16 Sep 2014
One of the most celebrated trends recent in online retail websites has been the functionality that allows customers to post reviews of the products being sold, as well as reviews of the retailer itself. All sorts of hassles and unexpected problems have been avoided just by allowing customers to post comment and interact with each other, and by allowing the retailer's customer service team into the conversation, customer confidence and satisfaction has skyrocketed. However, auction sites like the ubiquitous eBay that started so much of the online shopping revolution, coupled with the growing popularity of market-bazaar sites like Alibaba that simply act as platforms to connect merchants and customers, the question must be asked: should retailers be able to start reviewing customers?
At first, it may seem like a ludicrous idea - nearly impossible to keep track of and ensure there is no potential for abuse. But these same issues were raised during the introduction of the buyer's ability to rate sellers, and of the entire online customer review concept, and now those elements are staples of almost all e-commerce sites. eBay in particular has a problem with this, given the nature of the system. If a user wins an auction and then simply doesn't pay, the seller has absolutely no recourse when it comes to alerting other sellers to this problem customer. Curiously enough, sellers are able to leave positive feedback about transactions that went smoothly, but don't have the option to mention anything negative if the customer fails to send money or causes some other type of problem.
There is much to be said for the idea of protecting customers from the wrath of an angry merchant. At first glance, the power dynamic appears to automatically favour the merchant. After all, they have a business to run and seem to gain trust simply by virtue of the fact that they are merchants - but as the line between sellers and "trustworthy brands" continues to blur thanks to the digital empowerment of a single individual to run a fairly large business online, and as fraud and abuse seem like daily facts of life in the digital world, it only seems fair that protections for merchants evolve at the same time as protections for customers. This is especially true in the emerging online markets that often have higher instances of fraud and other dubious transactions, and that element is likely going to become more and more apparent as these markets mature.