Amazon fined in Poland for dark pattern design tricks


Amazon has been fined in Poland for misleading consumers about the conclusion of sales contracts on its online marketplace. The sanction, of close to $8M (or in local currency: PLN 31,850,141), also calls out the e-commerce giant for deceptive design elements which may inject a false sense of urgency into the purchasing process and mislead shoppers about elements like product availability and delivery dates.

The country’s consumer watchdog, the UOKiK, has been looking into complaints about Amazon’s sales practices since September 2021, following complaints from shoppers, including some who did not receive their purchases. The authority opened a formal investigation into Amazon’s practices in February 2023. Wednesday’s sanction is the conclusion of that probe.

The UOKiK found consumers who ordered products on Amazon could have their purchases subsequently cancelled by the tech giant as it does not treat the moment of purchase as the conclusion of a sales contract, despite sending consumers confirmation of their order — even after consumers have paid for the product. For Amazon, the conclusion of a sales contract only occurs once it has sent information about the actual shipment.

In a press release detailing the enforcement, it said Amazon failed to clearly communicate this salient detail to shoppers, finding it only provided the information at “the last stage of purchase”. It also found the information was sometimes “difficult” for consumers to access, noting for example Amazon could use a grey font on a white background in text displayed at the very bottom of a page — a classic example of so-called ‘dark pattern design‘.

The UOKiK contrasts that deceptive design choice with suggestive messaging Amazon shows to shoppers on sales buttons — which read “Buy now” or “Proceed to finalize the purchase” — which it said imply that by ordering the product the shopper is concluding a contract with Amazon. Which is not, in fact, the case.

“Thus, Amazon misleads consumers as to the moment of conclusion of the sales contract,” the authority wrote [in Polish; this is a machine translation]. “For many people, this can also have negative consequences: The consumer does not receive the product, so he cannot use it, he loses the opportunity to buy at an attractive price that may no longer apply, and his money is frozen until he returns it.”

Some of the complaints it received also found information about how to cancel an order may be provided long after it was placed, with the UOKiK citing the case of cancellations of e-book reader orders where the critical detail was not provided for a month.

A meaningless countdown clock

Its enforcement also calls out Amazon for using deceptive design to encourage shoppers to click buy by presenting misleading information about product availability and delivery windows — such as by listing how many items were in stock to be purchased and providing a countdown clock to order an item in order to get it on a particular delivery date. Its investigation found Amazon does not always meet these deadlines for orders, nor ship products immediately as they may be out of stock despite claims to the contrary shown to consumers.

“Amazon treats the data it provides on availability and shipping date as indicative but the way it is presented does not indicate this,” the UOKiK noted, adding: “Consumers can only find out about this in the terms of sale on the platform.”

Commenting in a statement, the UOKiK’s president, Tomasz Chróstny, said: “Information about product availability and its fast shipping is very valuable for consumers and for many people it may be the main reason why they make a purchase decision. However, such information cannot be a lure. If the entrepreneur provides a specific delivery date, he or she must meet it. This practice by Amazon is classified as so-called dark patterns because it uses pressure to make the consumer order the product as soon as possible.”

While Amazon does offer a delivery guarantee — offering a refund if items do not ship within the stated time — the authority found it failed to provide consumers with information about the rules of this service before placing an order. It only offers details at the order summary stage. And then only “if the consumer decides to read the subsequent links specifying delivery details.”

Shoppers who did not follow the link to read more may not have been aware of their right to apply for and receive a refund from Amazon if there is a delay in shipment. It also found the e-commerce giant failed to provide information about the “Delivery Guarantee” in the purchase confirmation sent to shoppers.

Amazon was contacted for comment on the sanction but at the time of writing it had not responded. It has the option to appeal.



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