I’m really not sure what I think about this, so I’d love to
discuss with you on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, or
As I write this, it’s Thanksgiving Week in the United States,
which means millions of people will spend billions of dollars on
Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and will temporarily say things like
“door busters” without a trace of embarrassment.
As is the national custom, for almost every conceivable product
there are approximately 1,417 competing brands and variations,
making the actual purchase process an informational Spartan
Hick’s Law states that the more choices we are faced with, the
time necessary to make a selection goes up, not down. Increasingly,
we try to shortcut this
Paradox of Choice by consulting online reviews.
Oft-cited research by
BrightLocal suggests that ~80% of customers trust at least some
online reviews as much as they trust recommendations from a friend
or family member.
And this isn’t just about e-commerce.
Fully half of all in-store purchases start by reading online
reviews, according to BazaarVoice.
Fully half of all in-store purchases start by reading online
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But what if reviews became SO IMPORTANT that they didn’t just
help us decide, but also dictated what was actually available to
purchase? It’s already happening.
When the Reviews Tail Wags the Dog
Amazon has opened two retail locations (with more in
development) called “Amazon
4-Star” which sounds like a crappy sneaker brand, but is in
reality an entire store stuffed with a variety of products that
have high consumer ratings on the Amazon platform.
It is the post-modern version of the “As Seen on TV” stores,
with a veneer of consumer confidence. By-definition, the
product assortment is a hodgepodge: pressure cookers next to
books. Televisions adjacent to wrenches. Unlike most retail
experiences, Amazon 4-Star doesn’t sell a category of goods; it
sells confidence. “What can go wrong? It’s all at least 4
I have two big questions about this approach.
First, are we SO enticed by reviews that we are okay with having
the very availability of products dictated by that consumer
feedback? Are we so dismissive of a sweater that clocks a 3.9 that
we collectively believe it shouldn’t even have the temerity and
unmitigated gall to make itself available for purchase?
What if Amazon (which also owns Whole Foods and several
real-world book stores) took this 4.0 or above thesis to its
logical conclusion: “No products below a 4.0 for sale on
Amazon.com, at Whole Foods, or in any other Amazon-owned retail
outlet.” I don’t see that as particularly far-fetched, and
I’m not at all sure that’s a positive outcome for consumers. It
would lead to rampant review fakery and a LOT of heavy-handed
Further, I know we trust reviews in general, but we don’t
trust all reviews from all people equally, right? I have a friend.
Let’s call him Art, because that’s his name. He is a highly
compensated television and commercial director in Hollywood. He
actually knows how to make movies, for real. Yet, his actual taste
in movies is abhorrent, at least to me.
I trust him implicitly about some things, and not at all about
others. And isn’t that the way it should be? I don’t want to be
a travel snob, but I will be for this paragraph, given that I’m
on the road 200 days per year. When I read a GLOWING, 5-star review
on TripAdvisor for a shabby lodging option called “Motel ONE”
located off a dirt road in Alabama, I’m sorry, but I question
whether our relative experiences with hotels would lead us to both
draw the same mathematical conclusion about the same customer
Yeah, I trust reviews. But not enough to limit purchase
alternatives based on them.
Amazon Being Amazon
And my second question is, isn’t this really just another
genius Trojan Horse for Amazon?
Because not only does Amazon 4-star feature an assortment of
products that get consistently high marks from Amazon.com shoppers,
it also includes a bounty of Amazon-made products, regardless of
Amazon Fire sticks. Myriad Amazon Echo variants. Ring doorbells
(owned by Amazon). And an assortment of other Amazon-made clothing,
housewares, and electronics, some of it made “secretly” by
Amazon via their endless faux house brands that pop up overnight,
repped by a quickie logo made on 99 Designs.
The Amazon brand doesn’t have a tremendous amount of cachet.
Partially because they aren’t viewed in the same way as
manufacturers like Apple, Microsoft, or J Crew – even though they
very much are nearly on-par with all of those in terms of actual
products manufactured. The Amazon brand is also murky because
Amazon itself is murky. It sells everything. It also makes way more
money in B2B than it does in B2C. Amazon is everything, and thus
from a brand perspective, nothing at all other than efficiency (and
Because of the weakness of the brand, if Amazon opened up an
“Amazon” store in your local mall, adjacent to the Apple store
and the Microsoft store, you wouldn’t know what to make of it,
would you? You wouldn’t be sure what it would contain? Is it
luxury? Discount? Electronics? Entertainment? I’m not sure such a
venture would succeed.
And they know it.
So instead, the smarties in Seattle (for now) said, “What if
we created an Amazon store, but instead of relying on our brand to
drive foot traffic, we instead used the conceit of “highly rated
products”? That gives the store a unique reason for existing, and
one that cannot easily be adopted by competitors. And it allows
Amazon to use the “4-star” robe to conceal it’s true purpose:
moving as much Amazon-built merch as possible.
Your 4 Stars Hurt My Feelings
Simultaneous to Amazon extending another tentacle into retail
using their “4-star” gambit, Lyft is making big changes to the
reviews ecosystem on its platform.
How important are reviews to drivers at Lyft, Uber, et al?
In an effort to keep drivers loyal to their platform, Lyft
announced this week changes to the system where riders rate
drivers at the conclusion of each trip.
Now, any time a rider does not explicitly leave a rating, it is
counted as a five-star rating. That’s a bit presumptuous!
Now, after every 100 rides given, the driver’s lowest rating
is automatically deleted from their total. The message here seems
to be: it’s okay if you treat passengers poorly; just work harder
and we’ll magically eliminate any trace.
Now, ANY rating of four stars are below must be explained by the
rider. Why is it up to the passenger to take time to justify their
own dissatisfaction. Not to mention the fact that a 4.0 on a
5-point scale isn’t exactly scathing criticism, is it?
Part of the problem is the score inflation inherent in a 5-point
scale. This is most egregiously true in ride-hailing apps, in my
estimation. You don’t see people feeling bad about giving a
crockpot a 3.0 on Amazon, but give a driver a 3 on Uber and you
feel like you just prevented his kids from getting into
Look at how
Lyft describes it on their own website:
5 stars means the ride was great and met Lyft standards.
Anything lower than 5 indicates that you were unhappy with the
Wait. 4 out of 5 means unhappy? If you used a 1o-point scale,
would 8 out of 10 also mean unhappy?
Yes, reviews are important. They are very helpful mechanisms for
quickly sorting our options and alternatives. But maybe we’ve
swung the pendulum too far toward the “wisdom of the crowd”
when stores ONLY include products with reviews, and riders are made
to feel guilt and shame for giving a mediocre ride less than a
Or maybe, I’m all wrong on this one. What do you think? Let me
know on Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin. Thanks.