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Amazon How-To: The ASIN

Posted in advice, Amazon, shopping, tips by commorancy on May 24, 2019

Amazon-LogoMany thousands of people shop Amazon daily. Did you know that every product at Amazon has a unique identifier? In most stores it’s called an SKU or stock-keeping unit. Amazon’s stock code is called the Amazon Standard Identification Number or ASIN. Let’s explore.

Product Identifiers

Every product stocked at any retailer uses a product identifier to locate that product in its database. In fact, many retailers have their own unique identifiers which are separate from such other identifiers as the Universal Product Code (UPC) or the Industry Standard Book Number (ISBN). In Amazon’s case, its unique identifier is the ASIN, not the UPC. The ASIN is visible on the URL of every product you view on Amazon. It’s a 10 digit code containing both letters and numbers. For example, a pair of cut resistant gloves has the ASIN of B012AFX9VY.

Many store products might have as many as two, three or even four unique identifiers. Books, for example, use the ISBN as an identifier in addition to the UPC code and Amazon’s ASIN. However, stores and online retailers typically use their own product identifier to identify stock in their system. For example, Target’s stock identifier is the DPCI code which goes back to Target’s original days of price stickering or tagging its merchandise with a Department, Class and Item… hence DPCI.

Even the UPC code, which is typically used at the register to ring up items, is simply translated to Target’s, Best Buy’s, Walmart’s or Amazon’s unique product identifier to locate the item and its price in its database.

How is the ASIN helpful?

Knowing the ASIN is useful because this quick identifier allows you to locate to a product on Amazon easily. If you’re on Amazon’s web site, you simply need enter the product ASIN into Amazon’s search panel and it will immediately bring up that item’s listing.

If you’re off of Amazon’s web site and you have the ASIN, you can easily craft a URL that will lead you to Amazon’s product listing in your browser. To craft a functional URL, is simple…

Append the ASIN number to the following URL: https ://amzn.com/ASIN … or in the case of these gloves: https://amzn.com/B012AFX9VY.

While that domain may seem strange, Amazon does own the amzn.com domain. This domain is actually intended to be used as a URL shortener for locating Amazon products in combination with an ASIN. Simply by post-appending the ASIN to this much shorter URL, you can feed this into your browser’s URL field and get right to the product’s details, pricing and all of that information. You can also use it on social media sites as a much shorter URL to aid with character limit restrictions.

Product Reviews

Many of us rely on Amazon’s product reviews to know whether the product is worth considering. Many of us also contribute to Amazon’s product review area for the products we purchase, particularly when we feel strongly about the item’s quality (good or bad).

Amazon has recently taken its website backwards in time (before Web 2.0). Amazon’s older editor was much more feature rich than its newest editor.

When writing product reviews, you could immediately search for items right in the ‘Insert Product Link’ area and then insert those product links and place them into your product review. Unfortunately, with Amazon’s recent interface change, Amazon web developers have inexplicably removed the insertion of product links via this former feature. Now, you have to know the product’s ASIN and craft a product link yourself.

Worse, you can only get access to this ‘Insert Product Link’ feature when you’re crafting a new comment on a product reviews, not when creating or editing a new product review. Odd. You don’t even get it when you edit a comment.

Here’s the latest search panel when attempting to insert a product link:

AmazonProductLink

As you can see, it’s odd. I mean, why even change it to this non-intuitive interface? Now you are required to open a new browser tab, go chase down the product using that separate browser tab, copy the URL then come back to this panel and paste it in and hit enter. That’s a lot of extra work which could be done (and was previously offered directly) in this panel. After that, it will either find the product and offer a SELECT button or fail to provide you with anything. And that “http ://…” nonsense is entirely misleading.

You can enter ASIN numbers right in this field and it will locate Amazon’s products from this panel strictly using the ASIN only, even though it does not indicate this in any way. No need to type in that silly http:// stuff. I’m not even sure why they want you to spend the time to go find and insert URLs here. Why can’t this panel search in Amazon’s product database directly with key words? Ugh.. Oh Amazon, sometimes I just don’t get you and your want to be obtuse.

Creating / Editing Product Reviews

Let’s move on. The new product review editor no longer offers a facility for inserting product links via a search helper tool. It’s simply gone. Poof. Nada. However, you can insert them if you happen to know the format, but you’ll have to manually craft them using the ASIN or ISBN.

If you’re wanting to add product links to your review, you have to now do it ALL manually. I’m entirely unsure why Amazon’s web development team decided to take this odd backwards step in its user interface, but here we are. You would think Amazon would be pleased to have people hawking additional products in their product reviews, but based on this step backwards, I’m guessing not. Either that, or someone at Amazon is clueless… maybe it’s a bit of both? *shrug*

Crafting Product Links in your Product Reviews

When you’re writing a product review and you realize you’d like to insert one or more product links into your review using the completely idiotic ‘new’ (and I use the term ‘new’ very loosely) and far less intuitive editor, you’ll need to craft them yourself.

The format of an Amazon product link is as follows:

[[ASIN:B012AFX9VY The Product’s Description Here]]

Example:

[[ASIN:B0792KTHKJ Echo Dot (3rd Gen) – Smart speaker with Alexa – Charcoal]]

The format of the product link is:

[[ID_TYPE:ID_NUMBER PRODUCT_DESCRIPTION]]

where

ID_TYPE = ASIN, ISBN or any other product identifier which Amazon supports
ID_NUMBER = The product’s unique identifier, like B012AFX9VY
PRODUCT_DESCRIPTION = The description of the product with spaces

Once you create a product link, you can use it in place of words and it will show a clickable link. Take note that there’s no space after [[ or before ]]. For example:

This product offers you two pairs of [[ASIN:B012AFX9VY Black Stainless Steel Cut Resistant Gloves]] for use in the kitchen.

once published, the sentence should translate to…

This product offers you two pairs of Black Stainless Steel Cut Resistant Gloves for use in the kitchen.

Questionable Changes

Because Amazon seems intent on sabotaging and gutting its own web user interface at the expense of important and useful features for shoppers, it’s possible that such product links may no longer function at some point in the future. You’ll want to try this out and see if this tip works for you. If it doesn’t work, it’s very possible that Amazon no longer allows product links inside its reviews. However, they are still available as of this writing. If you find that product links no longer work, please let me know in the comments below.

However, the https ://amzn.com/ASIN should continue to work unless Amazon loses or dumps this domain. Note that this feature doesn’t work when using https ://amazon.com/ASIN. Amazon’s primary domain of amazon.com is not set up to handle short ASIN link syntax. You’ll need to use the amzn.com domain instead.

If this information helps you, please leave a comment below. If not, then please leave a comment below and let me know that, too. Happy shopping and reviewing!

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Amazon’s “Not Helpful” Button Missing?

Posted in Amazon, business, politics, reviews, shopping by commorancy on April 13, 2019

A Reddit user posts that the “Not Helpful” button is missing from Amazon’s reviews. Several other commenters had stated that the button was still there for them. Let’s explore.

Not Helpful is actually not helpful

Amazon has been undergoing changes to their older review system. The first was to remove their discussion boards. Because Reddit really does discussion boards better, there was really no need for Amazon to keep their own. As a result, Amazon Discussions disappeared.

In addition to the removal of Amazon Discussions, Amazon decided to revamp their review system to be more useful. I’d personally complained several times about the “Not Helpful” button.

Why is the “Not Helpful” button not helpful? Because the only thing that button ever did is “downvote” a review in Amazon’s relevance sort. This means that those reviews that received the most helpful votes with the least not helpful bubbled to the top of their relevance sort. Effectively, the “Not Helpful” button was only used as a way for users to move reviews down in the relevance sort.

What ultimately came out of that was…

Abuse

With every system built, someone (or many someones) will find a way to abuse and game the system. The “Not Helpful” button became a target for abuse on Amazon. Instead of being used for the intended purpose of marking a review as not helpful, it became a target to screw with Amazon’s relevance sort and its “recommended” reviews for the product. For example, Amazon has two reviews it places into the top of its review area:

  1. Most Helpful
  2. Most Critical

These two reviews are at the very top above all other reviews. These are coveted positions. People want their review in that spot. To get another reviewer’s review out of either spot, a person (or many persons) would need to mark the review as “Not Helpful” (thus asking their friends to do this too). Over time, salty reviewers learned they could knock these reviews not only out of these two coveted spots, they could also lower their relevance scores and raise their own reviews up, potentially into these coveted positions.

As I said above, if there’s a way to game a system, people will find it and abuse it… and abuse the “Not Helpful” button they did. It took Amazon years to realize this problem, but it seems that Amazon finally understands this problem and has now removed “Not Helpful” from its interface.

Complaints

I’ve complained to Amazon several times over the years regarding the “Not Helpful” button. Not only did it not provide any actual helpful information to those reading reviews, the only thing it did is send high quality reviews to the bottom of the relevance list because of salty Amazon reviewers… people who just couldn’t stand to see a high quality review shown above their lower quality review. People figured out they could game the review system by getting their friends and coworkers to mark certain reviews “Not Helpful” and knock them down in the relevance list.

There was only one situation where “Not Helpful” didn’t have much of an effect. That was on Amazon Vine reviews. For whatever reason, if you’re part of Amazon Vine, pressing “Not Helpful” on Amazon Vine reviews didn’t do very much. I believe that Amazon intentionally weights Amazon Vine reviews much, much higher than a standard review. These reviews don’t get as much of a “ding” against them if someone presses “Not Helpful”. The Vine reviews always seem to get top placement in the relevance sort no matter what other people mark or say against them.

With regular reviews, the “Not Helpful” button just didn’t achieve what it was intended to achieve. It also didn’t give a review reader any useful information about that review. This button was only intended to help sort reviews with, supposedly, the most helpful at the top of the relevance sort. In fact, because users ended up gaming the “Not Helpful” button, the relevance sort actually ended up pointless as many of the best reviews actually ended up way down the relevance list.

I also complained about this problem to Amazon, but that complaint was also summarily ignored.

Amazon has Awoken

It’s taken years, but Amazon has finally realized the error of the “Not Helpful” button. Not only does Amazon no longer show “301 people out of 455 found this helpful”. Now Amazon simply shows “301 people found this helpful”. There was no reason to show the “Not Helpful” clickers… especially now that the “Not Helpful” button is gone.

If Amazon had forced the “Not Helpful” clickers to justify their click by requiring a comment on the review, that that would have actually been much more helpful. As review readers, we need to understand valid reasons why someone clicked “Not Helpful”. The only way to do that is by writing a comment. If a “Not Helpful” clicker chooses not to write a comment, then they don’t get their “Not Helpful” click counted. It’s only fair.

Unfortunately, that opens a whole new can of worms. Even if Amazon forced the “Not Helpful” clickers to write a comment, they could have written a garbage response and then deleted it just to get past that requirement. That’s also “Not Helpful”. It’s also a can of worms that Amazon couldn’t easily solve. They’re a retailer, not a technology company. Some efforts like this simply go over Amazon dev’s heads.

Instead, Amazon awoke and realized that it was simpler to remove the “Not Helpful” button and avoid the entire relevance engine gaming problem. It’s a very late fix in coming, but it’s still a much welcomed change. Gaming a review system is not the reason for that button’s existence. Reviews exist to inform potential buyers of problems they might encounter by purchasing that “thing” (whatever it is).

Review Snobs & Trolls

In any system that you create, there will be those “snobs” (and trolls) who believe that they know better about that system than anyone else. In reality, Amazon’s reviews are fair game in any way that they’re written. This includes pricing problems, listing problems, seller problems, shipping problems, customer service problems, packaging problems, purchasing problems and, yes, it also includes actual product problems.

A review should be about ANYTHING product related including Amazon’s handling of that product to you. Amazon doesn’t like reviewers (and it is now against Amazon’s terms and conditions) to write disparaging remarks against how Amazon handled the shipping, packaging and so forth of the items you purchase. Instead, if there’s a problem in the Amazon area, they don’t want that information in the review. Amazon wants you to contact their customer support team and lodge that complaint there, not write it in the review.

If you do place such a remark in the product review, your review is not likely to be published. Even Amazon is getting its own snobbery into its own review system. However, so long as you follow Amazon’s own snobbery rules regarding its review system, you’ll be fine.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be fine against the Amazon review trolls…er, snobs. These are the folks who feel the need to either report the review or leave a nasty comment regarding the content of the review. I’ve read many reviews that are not only articulate, but also have quite valid comments regarding the product. The reviews are quite apropos and definitely relevant. Yet, there’s inevitably some review snob who believes the review didn’t live up to their own snobby ideas about what a review should contain. To those folks I ask, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?”

Too many of these review snobs still exist on Amazon. As a blog writer, I typically write long, but concise reviews of products I purchase from Amazon. Many people don’t seem to like my longish reviews. Instead of refuting any of what I’m saying, they pick out one tiny little thing (a thing that makes no sense when taken out of context) and then write a complaint comment (and when the “Not Helpful” button existed, they would also press it). I could even swear that there were the same people trolling my reviews and intentionally marking them as “Not Helpful” so they can keep their reviews high in the relevance area.

Considering the length of my reviews, the depth and detail at which I discuss the product(s), how it works and my dissatisfaction with whatever parts didn’t work, they ignored all of that and focused on their own out-of-context remark. These are the very definition of “Review Snobs”. These are the folks who do not belong on Amazon and definitely need to have their review comment ability revoked. If Amazon offered a user blocking system, I’d have blocked these folks ages ago. If I could delete their comments from my review, I’d have done so. In fact, I have intentionally deleted my review and reposted it to get rid of some awkward and stupid comments.

It’s entirely a waste of my time to justify what I wrote in my review to some random “review snob” just because they feel the need to intentionally take something out of context. The review is there. Read it, understand it, learn from it. Don’t argue with me about some perceived injustice in my review that simply isn’t there.

Fan Boys & Girls

Unfortunately, far too many people are fans.. well, “fanatic” is more the correct word. And with fanatics comes fanatical behavior. That’s exactly what you get on Amazon. If I review the latest Britney Spears album and give it two stars and a rather scathing review, I guarantee some of these fanatical fans will come out of the woodwork to justify how “great” that album is… and how could I give it two stars?

Don’t question someone else’s opinion. With music and movie reviews, it’s all subjective opinion. You either like it or you don’t. Don’t come to someone else’s review and try to sway them to your belief system. That’s not how Amazon’s reviews work. Amazon’s reviews are always intended to be a mix of both high rated and low rated reviews. The intent is to allow people to state the things they liked and didn’t like about that “thing”. Trying to sway everyone to raise their rating isn’t the point of the review system. In fact, I’d like it if Amazon would let reviewers disable comments on reviews.

I should also mention that, in the case of Britney, instead of just talking about the beats or her singing abilities, I also discuss the production quality, the recording quality and even how the music was mastered. These fall under what I consider objective criteria. An album is professionally produced or it isn’t. An album is professionally mixed and mastered or it isn’t. An album is cohesive track to track or it isn’t. There’s lots of objective criteria about an album that can be heard in the tracks. Sure, the songs themselves are subjective, but the production of the album is most definitely chock full of objective criteria which is easily described.

With other products, like foods or kitchen gadgets or even toys, you can judge these by objective standards, also. For a gadget like a can opener, you have to ask, “Does it open a can?” Then you ask, “Was it easy to open the can?” Some can openers just work, others are a hassle. If the can opener breaks after the second use, then objectively the product was poorly constructed. These are all bits of information that should make its way into a product review. With a kitchen gadget, you have fewer fanboys and fangirls waiting out there for your review. For the latest Britney Spears album or the latest EA video game, you have lots of fanboys and fangirls waiting with baited-breath for those reviews to appear so they can be torn down.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a one star or five star review, these fanboys and fangirls will tear down anything. If it’s a one star review, it’ll be torn down because “nothing they like is ever one star”. If it’s a five star review, it’ll be torn down as “Fake”. Even something as simple as not having the “Verified Purchase” next to it is enough to mark a review as fake.

Verified Purchase

Amazon marks purchases made directly with Amazon as “Verified Purchase”. This signifies that the purchase was made through Amazon. Yet, Amazon allows you to review any product without having purchased it from Amazon.

For example, you can purchase the Amazon Dot, Amazon Kindle and other Amazon electronics from Best Buy, Target and other retailers. Yet, if you leave a review on Amazon having purchased these from a brick-and-mortar store (other than Amazon), you won’t get the “Verified Purchase” label. However, the review snobs come out of the woodwork without this label making it one of the first comments on a review. They claim you didn’t actually purchase the item at all. So then you’re reviewing without having purchased? I call BS on that. Are these people so stupid to think that Amazon is the only place where you can buy an Echo Dot or Kindle?

I’ve purchased many items from retail stores, including Echo Dots without purchasing it through Amazon. That doesn’t make my purchase or review any less valid. Sure, I should leave a comment on Best Buy’s site if I buy it there, but I also have an obligation to leave a comment on Amazon’s site for any Amazon-made product I purchase. Even if it’s not an Amazon product, Amazon purchasers need to know what they might be in for if they purchase the product through Amazon and it’s particularly bad.

Amazon Reviews

To come full circle, I’m happy to see that Amazon has finally done away with the useless, unnecessary and abuse-worthy “Not Helpful” button. It had no place in Amazon’s review system and served no purpose other than to allow review snobs to game the review system. That’s not a user’s call. Amazon should be the call of which reviews get moved to the top of the pile and which don’t. The “Helpful” button should only be one in many metrics used to move a review to the top of the relevance list.

If you don’t like a review, leave a comment and leave it at that. Not marking a review as “Helpful” is the same as formerly marking a review as “Not Helpful”. Simply avoid the review entirely if you don’t like what was written or leave a constructive comment on why you think the review is misguided.

Review systems, including the one at Amazon, are there to let you read a user’s experience and make a determination whether that product fits with your needs. It’s not there for you to argue with the review author over some perceived injustice. If you don’t like what was said, write your own review… or write a blog article.. or report the review to Amazon. Amazon doesn’t need review snobs running around trying to sway review authors into someone else’s way of thinking. Simply give that idea up. You can’t sway a review author’s mind with a few sentences in a comment.

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Rant: Google Ethics Board?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on March 28, 2019

PadlockGoogle has chosen to put together an “Ethics Board” to evaluate the “Morality” of Google’s uses of AI in its products. Will this be enough? Do we trust the people chosen for this task? Personally, I don’t. This one is short and sweet. Let’s explore.

Ethics Board

While it’s commendable that Google sees the need for such a board (particularly after its privacy encroaching devices), the difficulty is in knowing if this move is simply window dressing for Google or if this board actually has teeth. My guess is that this board is simply there to take money from Google and place it into each Ethics Board Member’s pocket… and Google is still allowed to get away with its prying privacy-encroaching technologies, more now than ever. This is actually a typical sly corporate tactic regularly used in California to “look good” (specifically to regulators) rather than actually performing.

The reality is, putting random people on a board from seeming positions of trust is completely questionable. I don’t know any of the people chosen, so how can I possibly trust any of them to make the right decision for Google, let alone the consumer? Additionally, are these people versed enough in Google’s technology initiatives to even have a practical say in the matter? Likely not. Will they even be given access to Google’s upcoming technologies? Likely not.

Window Dressing

Unfortunately, many companies do see the need for such oversight, but they set it all up in the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons. This is a prime example. Hiring random folks from colleges to “oversee” Google is akin to McDonald’s hiring random folks from non-food industries to oversee its food quality. Seriously, what are these people really going to do?

I can’t even imagine that this board will have any teeth to actually steer Google away from its privacy-encroaching unsavory-uses of its always-on listening devices. Even Amazon has not put together such a “committee”. The only thing this board will likely end up being is a patsy for when Google is found to have violated its own business ethics. They can then look to this board and say, “Well, you approved it” and then point the finger at the board for failing to “foresee” a problem. It’s a way to make shit run down hill and land on these unsuspecting folks on this board.

If I were considered for this board, I’d be highly skeptical of taking that position. It’s simply going to be a shitstorm for that board after Google does something questionable… and believe me, Google will.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

This saying is very apt in this situation. I can’t possibly see anything good coming from the decision to put together this board internally. The only way to possibly oversee a company like Google is from without, not within. There’s no way Google can watch itself ethically. If you’re paying people to watch your business ethics a**, there’s already an ethical dilemma. Because they’re on your payroll, they can’t exactly be ethically impartial. If some board member actually does try to “steer” Google away from some ethical problem, Google can simply replace the board member with someone more amenable to Google’s “new” strategy.

This is a no-win situation for Google, ethics or privacy. The only way this works is if an oversight committee is created by the US Congress (and other governing bodies) to oversee Google, Amazon and other AI offerings the size of Google. Only a third party government committee who is not on a company’s payroll can possibly (and legally) steer companies away from unethical consumer situations.

Unfortunately, the US is far too pro-business and far too anti-consumer privacy to offer up such an oversight committee. There is absolutely no way the government would put the brakes on Google or Amazon or any other company of this size even if what they are doing is ethically questionable.

Privacy Encroaching Devices

As a consumer, you need to consider long and hard about putting such devices into your home. Other than Google Chrome, I do not use have or use Google devices in my home. I already know Google can’t be trusted with this data. Google is an advertising company. It is designed to advertise to you. It’s designed to take what it learns about you and then feed ads to you that “fit” with your needs. In short, it is designed to watch what you do (invade your privacy) and then tailor advertisements based on the data it learned when it eavesdropped. Google is the very opposite definition of privacy. They want to know everything about you so they can “better” target you with ads. Amazon is a much smaller scale version of this. They only do this in relation to the Amazon.com web site.

Google has tentacles pretty much everywhere including within Chrome, Chromebooks, Google Home devices, ChromeCast and, yes, even in Android smart phones… especially in Android smart phones. The biggest problem is “Okay, Google” always on listening devices. There’s no way to know exactly what Google can listen to when it’s always listening… or exactly how that information might be used by Google.

The basic problem around this data collection is that Google stores that information about you on their servers. Servers which can be hacked. Data which can be leaked. Information that can be lost. It’s happened. It will happen again. Such an “Ethics Committee” put together by Google is, by it’s very design, strictly “window dressing”… and nothing more. They can’t stop leaks. They can’t stop data loss. They certainly can’t stop Google’s technology advancements.

Consumers Suffer the Consequences

Unfortunately, this means that consumers must suffer these insufferable consequences from companies like Google. The only way to steer a company like Google is through the courts, lawsuits and eventually the passing of laws. The only way to stop the likes of Google from breaching these unwritten ethical contracts is by holding Google, Amazon and others accountable to the courts of law when they break laws and/or when they go well beyond ethical boundaries. No board of ethics on Google’s dole is likely to stop that.

Having Google set up such an internal committee ultimately means, again, that this move is simply window dressing. These chosen board members, while they might have good intentions, are on the payroll of Google. This, by design, already means there’s an ethical dilemma. Taking Google’s money means you ultimately answer to Google. It also means that when something “bad” happens, that ethics board will end up being Google’s “fall guy”. So then, who watches the watcher?

There’s just no way that this situation ends well for either that ethics board or Google or ultimately, the consumer.

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Whole Foods: Everything wrong with Amazon in a store.

Posted in botch, business, shopping by commorancy on September 20, 2018

When Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017, I wondered exactly what that meant for Whole Foods as a brand and as a store. In 2018, I have found out, and so have the store employees. It’s not exactly what you might have predicted. Let’s explore.

Drastic Changes on the Aisles

One thing is clear, Amazon isn’t keeping Whole Foods stagnant. No, sir. However… are the changes being made inside the stores great? In many cases, no.

At one time, Whole Foods had a huge aisle of bulk tea ingredients. Today, they have maybe 10-15 jars total. Most of the jars are of the caffeinated varieties. Other than loose Rooibos, there was very little in the way of herbal tea ingredients. Whole Foods was the only real place where you could go get bulk tea ingredients. I was sadly disappointed at the state of affairs in visiting Whole Foods this weekend. The sad handful of jars seemed off, but I guess that’s what Bezos wants. In fact, the whole store seemed a little off.

Another department that has undergone drastic remodeling is the health and beauty area. Where they once carried clothing, scarfs, plush toys, mounds of loose organic soaps and various other eclectic HBA goods, today the area is nearly barren with only tiny amounts of certain items. They’ve also decided to do away with the HBA counter and rebuild a new kiosk for Customer Service there, so they can put in more cash registers. As if they need more registers… they barely man the ones they already have.

One other area of HBA (and other products) is product reformulations. I had been using the Whole Foods house brand of 365 glycerin bar soaps. Recently, I purchased new bars only to find a new label. After opening one of the soap bars I noticed a change in the fragrance. Clearly, Amazon is trying to cut costs by changing manufacturing of some of their house brands to new manufacturers.

I’ve also found other brands of products which have now changed. Where once Whole Foods had carried specific brands for years, these are now gone, no where to be found.  Whole Foods was really the only place that stocked these brands. I can’t imagine what this has done to those brand sellers. Whole Foods was likely their lifeblood. Without Whole Foods, they’re dead in the water. Safeway has never considered ordering those brands and likely never will. Good luck trying to find those brands ever again as those manufacturers are likely out of business.

Also, Amazon has started adding in small lockup rollabouts stocking Echos, Fire Tablets and Kindles, among other electronic and gadgety things. This is a grocery store, not Best Buy.

Checkout Lanes

Another change is that the Express lanes were always open with at least 1 or 2 people manning them. In the last 2-4 months, this no longer is true. I’ve walked in in the morning or in the evening and the Express lanes are always closed. Now they are keeping a few regular registers open. Not sure what’s going on with this change, but it seems odd considering the majority of people unloading their carts had less than 10 items to buy. Express lanes make more sense.

Not All Changes Are Good

I never performed my whole house grocery shopping at Whole Foods. It was always too expensive for full cart shopping. I only visit Whole Foods for very specific items that I cannot find at Safeway or other supermarkets. Today, I do most of my grocery shopping at Target, to be honest. Since Target has fully built out a respectable grocery section, when combined with Cartwheel discounts and the extra 5% RedCard discount, it’s usually worth my while to grocery shop at Target. They may not be the cheapest at everything, but considering the amount of discounts I get there, it’s more than worth it in the end.

Why this diversion about Target? Because Amazon and Whole Foods are trying something similar, except they’re mostly failing at it. Certain sale items and items with blue cards give extra discounts if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Considering how few items actually end up on actually discounted with Prime, it’s really not worth it. If Amazon could see fit to offer something like Target’s 5% off the entire basket + extra discounts like with Cartwheel, it might be worth it. Even then, I still find Whole Foods prices to be well above where they should be and nowhere near competitive with Target.

Worse, while Amazon seems to have cut some quality products down in an attempt to make even more money, nearly all of the dry goods still suffer from what I call, “highender syndrome”. What that means is that these items are sold at prices that are intended to entice buyers of a certain affluence level or above and feel make them “special”. However, what I’ve personally found after trying these products is while the price is well above where it should be, these packaged foods when prepared are lackluster and mostly taste of cardboard. Anyone willing to shell out that kind of dough for cardboard food, I got a bridge to sell ya.

As this section began, not all changes are for the best. The changes that Amazon has been making to Whole Foods have been questionable and seemingly geared toward selling Amazon products in a retail store environment. Amazon, if you really want to open an Amazon store, then just open one. Don’t ruin Whole Foods to make it a platform for Amazon products.

Workers Seem Disenchanted

I spoke with one worker at Whole Foods recently who is just as disenchanted with Amazon’s changes as I am. One thing he mentioned was that before Amazon’s purchase, the store could restock individual items as necessary. This meant that items were almost never out of stock and aisles were always full. I certainly noticed this change recently. When I visited to buy my glycerin bars, I noticed the unscented bars were out of stock. I purchased a couple of the other bars to hold me over for a bit. I then visited a day later and they were still out of stock. I’d say all told, I visited the store about 3-4 times before I finally found them in stock.

This employee told me that after Amazon took over, Amazon’s changes stopped allowing individual item reorders. This leaves shelves bare of products until the next whole shipment arrives. This is one of the things I always liked about Whole Foods before Amazon. I could walk into the store and nearly be 100% certain that the item would be in stock. In fact, I can’t even remember a single time when I visited Whole Foods and those soap bars (or pretty much anything else.. especially house brand items) were out of stock before Amazon’s involvement.

Hot Food Bar Changes

At the hot food area, I spoke with another worker who was disenchanted to see the home cooked prepared meals area has disappeared. No longer can you find the hot foods like mashed potatoes, cooked lamb shanks, meat loaf, grilled veggies and other staple foods they carried there every day. Now they’re gone and have been replaced by a Pizza display area. If the food isn’t on the hot food buffet area, too bad, so sad. I always liked buying those mashed potatoes there. They were the best in the store. The mashed potatoes on the buffet bar were plain and flavorless, as is most of that hot food bar food. The home cooked food they made at the food counter was much, much tastier.

Shopping at Whole Foods

Amazon has made no efforts to reduce Whole Food’s overall prices. But, Amazon has done much to remove, change, reduce and limit availability of items. I’m uncertain of this chain’s longevity. One of the things about operating a higher end gourmet grocery store like Whole Foods is attention to customer service and attention to product detail. Amazon doesn’t get it. Draeger’s gets it. Piazza’s gets it. Bianchini’s gets it. I realize these are SF Bay Area high end gourmet markets, but I’m sure you have some like these in your area, too. Whole Foods used to get what it meant to be classed as a gourmet grocery store, but since Amazon, they don’t.

As for the store proper, the reduction in products, the change in brand formulations and removal of mainstay brands doesn’t say Amazon knows what Whole Foods is really about. You can’t just begin gutting the fundamentals that made this gourmet grocery store and expect it to survive. Amazon is playing with fire making these changes to Whole Foods this fast. So far, I still see a fair amount of people shopping here. With each and every product removal or switch, the store will lose more and more customers.  Those customers who once frequented looking for that specific item only available at Whole Foods will end up over at Draeger’s, Bianchini’s or Piazza’s (or any of a number of smaller high end markets).

I know I’m not the only person who stops shopping at places when they kill my favorite brands and products that I relied on. Amazon hasn’t yet fully killed my last remaining reasons to visit Whole Foods, but changing soap manufacturers doesn’t bode well for at least one of those products.  Let’s hope I can use the new formulation without skin problems. We’ll see. They’ve also changed their brand of unsweetened ketchup. Yes, they still carry it, but the new brand jar seems quite a bit smaller for the same price. So far, they still carry the Stevia liquid brand that I use and at a “reasonable” price.

Feedback and Thank You

If you’ve gotten this far into this article, I’d like to thank you for spending your time here reading Randocity articles. In this YouTube age with people putting their faces out there as hosts, I have also contemplated setting up a channel for Randocity. Each time I have considered this, I realize that writing this blog is what I enjoy about blogging. Vlogging has its own set of constraints, time sucks and technical problems that to me don’t seem very enjoyable, particularly buying all of the necessary equipment and spending hours editing videos together.

If your shopping experiences have changed as a result of Amazon’s purchase of and changes to Whole Foods stores, please leave a comment below explaining what problems you have encountered in your shopping experiences. I will consider extending this article to include quotes from various reader’s recent shopping experiences. I’m always interested in hearing reader feedback. If you work at Whole Foods and are willing to speak up, please leave a comment below.

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Amazon Echo: What is it?

Posted in Amazon, business, cloud computing by commorancy on June 20, 2015

Amazon EchoWhat is Amazon Echo?

It’s an approximately 10″ flat black cylinder with reasonable quality speakers, an led ring around the top, a voice recognition system and a remote. While that may seem a little simple, these are the fundamental pieces that matter.

If you’ve ever used a Roku, a smart TV, Amazon Fire TV or an Apple TV, then you pretty much know what Amazon Echo is (minus the speakers). Except, Amazon Echo is intended to be used with audio programs (i.e., news radio, podcasts, music, prime music, weather radio, audiobooks, speech synthesis for reading articles, etc). Anything you can imagine with audio, the Amazon Echo would be the perfect companion. What Apple TV is to movies, Amazon Echo is to audio programs.

In addition to the Alexa audio assistant (like Siri), with a web, tablet or phone app, you can completely control your Echo with the Echo companion app. There is so much that is required by the app, you really can’t get along without it. In fact, you need the app to hook up the Echo to the WiFi which also asks a series of questions about how it will be used. So, if you don’t have a phone, tablet or computer browser, good luck setting up your Echo.

And no, you don’t need to own an Amazon tablet. You can use an iPhone, iPad or any other Android tablet or phone. In fact, you can even use your computer’s browser. Because the Amazon Echo is hooked to the Amazon eco-system, you will also need an Amazon login and password. But, you likely already have this since you purchased the Echo with it. But, if you’re planning on giving it as a gift, the person you are giving it to will also be required to have all of the above. So, Amazon Echo is probably not the best gift idea for those who are not computer savvy or those who choose not to be connected. Remember that this is first and foremost a cloud player device. The faster the speed of the internet connection, the better Echo will work.

Is the Amazon Echo useful?

That’s a good question. If you’re someone who listens to radio programs or other audio programs like podcasts, then perhaps. Though, keep in mind there are some severe limitations in what you can do with the Amazon Echo. For example, the partners Amazon has chosen for its ‘audio channels’ are limited to Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Audible. So, like Apple TV has limited video channels, Amazon Echo also has severely limited audio channels. Because of the audio partner limits, you really get a very small selection of content. For example, if Amazon had partnered with Sirius radio, there would be a whole lot more programming choices. Or, for that matter, partnering with Muzak, Soundcloud, Rhapsody, YouTube audio, Last.fm or other audio partners, I would say there would be much more choices in audio. Until then, Echo is nice but somewhat a novelty.

Alexa vs Siri

Alexa clearly has a better voice than Siri. But, other than the voice choice, the functionality is about the same. Like Siri, Alexa has easter eggs, knows what she knows, but what she knows is very very limited. So, don’t expect to be able to ask Alexa complex questions. To activate Alexa, you simply say the key word ‘Alexa’, suffixed quickly by what you want her to do. For example, ‘Alexa, set volume to 5’. Alexa is always listening for the keyword. Once you say the keyword, Alexa will begin listening for your command.

Wording matters with your sentences or Alexa gets quickly confused as to what you’re asking. For example, there’s a difference between asking ‘Alexa, play Frank Sinatra Songs for Swingin Lovers’ or ‘Alexa, play Songs for Swingin Lovers by Frank Sinatra’ or ‘Alexa, play the album Songs for Swingin Lovers by Frank Sinatra’. The shorter you tend to phrase your request, the more likely Alexa is to do the wrong thing or become confused and do nothing. Echo sometimes hears a phantom keyword and activates.

There are many times when you ask Alexa to do something that instead of responding with ‘Okay’ or some affirmative voice response, the led ring at the top flashes in a ‘special way’. So, we’re left to try and decode the R2D2 led responses from the Echo. Instead, I personally believe Alexa should affirmatively or negatively respond to every voice command. Unfortunately, she doesn’t.

Oh, and no, there is not yet a way to change the voice to a male or some other alternative voice. Though, you can change the wake-up word. So, it doesn’t have to be ‘Alexa’.

Alarms, ToDo Lists and Shopping

It is to be expected that you can shop for music through the Echo. So, if you ask Echo to play something that leads to samples, you can buy the song that’s playing. This will then be put into your library for future playback.

You can set up to 1 alarm and up to 1 timer. This means you can set an alarm for wakeup, but you can’t have two alarms. So, if you have a spouse or partner, you can’t have your own alarm and they have one set for a separate time. That won’t work, yet. If you want to time down two different things (important while cooking), you can’t do this either. It supports only one timer.

When the alarm or timer goes off, the audio noise it makes is limited to an internal sound only. Even though you have access to Prime music and radio, you cannot set the timer to use one of those audio sources. So… limited. There are also other limits.

There is a ToDo and Shopping list that you can ask Alexa to manage. You can say, ‘Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list’. When you open the Echo app, you will have your shopping list with you in the store. You can also remote control the Echo app as long as you have Internet on your phone. So, if you have a cat and you like to leave music playing, you can set up playlists, turn the volume up or down, change the music or shut it off.

Music

This is probably where the Echo shines its brightest. With its two speaker system, the audio is bright and vibrant. Not quite as nice as the Bose Soundlink Mini, but the sound is acceptably full and rich for the cylinder design. Unfortunately, it also has no stereo and it needs it. Amazon needs to offer a companion cylinder connected by bluetooth to offer full rich stereo sound. In fact, it could offer several BT connected cylinders to offer 5.1 or 7.1.

Beyond the sound quality issues, having access to Prime music is a necessity here. If you aren’t a Prime member, you really can’t take advantage of what Echo offers. If you do have Prime, then you get access to not only whatever you’ve purchased or uploaded to Amazon’s cloud player, you also get access to the full Prime music library. Still, Amazon’s Prime library is limited. It seems to have a lot of classic rock choices, but not all of it. So, while it has Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, it doesn’t have Supertramp, for example.

Though, Autorip is your friend with Echo. If you buy a CD with Autorip, it automatically becomes available on the Echo as soon as you’ve paid. However, if you purchase a CD at Target and rip it, you’re limited to 250 uploaded songs unless you pay Amazon an additional $25 a year for 250,000 song uploads.

Audiobooks

If you are a big Audible.com consumer, then you have a distinct advantage with the Echo. You can listen to all of your audio books right on the Echo. If your library is vast, you’ll immediately have a lot of content available to you. In hindsight, I should have been buying audio books when offered with my Kindle purchases, but I never really had any way to play them. With Echo, that’s changed. I will definitely consider audio books in the future.

Kindle Support?

In short, no. There is no support for Alexa to read back Kindle book content using Alexa. Alexa would be the perfect companion to the Kindles that do not offer audio voice playback. Considering this is an Amazon product and would be the perfect companion for the Kindle, the integration between Kindle and Echo is non-existent.

Audiophile Quality?

Definitely not. You’re playing streaming music here, in mono no less. So, while the Echo is great for podcasts, news and incidental background music, don’t give up your audiophile gear. Much of the music streamed from Amazon prime has the telltale mpeg haziness. Echo never skips or stutters while playing Prime or library music, so its streaming IO seems quite robust, but it just doesn’t sound high quality. This is definitely not to be considered an HD quality device as it clearly isn’t. So, don’t go into an Amazon Echo thinking you’ll be getting a high quality music experience. The music does sound decent, but it’s not anywhere near perfect.

Though, for news, podcasts and other spoken word programs, the Amazon Echo is perfect for this use.

Speech Synthesis and Browsing

The voice for Alexa sounds great most of the time. However, when reading back a synopsis Wikipedia article, she doesn’t always do a great job. While music is Echo’s strongest area, the article reading is easily one of Echo’s weakest. Instead, of becoming an audio web browser (which is what Echo should become), Alexa only offers page snippets of articles and then encourages you to crack open a browser or tablet and finish reading there. If Echo is going to do this, why bother using Alexa at all? If I can get better results by reading it myself, then Alexa is pointless for this purpose.

Instead, Alexa should provide full 100% article reading. Read me news, wiki articles or, indeed, any other page on the web. If I ask Alexa to browse to Yahoo News, Alexa needs to be able to read article headlines and let me choose which article to read back. Literally, Echo should become an audio based web browser. Echo should set the standard for audio web browsing so much so that Yahoo and Google optimize their pages for audio browsers much like they are now doing for mobile devices.

Kitchen Use?

Echo would be the perfect companion in the kitchen. Tablets and other touch devices are no where near the perfect device in the kitchen. They get dirty and must be touched by dirty or wet hands.  Echo, on the other hand, is the perfect hands-free kitchen companion. ‘Alexa, how do I make Beef Stroganoff’. Seems like a simple recipe request, but no. Alexa has no knowledge of cooking, recipes or anything else to do with kitchen chores. This seems like a no-brainer, but Amazon made no effort here.

Problems and Crashing

After having unboxed Amazon Echo, it had already crashed within 10 minutes of using it. Not the app, but the actual Echo. The app lost connectivity to the Echo until it had rebooted. Though, I have also had the app crash. So, this first incarnation of the Echo is a little beta still. I’m guessing that’s why they cut the 50% off deal with those who were invited to pick them up for testing. Though, when the Echo works, it does work well.

Improvements

The Amazon Echo could benefit from a number of improvements including:

  • Battery backup
  • Full audio web browsing
  • Games (i.e., chess, checkers, etc)
  • Better interactive integration between Echo and its companion app
  • Satellite interfaces (to use Echo in every room)
  • Stereo audio / Multichannel audio (using multiple cylinders)
  • Audio playback to stereo BT devices (i.e., headphones and speakers)
  • Speakerphone
  • Remote control of Amazon devices
  • Check status of Amazon orders
  • Recipes and general kitchen helper
  • Alexa reading Kindle books
  • More audio channels such as:
    • Sirius Radio
    • Police Scanners
    • Custom podcast URLs
    • SoundCloud and similar sites
    • YouTube Audio
    • Last.fm
    • Spotify
    • MySpace Music
    • Amie Street
    • A much bigger selection of Internet radio stations
    • Archives of pre-recorded news broadcasts

Limitations

This first incarnation of Amazon Echo is quite limited. Echo has about 1/10th of the feature set you would expect to offer a complete experience. For example, it should become an audio web browser. Audio is the next evolution in browsers. Sitting at a computer watching a screen is time consuming. But, using an audio web browser, you could browse the web and work on other things. It’s easy to listen and still focus on other tasks. We do it all the time.

In fact, Alexa needs to be imported into every Amazon device including the Fire phone, Fire tablet line and every other interactive device it makes. While Alexa needs to be on every Amazon device, the use case of Echo and all of the audio channels should still be limited to the Echo.

So, while Alexa exists and works as well as Siri, Alexa is simply the input and output device on the Echo out of necessity. The functionality of the Echo needs to firmly focus on all aspects of audio communication including podcasts, dictation, news programs, web browsing, audio books, cooking, music and more. Alexa shouldn’t be overlooked as the home helper, but not strictly on the Echo. I know that Amazon is planning on expanding the Echo to supporting home automation through such phrases as ‘Alexa, turn on the light’. But, that requires a home automation system that interfaces with the Echo. There are probably other uses just waiting to be explored.

In fact, if Amazon were to put Alexa on every device, you could have a unified Alexa system throughout your home. So, each device could learn the types of things you do regularly and share that among all of the Alexa systems. So, if you frequently ask for a specific type of music, Alexa could offer recommendations for new playlists.

Overall, it’s currently an okay device. Out of 10 stars, I’d give it 4 stars. Amazon compromised just a little too much in all aspects of this device to make it truly outstanding. In fact, Alexa should have had white LED lights on the unit so that it could illuminate the room. It also needs a battery backup so you can still use some of Alexa’s basic functions, like the alarm clock, if the power goes out. The next incarnation of the Echo will likely make up for its current shortcomings.

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Amazon Kindle: Buyer’s Security Warning

Posted in best practices, computers, family, security, shopping by commorancy on May 4, 2012

If you’re thinking of purchasing a Kindle or Kindle Fire, beware. Amazon ships the Kindle pre-registered to your account in advance while the item being shipped. What does that mean? It means that the device is ready to make purchases right from your account without being in your possession. Amazon does this to make it ‘easy’. Unfortunately, this is a huge security risk. You need to take some precautions before the Kindle arrives.

Why is this a risk?

If the package gets stolen, it becomes not only a hassle to get the device replaced, it means the thief can rack up purchases for that device from your Amazon account on your registered credit card without you being immediately aware. The bigger security problem, however, is that the Kindle does not require a login and password to purchase content. Once registered to your account, it means the device is already given consent to purchase without any further security. Because the Kindle does not require a password to purchase content, unlike the iPad which asks for a password to purchase, the Kindle can easily purchase content right on your credit card without any further prompts. You will only find out about the purchases after they have been made through email receipts. At this point, you will have to dispute the charges with Amazon and, likely, with your bank.

This is bad on many levels, but it’s especially bad while the item is in transit until you receive the device in the mail. If the device is stolen in transit, your account could end up being charged for content by the thief, as described above. Also, if you have a child that you would like to use the device, they can also make easy purchases because it’s registered and requires no additional passwords. They just click and you’ve bought.

What to do?

When you order a Kindle, you will want to find and de-register that Kindle (may take 24 hours before it appears) until it safely arrives into your possession and is working as you expect. You can find the Kindles registered to your account by clicking (from the front page while logged in) ‘Your Account->Manage Your Kindle‘  menu then click ‘Manage Your Devices‘ in the left side panel. From here, look for any Kindles you may have recently purchased and click ‘Deregister’. Follow through any prompts until they are unregistered. This will unregister that device. You can re-register the device when it arrives.

If you’re concerned that your child may make unauthorized purchases, either don’t let them use your Kindle or de-register the Kindle each time you give the device to your child. They can use the content that’s on the device, but they cannot make any further purchases unless you re-register the device.

Kindle as a Gift

Still a problem. Amazon doesn’t recognize gift purchases any differently. If you are buying a Kindle for a friend, co-worker or even as a giveaway for your company’s party, you will want to explicitly find the purchased Kindle in your account and de-register it. Otherwise, the person who receives the device could potentially rack up purchases on your account without you knowing.

Shame on Amazon

Amazon should stop this practice of pre-registering Kindles pronto. All Kindles should only register to the account after the device has arrived in the possession of the rightful owner. Then, and only then, should the device be registered to the consumer’s Amazon account as part of the setup process using an authorized Amazon login and password (or by doing it in the Manage devices section of the Amazon account). The consumer should be the sole responsible party to authorize all devices to their account. Amazon needs to stop pre-registering of devices before the item ships. This is a bad practice and a huge security risk to the holder of the Amazon account who purchased the Kindle. It also makes gifting Kindles extremely problematic. Amazon, it’s time to stop this bad security practice or place more security mechanisms on the Kindle before a purchase can be made.

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Dear TV Show producers, Let ‘V’ be a lesson to you

Posted in streaming media, TV Shows by commorancy on June 10, 2011

As was predicted in Randosity’s earlier Boycott V Series article, V has officially been cancelled by ABC as of May 13, 2011 (Friday the 13th).  This was not a good day for the V series cast and crew as they had just lost their jobs.  Oh well, such is life in show business.  However, this cancellation goes to prove yet another experiment a failure at the expense of what could have been a good series.

Since V’s second season launch in January, the producers and/or ABC had made the insane choice to not allow V back onto Hulu, iTunes, Amazon or any other streaming media service (including ABC’s very own streaming TV web site).  So, that meant no way to watch back episodes or catch up on missed V episodes.  This also meant as people began missing episodes, they couldn’t catch up and said,  “f-it” and moved on.

Lessons Learned

When your series targets the exact age demographic of people who do watch their TV series via Hulu (or any other streaming site) and also when you decide to cut these exact viewers off from your show, it’s the kiss of death.  V is, unfortunately, a perfect shining example of what not to do with streaming media and a TV series.  Don’t shun streaming media, embrace it.  Embrace it with open arms and nurture and foster its growth.  As a producer you want, no, you need viewers.  The more the better.  It doesn’t matter if you have to rip the video of each episode and personally seed the file yourself on bitorrent.  Do it!

What you don’t want is, well, exactly what the producers did to V.  Don’t bite the hand the feeds you.  Worse, the show began to feel the effects of its lower and lower viewership (and ratings) and began making more and more desperate, drastic and insane story choices to try and recoup viewership.  It didn’t work and the choices killed off main characters from the show, yet didn’t do anything to increase viewership.  This only made the show worse and more pointless.  But, these story choices were simply a side effect of the stupidity of not allowing streaming sites to stream (or back catalog) the series.  You can’t change the story to attempt make up for the ‘no streaming’ decision.  To get viewers back, the producers would have had to rescind that decision and allow the show back onto Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.  But, by April  it was already too late to rescind that decision and gain the lost viewership back.

Back Catalogs & Advertisers

Still, any show should allow a back catalog of episodes to be available on streaming sites for even just a few months to allow viewers to keep up with a show (even if the shows aren’t available to streaming for 30 days).  A back catalog of older episodes allows viewers to take their time catching up and feel good about the time when they watch.  Sure, these views may not give the immediacy of the Neilsen ratings, but so what?  That system is so antiquated, it needs to die.  Instead, we need a new ratings system that takes into account real viewers from streaming sites and next day views.  Skip the ‘night of’ viewership numbers and go with a model that resembles how people are actually watching TV today.  Internet enabled TVs are not going away and neither are mobile devices.  Hello advertisers like Proctor and Gamble, get with it.  Same day viewership of TV shows is over.  That day has passed.  The future of TV is through next day viewing or even month later views.  That’s where the advertising revenues will be had.

So Long ‘V’

It’s unfortunate that the producers felt the need to make stupid choices like ‘no streaming’.  It was a gamble that simply didn’t pay off.  It turned the series into a shambles through poor story choices.  Oh well, V has had its short-lived day.  Tomorrow is another day and with it new TV shows to sink your time slots into.  But, let’s just make sure they continue to do it on our, the viewer’s, terms.

To the producers, embrace change or perish.  That’s the prime lesson to take away from the ‘V’ experiment.  Yes, the V ‘no streaming’ experiment was truly a failure.

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