First, a statement: I was one of e-commerce's early converts in Kolkata. I placed my first order on Amazon.com for a book called Digital Darwinism back in early 1999. At $14 shipping, this was meant to be an one-off, just for the experience. However, for all the excitement, the book did not arrive even after the promised three week delivery time. I obviously chose the cheapest shipping option, which meant the book had to come by India Post from Mumbai. So, I decided to give Amazon a grace of a week, knowing how our postal system works. But when it still did not arrive, I wrote to Amazon - half-hearted - saying that the books have not arrived yet, and if they could let me know when it was shipped.
In three days time, I received a replacement copy of the book, sent Fedex First Class. The original book did arrive, in a leisurely eight weeks. But by then, I have become a convert.
It isn't difficult to see why Amazon lost so much money in its first years. But then, they bought my lifelong loyalty through that extraordinary act of responsiveness. I do buy books and gadgets worth £250 every month [that's my estimate/budget, so I definitely spend more than that amount] and almost all my purchases are through Amazon UK. Who says long term thinking does not pay in business?
So, when in India, one thing I surely miss is the extraordinary online shopping experience that I get in the UK. And, believe it or not, as I try to assess how my life will be if I moved back to India, this, along with the availability and speed of Broadband, is my biggest concerns. I know India will catch up, but it has a long way to go.
As if to illustrate this point, I had this amazing experience with Indiaplaza.in recently. I used to be regular at Fabmall, the site's earlier incarnation, and even maintained a book club membership when I was in India. Since then, I used it occasionally, primarily to buy books not otherwise available in the UK, or in some cases, to avail Indian edition prices.
Compared with my Amazon experience, Indiaplaza.in offers low value. The interface is clunky, and the order process is slow and payment gateway often fails [I had to try thrice to place my last order]. But there is more than that. I am a regular book buyer, and I find it easier, cheaper and more reliable to buy books on Amazon than in a physical store. I am sure I owe an explanation, especially why I find this easier and more reliable: obviously for the user ratings and feedback. Amazon also gives out quite a bit of detail about the books, its physical dimension, number of pages, when it was published and even the editorial comments. For some books, it is even possible to look inside the book, and flip through the table of contents. Indiaplaza.in, by comparison, is pedestrian, often missing out on the book's cover photo, and dishes out only very limited detail. And, this is why, while 100% of my books and electronics purchases are online in the UK, I only occasionally buy through Indiaplaza.in, preferring Crossword instead [though the web site is roughly 20% cheaper].
The other problem with Indiaplaza is its customer service. It is terrible, in short. My latest interaction today pushed me over the edge - made me feel angry, a rare thing :) Here is what happened.
I noticed a promotion on Indiaplaza recently. They were offering a very good deal - if I pre-ordered Nandan Nilkeni's Imagining India, they were promising an author-signed copy for a limited time, a Rs. 100/- Gift Certificate and a free Book Club membership, which will entitle me enhanced discounts. I read excerpts of Mr. Nilkeni's book on newspapers, and wanted to read the book. So, I immediately clicked and placed the order.
Here is what happened next. The book arrived, unsigned. A mail notified that the book club membership and the gift certificate will be sent on a particular date. The Gift certificate arrived on mail, but not the book club membership. Surprisingly, I did not complain - I have gotten used to such sloppiness and may be the Indian indifference inside me is alive and well. But, indeed, I was not impressed.
However, I lost my cool when I tried using the Gift Certificate and was prompted that it will only work for orders over Rs. 350/-. Not a big amount [I was trying to place an order worth Rs. 300/-], but this was a bit too much. I felt obliged to write, especially because I filled in a survey recently wherein I was rather complimentary about Indiaplaza.
What happens next is instructive - things businesses should avoid. First, I get a reply, which is insensitive at best, though I shall classify this as bureaucratic and rude. I shall quote the mail here:
Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri,
I would like to inform you that that you have placed the order for Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century with out authors sign. The price of the book with authors sign is Rs 573.
The free gift certificate worth Rs 100 and the book club membership worth Rs 500 has been sent to you. The GC sent to you for the book Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century is a conditional GC and it can be redeemed only against the order value of Rs 350/-.I apologize for the inconvenience caused to you in this regard.
I am put off by the "Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri" part itself. I would have expected a "Dear Supriyo" or "Dear Mr. Chaudhuri", or at least a Hi. That format of addressing tells me that I am possibly getting a mail from a Bot. But, then, the content - they are telling me that the price with Author's signature is more [an usual thing on auction sites, but slightly out of place for a mainstream bookseller], after the promotion is done and the order is placed. My complaint was that I was not told whether the book club membership has been activated, and the flat statement clearly tells me that I am a liar. And, in context, the apologies in the end appears insincere and cosmetic.
By now, of course, my mind is made up - I am not going to touch Indiaplaza.in ever again. However, no one wants to be called a fool and a liar in consecutive sentences, so I had to write back. I wrote this:
One clarification: where do you think that option was given - to pay more for the author-signed copy?
I clicked on your promotion - and got this book. Am I right in thinking that the promotion was intentionally misleading?
I would have appreciated if I was told about the book club membership and the fact that the GC is conditional. I do think there is a serious problem with communication, as I felt rather infuriated with the tone and content of this reply. I do think that you haven't got it at all.
And, lo behold, this is the reply I get:
Dear Supriyo Chaudhuri,
I am very that the promotion displayed does not show the amount of the books. But actually the promotions shows the 2 different books available.
Also the gift certificate details regarding the condtion is mentioned in the terms and condition whereas it is not mentioned in the main page.
As the promotion is being run by our vendors we are unable to help you in this regard.
While I am used to talking to an automaton and being addressed Supriyo Chaudhuri all the time, I am stunned because (a) the mail is so carelessly written, including the missing word - was it sorry? angry? annoyed? amused? - in the first sentence; (b) The promotion does not show two books, as I could dig out the original promotion email, which clearly states the price and promises a signed copy - so the agent is lying; (c) The company is guilty of hidden catches, as they seem to be burying a very important point - that the Gift Certificate is conditional - in the 'Terms and Conditions' [which one does not read while committing the original purchase]; and (d) The company, or the agent, is naive and committed the mother sin of Internet shopping, by trying to blame 'the vendors'. I did not place my trust on the vendors, did I?
It is ironic that this experience centers around Mr. Nilkeni's book, which is an optimistic assessment of India's chances, and places its faith on Indian entrepreneurship and inventiveness. The story, without trying to find mal-intent, shows the systemic issues that Indian companies must face: a provider state mindset. In the socialist states, and in the past, the power belonged to the seller, the supplier. But that is past: Today, the consumers control the agenda. I am the consumer in this case, and can reasonably expect a bit more respect and care. I surely deserve a sincere apology, and definitely not deserve to be called a fool [because i did not notice there are two books] and a liar [because I say I did not get a notification on Book Club membership].
So, that is the most captivating incident of my Day Three in trying to figure how life in India will be. I spent yesterday in College Street, walking through the ruins of Bengali Book Trade and regretted the lack of imagination. Today, I stood face to face with the unimaginative corporate India, which can't get basic things straightened up. Indians may soon be in the moon, and create Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, but to create an Amazon.com, it is going to take a while.
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