Like it or not, Amazon.com has become an important, even primary source for many of us buying DVDs and Blu-rays. The Seattle-based company, founded in 1994, has with its success made a profound negative impact on bookstores and other retail stores selling home video software. The trade-off, for the consumer, has been Amazon’s highly competitive prices and its relative convenience. Order a movie or two, and it’ll show up on one’s doorstep a few days later. For this writer, living in far-flung Japan, Amazon has become an essential tool in my ability to see movies and read cinema-related books not otherwise available here.

Recently, however, the convenience that was once so much a part of Amazon’s appeal has become considerably less than it once was. Their shipping estimates seem arbitrary and increasingly unreliable. Movies don’t show up when they’re supposed to, and I find myself spending a lot more time on the computer, chatting long-distance with one of their customer service reps trying to locate and rectify MIA packages.

Hey, Amazon! Where's My Stuff?

Hey, Amazon! Where’s My Stuff?

What’s really odd about all this is that the problems I’ve been encountering are pretty much limited to Amazon’s U.S. branch. Amazon Japan is so efficient it’s possible for me to order a product in the morning and, with no delivery charge at all, have it arrive the same day. And reliable, next-day delivery is the happy norm.

I also frequently order movies from Amazons UK, Spain and, less so, France, Italy, and Germany. In most instances I can order a product from one of these Euro-Amazons and it’ll ship within 48 hours and I’ll have it within 7-10 days. Amazon UK is sometimes considerably faster. Four or five days door-to-door is not uncommon, and twice I had orders arrive just three days after placing them.

Amazon USA is another story. For example, last November 10th I received an email from Amazon Germany informing me that a Blu-ray I ordered should arrive November 22-27, some twelve to seventeen days hence. Instead, it made it to Kyoto on November 20th, two days earlier than the range provided.

Also on November 10th I received an email from Amazon USA stating that my order of two Blu-rays, Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker and The Muppet Christmas Carol had shipped. However, this order inexplicably would take much longer, with an “estimated delivery date” of December 26th, i.e., six weeks and four days. When I first placed the order, I was given a range: December 5-26. But now the estimate was fixed at the far end, “December 26th.”

Here I was figuring I could order that Muppets Christmas movie in early November and be pretty certain that it would arrive well before Christmas, but here was Amazon telling me that, no, they’d need six weeks and four days to get it to me.

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Granted, I live in Japan, but virtually all standard Air Mail shipped from anywhere in the U.S., whether a one-page letter or a 50-pound box of books, typically takes 7-12 days to reach me. Even packages sent by cargo ship across the Pacific, and even factoring customs inspections and other potential delays, typically takes about a month. But six weeks?

I decided to take my chances. It seemed possibly, even very likely, that the two discs would reach me before Christmas. And even if, say, The Muppet Christmas Carol showed up on Christmas Day or even on the 26th, while not ideal, my seven-year-old daughter and I could still watch and enjoy it.

But it didn’t. The 26th came and went and no Blu-rays in sight. I did a little checking on Amazon’s website and discovered the etailer contradicting its very own estimates. On a page entitled “Christmas Ordering Deadlines for International Destinations,” the listing for US-to-Japan shipments stated a cut-off date of November 25th for orders using, as I had, Standard International Shipping. In other words, buy something and have it shipped before November 25th and it’ll arrive before Christmas. So why did my order, shipped more than two weeks before November 25th, list a delivery date after Christmas? And where the heck was it, anyway?

Alas, I had no way to determine its status along the delivery food chain as no tracking was available on this shipment, according to Amazon.

And so, on 27 December I live-chatted with “Agastya” at Amazon, asking how, by way of comparison, an order I placed with Amazon UK on December 18th had manage to arrive before an order I placed with them on November 10th, nearly six week earlier? From our conversation:

Agastya: “I’m sorry, it appears that your package has been delayed in transit by the carrier. This doesn’t happen usually. However, I can confirm that the package will be delivered to you on or before December 30, 2014. Please wait until to receive your package.”

Me: “Who wants to watch a Christmas movie a week after Christmas has come and gone? … You say the package was ‘delayed in transit by the carrier.’ If there’s no tracking available on the package, how can you know this? Delayed by whom? Where en route? [And] how do you know it will show up by 12/30?”

Agastya: “I’m sorry that the tracking is not updated. I have contacted the carrier on your behalf and asked them to update it. It will be updated soon.”

Me: “That’s my point, that there is NO tracking on this package, at least none available to me. Are you seeing tracking that I can’t?”

Agastya: “To expedite delivery, CARRIER doesn’t scan all of their shipments at all locations–this can limit the amount of tracking data available. When shipping volume is high, packages are processed in bulk, and the first time a package is scanned may be when it arrives near its delivery destination. In some cases, tracking information may not appear until the package has been delivered.”

Me: “Okay, so what are the chances that the package will arrive on or before 12/30? 80%? 30%?”

Agastya: “We can assure you that it will arrive before 30th December, 2014 itself.”

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You’ve probably already guessed what happened next. December 30th, no package. And neither did it arrive on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, or January 2nd. I contacted Amazon again, asked for and received a full refund. The discs did finally turn up – on January 6th – 57 days after it supposedly had been shipped.

The package had no date stamp from the United States Post Office. This is SOP for Amazon’s “Standard International Shipping” orders but that also means consumers really have no way at all of knowing whether Amazon is being truthful when they email you, claiming that “your order has shipped!” For all I know, my November 10th “shipment” might well have left Amazon’s warehouse after Christmas.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. What one takes away from this experience are a lot of unanswered questions. Why, for instance, is it common for two different but “in stock,” media-identical orders supposedly shipped on the same day to have wildly differing estimated delivery dates? Why is that consumers don’t have access to tracking information available to Amazon’s customer service reps? Even if, as Agastya seems to be suggesting, Amazon ships standard delivery international items in bulk (and, presumably, by sea), that still doesn’t explain why they’re now so frequently missing their own overly-generous delivery estimates, or why something that should take one month instead takes two.

Recently consumers are becoming savvy to the move by airlines to deliberately make economy class air travel so unpleasant that it will compel travelers to pay piecemeal for upgrades, to make the experience of cross-country travel less dreary than it inevitably has become. My guess is that Amazon is up to something similar, perhaps not deliberately delaying packages, but neither do they seem terribly concerned about untimely service, either.

When the consumer complains and assertively asks for, as I did, a refund, most of the time they’ll comply without a lot of fuss. But I’m guessing that most consumers don’t go that far when their packages are late and so, from a financial standpoint, Amazon is perfectly content frequently missing delivery dates, knowing only a small percentage of their customers will hold them accountable.

What about you? Are you experiencing similar problems? Asking the same questions? Use our “Contact Us” form on our “About Us” page and, over the next few weeks, we’ll post some of your emails.

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