If you bought a pair of eclipse glasses from Amazon recently, you probably received a shock when the company informed you that it was selling solar eclipse glasses that weren’t certified to be used to watch the forthcoming eclipse—and that you would be getting a refund.
See, here’s what happened: A lot of major science and optical associations have been working with NASA on a campaign to ensure that people are buying glasses verified to be used during the solar eclipse happening in North America over the next few days. These have a formal, laid-out standard, and are only certified to be made by a small number of manufacturers.
Amazon’s sellers didn’t do this. They just made their own eclipse glasses, ignoring the standardization or paying lip service to it. It turns out, this was a bad idea. See, solar eclipses are the kinds of things that people shouldn’t cheap out on, as it turns out, because people have seriously damaged their eyesight looking directly at prior eclipses. By ignoring the standard, there’s no guarantee the manufacturer even followed the science. So as a result, Amazon is caught in a situation where it’s having to issue an embarrassing recall, along with refunds, just a week before the big event.
But in a lot of ways, this situation highlights a serious problem for Amazon—simply, it’s too easy to sell absolute crap on Amazon. Over the years, the company’s very easy process for selling a product online has made it possible for el cheapo manufacturers to show up, selling things that clearly aren’t up to snuff or are obvious counterfeits.
Back in March, the publisher of a book titled Python for Kids found copies of his company’s book being sold by a counterfeiter without the full-color pages that the book actually had. That incident, among others, led Amazon to create a registry for copyright holders.
More commonly, Amazon sells low-quality, easy-to-acquire cheap stuff. It’s a great way to get something if you need it right away for cheap, but it’s also a good way to ensure your gadget doesn’t last very long. When it's done well, it can help manufacturers compete even without name recognition—I recently bought this pair of headphones for quite cheap, after the reviews suggested it was a bit of a steal—and those probably make up the vast majority of cases.
The problem is, the ones that people talk about are very similar to the eclipse incident.
Amazon has made Jeff Bezos and many of his executives rich beyond their wildest dreams, but if they don’t solve this problem, Amazon’s long-term reputation might not survive—much like your eyesight if you use those counterfeit eclipse glasses.