Retailers Resort To Offering Refunds To Customers For Positive Reviews Online

What’s a retailer to do when they’re not getting enough online love? Just offer customers a kickback in the form of a refund for a positive review. Some businesses have been pumping themselves up in this dastardly way, which could mean all those glowing reviews of the latest blanket-and-sweatsuit-all-in-onesie might not be the real deal.

The New York Times points to the example of VIP Deals, which saw its leather Kindle Fire case shoot up in popularity due to hundreds of reviews drooling over its perfection. They say 310 out of 335 reviews last week of the product were five stars, and almost all the rest were four. One man actually wrote: “I would have done 4 stars instead of 5 without the deal.”

The NYT interviewed three customers who said after searching on Amazon for a protective case, they found the VIP page selling a cover for under $10 plus shipping (the official list price was $59.99). Upon arrival, the package included a note, inviting the customer to “write a product review for the Amazon community. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.”

VIP Deals denies any wrongdoing, writing to the NYT in an email saying, “You are totally off base.”

But regulators are paying attention these days, and cracking down on fake hype.

“Advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it’s now presenting itself in different ways,” said Mary K. Engle, the Federal Trade Commission’s associate director for advertising practices. “We’re very concerned.”

If customers can’t even trust each other to write an honest review, why read the product reviews at all?

For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews [New York Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Coffee says:

    Wait…regulators are cracking down on private companies giving people money to express opinions that they don’t really believe? HAVE THEY SEEN THE ELECTORAL PROCESS?

    • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

      Heck, many companies get people to pay THEM to do this. Ever contributed to an employee PAC?

      • Lucky225 says:

        Listen, my corporation and my corporations PAC can not coordinate in ANY way.

        • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

          Yes, and there is no insider trading, collusion, or conflict of interest anywhere in corporate America.

          Oh, were you just kidding? Silly me!

    • centurion says:

      The problem is that people DO believe whom they vote for.

  2. Hi_Hello says:

    what if you right a good review. get the refund. update the review if the product is crappy. Do you still keep the money?

    if so, I don’t see the problem.

    • 2 Replies says:

      Why would they give you a refund for a GOOD review? O_o

      Customer: “I loved the place! Everything was great!”
      Retailer: “Sorry you enjoyed it. Here’s your money back.”

      Hopefully you’re not giving refunds for grammatical reviews of your comments… O_O

      • Coffee says:

        He is not a native English speaker.

      • Zachary Jacob Zblewski says:

        Look up…

        “Upon arrival, the package included a note, inviting the customer to “write a product review for the Amazon community. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.””

  3. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    The only thing a refund should get a retailer is an updated review stating:

    “UPDATE: Upon being aware of negative review, company gave me a refund for the product.”

    …and perhaps a modified 5-star or 10-point rating if the customer thinks it appropriate.

    Retailers seems to think this is a bad thing, but it’s not. Often times I read reviews on a product that is mixed – meaning there is an array of positive and negative reviews. If I read in the reviews that the retailer acted appropriately when the customer complained about a bad product, then I know I can at least be assured that the retailer will help me out as well.

    And consumers are wary of raving reviews on products – many of us steer clear of those.

    • Southern says:

      But once word of THAT gets out, everyone that eats/shops/stays there will want to leave a negative review, just to get a refund.

      I had a friend who was a chronic complainer. Every time my family went out to eat with his, he would find *something* to complain about. Cold food, server too slow, food quality.. Didn’t matter, he could always find something. And more often than not, he would get at least a portion of their meal comped (we always had separate checks). After a couple times of this, we just started finding excuses not to go out with them. His wife understood (and actually, they’re not even together anymore.. Gee, can’t imagine why), but it was still painful to have to come up with excuses.

      And it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford it; we both made very good money, it was just a “game” to him. He did the same thing with his cable & cell phone providers.

      There’s probably some fancy scientific name for a disorder like that. lol :)

      But at ANY rate (back to the topic at hand), what they SHOULD do is offer a refund for a REVIEW. Period. Good OR Bad. Just like those comment cards at restaurants where you fill one out and get entered into a daily drawing for a free lunch or something.. If you want honest feedback, then you have to take the bad WITH the good. :)

  4. LMA says:

    Isn’t this the entire premise behind Yelp? The eyeglass place I go to gives you discounts if you post a positive review of their services (which in my experience is true, but still) on Yelp, and I just assumed that was the way the whole thing works.

    • Jules Noctambule says:

      The only thing I’ve ever received due to a Yelp review was being thanked by my usual server at my favourite bar for what she called ‘a great review’. I guess tit-for-tat isn’t the way it’s done down here.

  5. Princess Beech loves a warm cup of treason every morning says:

    In Amazon I typically asses the whole population of reviews while considering a certain item. If majority has said good reviews on the item, it’s likely I’ll consider picking it (while browsing other items of the same nature), even if there are several who put in a 1-star rating. I also read the low ratings and see if there is a consistent flaw mentioned in those. Some people just put in a 1-star rating for all the stupid/unrelated reasons.

    • craftman says:

      I came here to say the same thing. I go straight to the negative reviews. If people just sound upset due to some tangential issue (price, color, random defect) I proceed normally. If several people write in with similar issue (for instance, bought a kitchen island and a bunch of reviews said that one piece never fit right and you have to sand it down yourself…etc., so I bought a different one) then that feels more legitimate.

      A bunch of positive “oohing” and “aahing” doesn’t mean anything to me.

      And to be fair to businesses, there is a lot of negative selection bias in reviews. If you’re happy, you move on. If you’re upset, you unleash your wrath on Yelp, Amazon, etc.

    • rkramden says:

      You said asses.

  6. Kevin411 says:

    During a recent hotel stay, when I noted that I chose the hotel due to their glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, they handed me a pre-printed card with the URL to their TA page on it and encouraging me to review them after my stay. I’m in the marketing field and commented that this seemed like a great idea. They said they found that ranking #1 in a city is about more than just good reviews, but the frequency of recent reviews figured in as well. They were maintaining their #1 position simply by urging customers to review them. The place was indeed nice, and breakfast was beyond expectation, so they aren’t cheating the system…they’re simply working it just enough to make a buck. Different situation than the OP, but I thought it was an interesting sidebar.

    • Gardius says:

      There’s a restaurant in a small town just outside of Ottawa that is ranked the “#1 BBQ Restaurant in Ottawa” on TripAdvisor. They employ the same method your hotel did; instead of a “how did we go today?” slip, they include a link to TripAdvisor on the receipts encouraging people to review. I don’t believe there is any reward for doing so, so it’s simply smart gamesmanship.

    • Tim says:

      I don’t see anything wrong with urging consumers to write a review. In the OP situation, the company is paying customers to write a positive review. Very different, in my mind.

  7. caradrake says:

    I don’t pay attention to reviews that lack substance. You can say “I love this product!” or “I hate this product!” and it won’t help me any. If you say *why* you loved or hated it, what you used it for, maybe how it compares to similar products, then I’ll actually pay attention to your review.

    I’m okay buying a product with poor reviews, if the reasons in the reviews have nothing to do with why I want the product.

  8. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    So, bribes for not posting bad reviews, bribes for posting good reviews… sounds like a second job!

  9. Tiffymonster says:

    Truthfully, I don’t see the problem here. I mean if they are giving a refund just for writing a review nothing says it has to be a positive one. If someone gives it 1 star and they get a refund I see no problem with that though I would prefer that it was mentioned in the review that they did receive a refund in the review so I can decide for myself whether or not it is inflated. I generally read reviews pretty carefully and I can normally tell whether or not I would like a product and weed through hype.

    There are plenty of small companies that give gift certificates or other free stuff for writing reviews for their products and I have never seen anything that required the review be positive, just honest.

  10. rpm773 says:

    I can’t right worth a dam, but I can click approval stars with the best of them. Where do I apply?

  11. tbax929 says:

    Car dealers have been been pressuring me for years about how I rate them. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a new car and not had the dealership pressure me to give all “10s” when I get the inevitable follow-up survey. In fairness, though, I don’t think they’ve ever offered me anything in order to give them glowing reviews.

    I did, however, rank my last dealership low on one aspect of the survey. I didn’t like the high pressure to take their service plan. Why do I need a service plan with a brand new car? If you’re not selling me a piece of crap I shouldn’t need one! Anyway, the general manager of the dealership called me to smooth things over.

  12. ancientone567 says:

    Oh… FOR SHAME FOR SHAME…. is all I can say. It is another sad bit of news but not surprising.

  13. balderdashed says:

    If I received such an offer (a free $10 product in exchange for a writing a review under false pretenses) I would be incredibly insulted. This scheme is reprehensible — even if the seller isn’t explicitly demanding a positive review, his reviewers will likely assume that to be a requirement. I’d either send the product back, or throw it in the garbage. I don’t necessarily mind being called a whore, but I resent being considered a cheap whore, and my integrity is at least worth more than ten bucks.

  14. menty666 says:

    Here’s a wacky thought, how about just providing a good customer service that warrants a good review? Too much work?

    • Cosmo_Kramer says:

      Most people won’t bother if there isn’t something in it for them (which may be simply prestige, e.g. being in the top X reviewers on Making a good product will get you fewer reviews than making a bad product.

  15. Kishi says:

    “write a product review for the Amazon community. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.”

    Now, did you have to write a positive review?

  16. 2 Replies says:

    NO user should change their negative review to positive after receiving a refund.
    That’s tantamount to the retailer PURCHASING a good review.

    REALLY, think about it. Net exchange is retailer gives customer free merchandise/service, and the user gives the retailer a positive review.
    This is NOT accurate of the original experience the customer had.

    • wrjohnston91283 says:

      It depends how the review is changed. If my original review was “1/5 The product was horrible and fell apart after 1 day” and i changed to to “5/5 I love this product”; that’s one thing, and I agree that’s misleading. However, if the review is changed to “3/5 the product fell apart, but the company worked with me and resolved the matter with a refund”, that’s a legitimate review.

    • tungstencoil says:

      I’ll disagree with a real-world example:

      Purchased two sets of in-ear headphones, somewhat high end. One set: perfect. Second set, defective out of the box. Contact warranty/tech support, they say they’ll have another set in the mail.

      Then? Nothing. For weeks. I called, I emailed… Nothing.

      Finally, I posted a bad review, warning potential buyers that I had received a defective pair and that they weren’t honoring their warranty. A few weeks later I get a phone call from a different person at the company, who lets me know that the person I was dealing with (tiny company – he did all their tech support) had been let go because he wasn’t doing his job.

      This new guy sent replacements over-night air as well as some free stuff to make up for the problem. He hadn’t seen my negative review – he was just going over the other guy’s emails and stuff.

      I added to my review that the company changed staff and took ownership, and fixed everything. Sorry, but they deserved that.

  17. brinks says:

    I went to a new hair stylist a few months ago, LOVED HER, and gave her and the salon a great Yelp review. I went back a couple months later for my next haircut, and it was $10 cheaper. I figured they lowered the prices…but maybe she rewarded me?

    I’m betting on lower prices.

  18. scgirl_212 says:

    There is something similar/regular for popular youtube “gurus”….the ones I notice the most are the beauty gurus. Companies send them products (free) and ask for a positive review in return. It has worked so well that the FCC now requires the “guru” to post a disclaimer if they received the product for free or if they paid for it with their own money.

    • scgirl_212 says:

      OOPS, *FTC

    • BluePlastic says:

      I notice this, too. If you complain about it, you are told you are “just jealous” because you are not receiving free products and the “guru” is. But I think it must be awfully easy to convince yourself the product you received for free is good enough to get a good review, even if it is not that great.

  19. kent909 says:

    “But regulators are paying attention these days, and cracking down on fake hype.”
    Just like regulators are cracking down on felonies that were committed in the mortgage industry.

    This is just capitalism working. Have you ever noticed that if what you do involves making money the government is far more tolerant even if it is against the law.

  20. Hungry Dog says:

    How can I get in on this, and might I add the Consumerist is the best pro consumer website out there in all the inter-webs. No other website gets remotely close to the Consumerist in quality news, the Consumerist also saves orphan kittens from wild fires when it is not reporting quality news.

  21. pgh9fan1 says:

    Mary Beth Quirk writes the best articles! I think they are definitely five star pieces. They’re well -written, informative, and funny. The pictures alongside are always topical and thought-provoking.

    /Where’s my $10 Mary Beth?

    • cybrczch says:

      Please to forward us you Consumerist password used to setting up you Consumerist account, you soical security #, and you bank account #, and we will refund the FULL cost of you Consumerist account to you.

      – Mary Beth*

      * or an unreasonable facsimile

  22. pamelad says:

    The New York Times article states, “While the letter did not specifically demand a five-star review, it broadly hinted. ‘We strive to earn 100 percent perfect ‚ÄòFIVE-STAR‚Äô scores from you!’ it said.”

    I wonder if VIP Deals gives the refund for a one-star review?

  23. beaverfan says:

    This is nothing new. When I worked in retail before the internet review sites existed, we used to give out surveys and ask people to give us 10 out of 10.

    When your raise is determined by arbitrary reviews from people, and half the people that rate your service give you a bad score because they didn’t like the music in the store, or because they don’t like plastic bags and prefer paper but your store doesn’t have paper, you have to do what you can to survive.

    The problem is that corporations use an arbitrary review process to evaluate employees who have no control over most of the process they are being evaluated on. An employee can give great customer service but if some random customer doesn’t like the website graphics, or if the delivery company takes longer than they expected, it’s the employee who gets a bad review.

  24. Elgog Partynipple says:

    I recently purchased a hard drive for my ailing ‘puter from GOHARDRIVE on Amazon. When I received the drive it was packaged in a padded UPS envelope and jammed in to a small USPS box. Additionally, it was a gray market drive so I don’t get the MFG warrantee of 3 years. I posted a review indicating all of this and withing a few hours I was contacted by GOHARDRIVE who asked if I would change my review. I said I had an obligation to write such a review to warn anyone else who purchased from them. They refunded my entire purchase and asked again if I would change my review. I said no. I went up to my review on Amazon and found that since my money was refunded I could no longer write a review for my purchase. I think they hosed me on making further comments.

  25. operator11 says:

    I don’t see a problem with this. My company struggles with the BBB, Rip-Off Report, and a host of other sites. We have thousands of happy clients that never post anything positive because there’s no incentive. As a result, when you google our company, you see the same 20 assholes come up in the listings. We have over 20,000 happy clients, but you’d never know it.

    • balderdashed says:

      I frankly don’t see a problem with what you perceive to be your problem: dissatisfied customers are more likely to post reviews than happy ones. That’s true, but presumably your competitors and every other company are in the same boat. But may I suggest: one way of generating positive reviews might be to go “above and beyond” and at least occasionally provide exceptional customer service. I don’t go to the trouble of posting a positive review when a company simply does what it’s supposed to do: ship me the product I ordered, on time, undamaged, at the price I agreed to pay. But I do post reviews when a company exceeds my expectations — when I’m not merely “happy” or satisfied, but delighted. If your company has “over 20,000 happy clients” but we’d “never know it,” I have to wonder how truly happy those 20,000 customers are. And if you dismiss your dissatisfied customers as “assholes,” while companies that understand customer service value negative feedback, I’m not surprised that your company “struggles” with its online reputation.

  26. Skipdallas says:

    “If customers can’t even trust each other to write an honest review, why read the product reviews at all?”

    My thoughts exactly! I pay little heed to reviews,(except book reviews). I care not what other people think about a product. I research and actually will check out the product at a Brick and Mortar store before buying.

  27. thomwithanh says:

    This should be illegal – but would you enforce it?

  28. neilb says:

    I got a counterfeit Canon battery from ebay. They offered me a freebie to not report them.
    I reported them, which entitled me to keep the product, write a “warning” review, AND get a full refund.
    Many months later, they were still in business and still pushing counterfeit Canon batteries.

    In other news, I knew a teenager who did amazon’s mechturk, where he earned $6 in credit per hour to write fake product reviews.

  29. Clyde Barrow says:

    This is nothing but a desperate attempt at buying off people. It won’t work with me.

  30. Clyde Barrow says:

    This is nothing but a desperate attempt at buying off people. It won’t work with me.