Slowly, my coats and sweatshirts began to collect around my room: on the backs of chairs, on bedposts, in corners. And my belts crowded the small hook inside the wooden frame that serves as my closet in my modest Spelman room. My moist towel, meanwhile, lay on the edge of my bed, slowly and inevitably slipping towards the ground. The collection of debris around me signaled the pressing need for an organizational change; the solution was as clear as the problem: I needed an over-the-door hook rack.
Reading reviews and comparing star ratings, I quickly found the perfect product on Amazon.com: the Spectrum 60510 Over-The-Door Multi-Hook Rack, Black. With free two-day shipping, the product arrived by midweek. But when I opened the package, to my surprise and horror, I discovered an unexpected addition. Sheathed in thick, industrial plastic was the “E-Z Shampoo Hair Wash Tray.” This unusual contraption consisted of nothing more than thick, white plastic, curved to comfortably hug the back of the neck and equipped with an elastic strap to hold its place. The only clue, beside the name, of its use was the blurry picture depicting long, wet hair covering the tray while a hose sprayed water from above.
Had I ordered it by mistake—or had someone hijacked my account? I found no record of purchasing the product on Amazon’s website, and my bank statement proved I had not been charged for it. I quickly verified that no relative had ordered the tray to the wrong address. Thrice I checked the labels on the box to assert that the package was not intended for another, but the sticker listed only my name. After exhausting all other possibilities I accepted, somewhat reluctantly, that Amazon had made a mistake.
I resolved to call Amazon and deal with the matter, but I didn’t have time. For weeks, the box lay on the side of my wall, consuming space recently freed by the over-the-door hook rack which, luckily, accommodated my needs perfectly. I took solace in this. But the anonymous package became an imposition, the hangnail of organization, the fraying string in the tapestry of my tidiness.
A month passed, and packages continued to come, mostly from Amazon, my most frequented vendor. On one exciting Friday, I received a record number of emails—five new bundled surprises awaited me in Frist. Amongst the goodies were a poster, a textbook I had neglected to order at the beginning of the year but could no longer function without, and boots. But my excited unwrapping quickly ended when I encountered an anomaly. Repulsed, and then intrigued, I couldn’t help but wonder what insights this unordered book, “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” might offer. I soon discovered that the author, Brené Brown, (Ph.D., LMSW) is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Both PBS and Oprah and Friends Radio Network have featured her work, which seeks to enable readers to ignore toxic messages from the media that harm their self-esteem, and to accept themselves with courage and boldness. The message, however saccharine, is a worthy one; were the book not wrapped in plastic, and had I more time, I might have considered reading it. But, like the “E-Z Shampoo Hair Wash Tray,” I decided immediately to return the product (after I determined that the book was also mistakenly sent). I could not risk introducing more clutter into my already cramped room.
If receiving one package by accident from Amazon is a rarity, two, I figured, must represent some aberration in nature. I asked myself, what internal miscalculations caused these two trivial, but perplexing mistakes? Were they errors of man or machine? Did some tired, or disinterested employee accidentally drop the tray into the package? Did he shrug his shoulders and listlessly watch the conveyer belt drag my package into another region of the warehouse? Or did a small glitch turn one delivery into two, and, under the noses of factory workers and managers, alter my order.
Again, weeks dragged on. Finally, on a relatively calm afternoon, I designated time to resolve this recurring problem for good. Finding contact information on Amazon’s website was not easy; I first had to submit a written complaint, and schedule a time for them to call me. Not surprisingly, an option for receiving products I neither ordered nor paid for was not available from their dropdown list. The closest option from the dropdown was “I have a problem with my order.” Ten minutes after submitting my query online, I received a call and described, as succinctly as possible, what I had received, and asked how to return them. Like clockwork, she went through the routine I both anticipated and had performed myself. She looked through my order for a product that wasn’t there. I gave her the order number, which pointed back to the over-the-door hook rack, but nothing else. Ultimately, after checking the tracking number of the package, she found some indication of the misplaced item, and determined that the product was intended for someone else. Finally, she was caught up.
“Well,” I asked, “what should I do with them?” She reasoned through the process, clearly deviating from protocol to resolve an issue her training had not anticipated.
“Well Mr. Hanshaw,” her voice, laced with static, replied after a moment of contemplation, “Firstly, I would like to thank you for calling us, and I apologize for the inconvenience. I’m quite sorry for the trouble you went through. I can schedule a UPS truck to collect the objects at your home.” It took another few minutes of explanation for her to understand that my Spelman room, a home only within the confines of campus, would not accommodate personal pickup. “In that case, Mr. Hanshaw, I will email you a return label, and you can ship them at your local UPS store.” We exchanged thank yous, and I hung up satisfied.
Unfortunately, she sent me a label with the wrong weight size; I knew I couldn’t send a the tray back with a one-pound package label. I considered paying for the shipping myself, and then quickly abandoned that idea; after all, should I lose money for Amazon’s mistake? I called again, and again I explained my predicament along with the most recent developments. The process was largely the same, but the outcome ultimately different.
“To be frank, Mr. Hanshaw,” she started, “shipping back the items will cost us almost as much as the items themselves. I thank you for the effort, though, but you can dispose or donate them as you see fit.” She thanked me, I thanked her and I hung up.
I returned to my room, and looked at the products one last time as I laughed with my roommates. I considered whom I might give the items to, and realized that there was no one. Disposal was my only recourse. But as I scoured the drawers and cupboards for a garbage bag, the previous phone call replayed in my mind. I realized that Amazon doesn’t have an infrastructure for accommodating its own errors. Employees didn’t quite understand my problem and lacked the tools to properly respond. Perhaps shipping mistakes are rare enough that Amazon doesn’t need a protocol. The mistake, in this way, became a sign of Amazon’s efficiency; like many similar companies, Amazon achieves remarkable accuracy despite the complexity of the task: sending products around the country to millions of strangers.
At last, I found a garbage bag. I clasped my fingers around the top of the bag, rubbed the bag open with a flick, and, and whipped it full with air. I continued to dwell on my interaction with Amazon’s employees. More striking, I felt, than the mistake was their own surprise that I had bothered to call. Both times, the callers thanked me gratuitously, and remarked, seemingly to themselves, how impressed and thankful they were that I had called. Their incredulity raises a good point: why had I called? I told myself and my friends, that somewhere, some customer hadn’t received her (though possibly his) products. But that customer could easily call Amazon, complain, and receive swift compensation; that explanation just doesn’t hold. Instinct, more likely, compelled me to save the packages. If a cashier had accidentally slipped an extra shirt in my bag in the mall, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it back. Likewise, not seeking to return these items seemed rude, dishonest, even immoral.
As I stuffed the book, and the tray into the black garbage bag, I asked myself: what, if any, are the moral implications involved? To say I did the right thing seems excessively self-congratulatory, considering how trivial the entire interaction really was. And the thanks I received was imbued with more shock than gratitude. It’s difficult to introduce a moral element into the commercial relationship. Of course businesses have social obligations, but what does the customer owe to the enterprise, besides money? I figured Amazon’s complex bureaucratic structure, so complete, does not necessitate, nor anticipate the kindness of its clients. Perhaps there is no protocol to acknowledge Amazon’s errors, not because it never happens, but because the company doesn’t need it; the relationship of the consumer and the website is sufficiently removed. The error, perhaps, was mine in bothering to call. Suddenly the confusion of customer service seemed warranted; they understood, while I was just learning, how rational the system is.
But what’s lost from this rationalized experience—is this remote coldness something to regret? Perhaps, but this assumes that commercial relationships were personable before the Internet. Morals have long had a tenuous relationship to commerce, from the usury laws of the Middle Ages to the environmental practices of the modern corporation. But before we bemoan the moral bankruptcy of business, let us consider the possibility that Amazon’s disinterest in acknowledging the potential honesty of its customers is, itself, an act of kindness and honesty. Broadly speaking, across time and history, haven’t expectations of morality often weighed heavily on people? By expunging the last trace of obligation, Amazon unburdens itself, and its patrons. What we lose in familiarity, we gain in freedom. Trivial tasks remain just that, trivial.
I squeezed the excess air from the black bag, and tied a thick knot. I left my Spelman room and carried the bag towards the trash collection receptacles outside. Amazon was right; this trivial obligation was clutter in its own right. In the digital marketplace, there’s no propriety to complicate things, only consumption. And when mistakes occur, we don’t fix them, we forget them. Satisfied, I lifted the heavy, plastic lid of the black, metal dumpster, and threw the bag into its cold shell.