Posted by on August 15, 2018

Why That Thing You Ordered Online Isn’t as Described


Man prepares parcel. Credit: Bench Accounting.E-commerce allows anyone with a credit card to buy anything they could ever want or need from the comfort of their own home. Not only does this make life more convenient, it can also make it less expensive. Which is why it’s so frustrating to receive your order just to find the items you ordered aren’t as described.

It’s easy to blame dubious online retailers for planting misinformation—and these certainly exist—but sometimes something or someone else is to blame, like convoluted supply chains and confusing information channels.

Let’s take sizing as an example, since sizing disparities between a description and the real product are a common complaint among buyers. What a retailer has, unless they manufacture their own products, is the information available to them through their supplier or manufacturer. If they’re lucky, the supplier is also the manufacturer. If not, this adds yet another link in the supply chain where information and product specifications might muddy.

For our example, we’ll assume the supplier is also the manufacturer. The supplier gives the following measurements for a rectangular paperweight: 1.75cm x 2.5cm x 3.25cm. The retailer prepares this information for their copywriters, but because of internal styling requirements or preferences, the retailer sends these measurements to the copywriter as 1.8cm x 2.5cm x 3.3cm. Due to the sheer number of products available on many large e-commerce sites, copywriters will probably never see the product they’re assigned to describe in real life. They don’t know the true measurements differ from those the retailer provided.

If the copywriter has access to the original specifications, the difference between these two measurements can be easily addressed. But they may not. Why don’t retailers take their own measurements? Some do, but the short answer is that it’s time-consuming. And thanks to dropshipping, some retailers never have the products they sell on hand.

Essentially, we’re looking at a big commercial game of Telephone. By the time product specifications trickle down to the copywriter, there’s no telling what has been changed out of ignorance, accident, or deviousness. The information in a product description is only as good as the information a copywriter has about that product.

Why do some products have little to no information?

Sometimes you will see a product online with no specifications or nothing more than a bare-bones description. Why is this? The retailer may not have information on that product and prefers to provide no information rather than making something up. Maybe the retailer is in a hurry to make the product available, and they tell themselves they’ll return to the description later. Or the product is flawed and omitting information feels more ethical than giving false information (though the ethics of this are questionable, if you ask me) but less risky than telling the truth.

If a product is flawed, the copywriter for that product should know how it’s flawed so they can do what they do best: play with the words long enough to offer an honest description, but one that diplomatically avoids the flaws or reframes them as features. An experienced copywriter is, after all, a diplomat; they negotiate expectations between client and customer so everyone leaves the experience satisfied.

What can you do as a buyer?

It’s impossible to avoid all bad purchases unless you make no purchases at all, such is the nature of commerce. But there are a few things you can do to lower your risk of receiving a dud product. If you’re buying items on a large e-commerce website (e.g., Amazon), copy the SKU and pop it into your preferred search engine. Sometimes you can find the supplier or manufacturer this way, which can lead you to the original product specifications. Whether these original specifications are accurate is another matter altogether.

Read the reviews. Buy from sellers you trust. And question everything. Basically, do all the common sense things you already do when shopping online. Also, never hesitate to contact the retailer. They may not known their description is inaccurate. 

What should you do as a retailer?

If you run a small e-commerce site that offers a limited inventory, give your copywriters access to product samples or models. If this isn’t possible, provide them with the unadulterated manufacturer or supplier specifications as they’re available to you. 

For products with design flaws or what could be considered flaws, communicate these to your copywriter, then trust them to know what to do and what not to do what that information.

And finally, if you’re selling a seriously flawed product and you know it, stop selling it. If you must sell that product, at least be honest about its specs. At least then, your customers can’t accuse you of dishonesty. 

Just remember, unmet expectations are a great way to lose return customers.