more reasonable to make that information accessible to the gift buyers. Just last year my brother and I bought the same gift for our mother that her sister had, and we both shopped from her wishlist. A notification at checkout that the wishlist item had been purchased would have been a welcome improvement.

But if that option is only available with the caveat that the recipient will be informed – if that convenience only comes at the cost of the surprise - we would readily decline. We suffer through the worst of the holidays - the expense, the stress, the hours of travel and preparation – all for that moment when her eyes light up and she laughs and her smile radiates with childish delight. We live for that moment of a return to childhood, ourselves, as we weigh a package in our hands and surmise at its contents. We don’t go through it all just to have the moment of climax anesthetized by foreknowledge and false posturing.

In the capricious world of commerce and an era of rising ethical consciousness, Amazon has managed to accumulate remarkable good will. I can only hope that this is a transient mistake, and they aren’t in line to squander it. Please adjust this to be a victimless policy. Amazon - don’t be a Grinch and steal Christmas.

If you have an opinion on this issue and would like to effect Amazon policy, please follow the "Help" link from the Amazon main page and click the orange "Contact Us" button from the right-column menu.

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