Feb 082016


One of the first things I did when we moved to the United States was to subscribe to Amazon Prime.  The early days especially were a non-stop flurry of boxes from Amazon, containing all the things we thought we needed as we transitioned from living in a relatively smaller high-rise condo, to a much larger single family home.

Almost exactly four years later, we cancelled our Prime subscription.  I’ll share the reasons why below, but it had an unexpected side effect – saving money.  I’m not just talking about the $99/year subscription fee either.

Why Cancel?

Given my affinity with Chromecast, the straw that broke the camels back is going to be fairly obvious – but in truth, a number of things had already happened that gave me increasing concern about the nature of being a Prime member.  These were roughly as follows:

  • Service Bundling.  When Amazon raised the price of Prime from $79/year to $99/year, they justified it by the “extra services” they had recently added – by which they mean Prime Instant Video, their competitor to Netflix (and later, Prime Music).  This was simply a service I didn’t want, and never used.  The incremental content it provided over Netflix at the time was minimal (and Netflix had the kids programming and a kid-friendly UI that we depended on), and the interface for actually finding anything was poor.  To me, there was zero reason to bundle two completely unrelated services – free shipping on physical purchases, and online streaming video/music.  Ultimately, I rationalized that the convenience of fast, free shipping alone justified the $99/year, and stuck with the service.
  • Hachette Books Dispute.  I don’t even buy books, generally speaking, but the tactics of holding physical books hostage in negotiations over ebook pricing seemed a little questionable.  I don’t really know enough about the issues on either side to comment on who was really right or wrong in this dispute, but it did make one thing clear – Amazon knew that I, like others, was a captive audience (as opposed to a group that would simply buy elsewhere if Amazon didn’t carry something), and was using this as a negotiating tool.
  • Movie Studio Dispute.  One category of items I’ve consistently purchased via Amazon is movies and videogames, as they’ve got a great policy of having it to you on release day, at the lowest price the item had any time between when you ordered, and when it shipped. Despite the convenience of streaming, when I really care about watching the film in the highest quality I can, I still buy the Blu-ray disc. Then something very odd happened; the release date of something I’d been waiting for was coming up, yet the item wasn’t even visible on Amazon for pre-order. While there wasn’t a lot of press around this, what did exist pointed to an ongoing negotiation between Amazon and the studio for this film (I don’t remember which it was).  I finally did pre-order it, with the usual promise of release day delivery.  But disappointingly, release day came and went, and that weekend, I had to skip watching the film despite it being available at Costco for the same price, because it was already in transit from Amazon.  It felt like a worse outcome for me, so that Amazon could strike a better bargain.
  • Banning Chromecast (and Apple TV).  This one hit far closer to home, but also – in my likely biased opinion – crosses way many more lines than the above.  If you didn’t see this, Amazon decided to remove both Chromecast and Apple TV, on the basis that it was “confusing” to their customers that these products did not work with Prime Instant Video.  As some articles pointed out, this argument didn’t make a lot of sense; Chromecast (and now also Apple TV) allow app developers to support the device if they so choose.  More importantly, this was a very clear sign that Amazon didn’t actually intend to be “the everything store“, and that it would favor its own products over others.  Chromecast might have been the first publicly visible example of this, but what about the Amazon Basics products I’d bought – were competitors against Amazon in other areas being treated similarly?

The net of all this is that Amazon lost the trust I once placed in it to act in its customers’ interests first and foremost, and to be a great source (even if not the absolute cheapest on everything) of anything I wanted to buy online.  Moreover, I didn’t want to buy a “buys-everything-on-Amazon” Prime subscriber that allows them to make moves like the above that are only in their own interests.

Saving Money

In cancelling Prime, I expected to save $99/year, at the cost of waiting a few extra days for my purchases, and not being able to impulsively order something that cost $5.  Entirely unexpectedly, I’ve saved far more than that.  You might be expecting a noble tale about how this led to an epiphany about the plague of excess consumerism, but unfortunately while we do definitely buy way too much stuff as a society, I don’t have such a tale to tell.  My experiences with not defaulting to Amazon are actually quite different:

  • Some things are just cheaper elsewhere.  Amazon offers good prices and never tries to float a price that’s a ripoff compared to other sources, but it’s not always the best.  Once my shopping tended to start with search instead of on amazon.com, I found that I’d occasionally get the best deal on what I wanted with B&H Photo, Monoprice, Newegg, or some other source.  It’s a little more hassle to have accounts with various sellers, but not being lazy had some benefit.
  • Brick & mortar makes sense for some items.  In the early days of e-commerce, retail stores generally still had margins that ensured that buying online was virtually always a better deal, unless you picked up a loss leader on Black Friday.  But that’s changed, and retailers now understand they can’t sell non-impulse items at higher-than-online prices.  In fact, for some items, the manufacturer dictates the same price across both online and offline sellers.  This was the case with an LG OLED TV that I bought to replace my monitor; Amazon, Best Buy, and other sources all had identical prices (technically, Amazon had it for $2 less).  Purchasing it in an actual Best Buy came with three benefits.  First, I had it home and setup the day I hit a particular personal goal I’d gated this decision on.  Second, we could choose when to go to the store, rather than having to set up a 4-hour delivery window (or greater), probably on a weekday, that would have been inconvenient.  But finally – and per the “save money” comment – a promotion to sign up for a Best Buy Visa led to a 10% discount, which in the case of this TV made a $300 difference!
  • Minimum advertised price is not minimum price.  In some categories, retailers seem to be held to a requirement that the prices they can post/offer online have a certain minimum.  I’d previously assumed that this was just “the price”, and if it seemed reasonable enough I’d buy it from Amazon.  But as I looked at replacing two key components of our home theater that have provided close to a decade of service but are getting somewhat dated, I discovered that A/V dealers you still have to call over the phone can still do better than “minimum advertised price”, even when they are authorized dealers.  My replacement projector was $200 less from a dealer than from Amazon; the updated A/V processor I went with was $250 less through that dealer.  The right dealer will also be very knowledgeable; I actually wound up making a different choice on the projector after speaking with the dealer and doing some additional research.

It’s hard to quantify the small items, but the three big-ticket items (which I hope will last a decade, like their predecessors!) added up to $850 in savings over my previous “Buy with 1-click” default behavior.  And so far, we’ve only had to pay $5 once for expedited shipping.  Add in the $99 annual fee, and that’s a net improvement of $944 not counting smaller items!

Amazon is still a great source of many things, and whenever I’ve had to reach out to their customer service, they’ve been great.  When I am buying something online, I don’t avoid shopping there, and I’m glad that by going to smile.amazon.com, you can elect to support a charity with a small portion of your purchases.  Cancelling Prime just means I don’t default to shopping there – and so far, that’s saved me a ton.

 Posted by at 12:02 am
Feb 272012

By most measures, Valerie is much more active when it comes to finding a “deal” than I am, though we seem to sometimes fit the stereotype that women like deals on things they don’t need, with men paying any price for things they think they do (whether that’s actually the case). I’m not above taking a good deal – hence that bulk purchase of way more used photo equipment than any non-professional needs – but I don’t buy things just because they are cheap. So unsurprisingly, she’s used group buying services like Groupon, Living Social, and Google Offers a decent number of times; by contrast, I just finally used my first Groupon.

Note that I didn’t say that I just bought my first Groupon. That actually happened back in 2010 sometime, when Greg in the office said there was a deal on printing a photo book from Photobook Canada. For some reason, I bought four coupons – I don’t even remember for how much – each of which provided $115 of credit to be applied to a future order. It took a surprising amount of time to actually do this – even though I created just one book for photos from 2008, one for 2009, and made two copies of each. But I really didn’t have a choice, as I’d gotten a half-dozen nag E-mails reminding me that my Groupons were going to expire at the end of February (which I’m sure is part of the overall business model). I had inquired about cancelling for a refund – especially since I now live in the U.S., and Photobook Canada doesn’t even ship to the U.S. – but no dice on that. Fortunately, they do offer local pickup, so we’re going to ask our family back in Toronto to get the books once they’re ready.

I have two sets of comments; one on Groupon as a model, the other on Photobook Canada specifically (prior to having seen the books they produce, which will greatly affect my impression of them in one direction or another). First, on Groupon – and as always, these are just my personal thoughts:

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:52 am
Dec 292011


I had intended to write three travel-related posts consecutively before getting sidetracked with the last post.  I figured that by going from bad (United Airlines) to good (Singapore Airlines) to awful (this post), I might avoid sounding like a perennial complainer.  And indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post on customer service, I really think it’s worth calling out and supporting great customer service (and the companies that provide it) so we get more of it – and less of companies like Travelocity.

You already know that this story doesn’t end well, so I’ll caveat things up front. First, I technically booked through travelocity.ca as opposed to travelocity.com; but were they to tell me that’s a separate corporate entity with a relation in brand only, I’d tell them that I don’t care and that they should be more careful with their brand. Second, this is just one experience; I am sure that some people have good experiences. Much probably depends on which agent your call is routed to, and whether they’re having a good day. Though having communicated with them many times via both phone and E-mail, I must have hit many bad days. Finally, there are definitely things I could have been more proactive about or attentive to. Still, I think customers deserve better.

The context is simple – I needed to go back to Malaysia from Seattle for my mom’s birthday. Since I was no longer living in Canada or flying out of Toronto, which I was pretty familiar with, I had to look for different options and decided to give Travelocity a try (due to a slightly negative experience with Expedia, in which a flight booked with Expedia got cancelled, but I got charged for the hotel I also booked with Expedia anyways; understandable in some respects, yet unpleasant nonetheless).

The first challenge was just finding flights. Like essentially all travel sites, you type in what you want and what feels like 5 minutes later, you get back a list of options (some of which have impossible connection times and other traps to watch out for). I look forward to the day when the awesomely fast Google Flight Search covers the whole world and not just the U.S. Now, I understand that finding optimal flight routes is something of an NP-complete problem, but taking 6 different airlines via different cities isn’t going to work anyways, so it’s unclear that the search space should be that large. Yes, arcane fare rules and airline partnerships probably make matters more complex, and I have no doubt that the people who work on this problem are very smart. But the results aren’t great, yet.

What do I mean by not great? Searching for flights from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur turned up a few options, all with 2+ stops, that were not appealing and also quite expensive. Searching for flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur and then matching flights from Seattle to Los Angeles offered a whole host of viable options not returned by the first search. You can try it right now! Plugging in this same set of routes (SEA -> KUL versus SEA -> LAX -> KUL), with a random date, the two-part search found flights $70 cheaper – with the same number of stops (2). In my case, the difference was more than $70, and more importantly, I was looking for a decent airline (Singapore Airlines) and also a Star Alliance carrier since that would have put me at the 100k threshold to qualify for Super Elite status for another year. The added inconvenience and time of flying via LAX was easily worth it to earn those miles.

But my gripe is not about the search process not being as good as it could (or should, or will) be. It’s about three things that happened next:

  • As I check in at Los Angeles for the flight to Singapore, the check-in agent tells me that in addition to only having middle seats (which I can accept), that I’m on a special fare that doesn’t qualify for miles. I’ve rarely ever seen such fares, especially not for international travel – but in all cases where I had, it was fully disclosed.  There was no mention of this in any interaction with Travelocity, and I did indeed read all the fare rules.  I read them again after discovering this, complained to multiple people at Travelocity about this, and all they could say was that it’s an airline policy, not their policy, and that I have to talk to the airline about it.  They were utterly uninformed, and this was a serious failure in disclosure.  The net cost of this was approximately 40,000 miles (I earn 2-for-1 through this year due to being Super Elite), which is enough for 1.5 round trip tickets anywhere in North America.  And it put me well out of reach of making Super Elite for next year (which historically meant 50,000 extra miles during the year – another 2 round trip tickets).  Of all the issues, this was the most serious – it still makes me angry thinking about it, especially given their clueless and uncaring response to the issue.
  • Several weeks after booking, I received several E-mails on both flights informing me about changes to the flight schedule – made by the airlines (Singapore and Alaska, in this case).  Flights, in particular the LAX -> SEA flight, moved several times, sometimes backwards, sometimes forward.  I knew I’d have to check this at some point, but assumed that it was just a change of schedule.  In actual fact, my LAX -> SEA flight had been moved earlier enough that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to clear immigration and customs, walk between terminals (it’s LA!), and go through security to catch my flight. Once I realized this, I called to correct the situation.  Their response?  I should have called sooner, now I’m stuck with unworkable flights, and have to pay $200 to get something later.  I paid less than $200 for the entire round trip initially!  To add insult to injury, they spent a bunch of time trying to convince me that I initiated the change – when I was looking at E-mail directly in front of me that made it clear that I didn’t.  Thank goodness I was calling with Google Voice, or it would have cost a fortune to listen to them tell me that I decided to pick impossible flights for myself.
  • A day later, they get in touch via E-mail to say that my rebooked flight didn’t go through, because my credit card – the same one they had yesterday when they were on the phone with me – has now expired.  Note this isn’t a credit card I had given them; they asked if the same credit card was fine and I said yes, without actually thinking about exactly which card I had originally booked with.  Oh, and in the whole 24 hour period that went by that it took for them to discover what normally happens in the 10 seconds after you click the “Book” button, the fares have changed – upward – and now I have to fly through Portland.

I’ve probably traveled between 800,000 and 900,000 miles by air during my lifetime, but this qualifies as the single worst experience in that entire history of air travel. The only two that come even remotely close are benig told by the now-defunct airline Jetsgo that we our flight out of Newark was cancelled because it was snowing in Toronto (it was over 10 degrees Celsius, and an Air Canada flight was departing at the same time – this was just an outright lie), and being locked in a room for over four hours with my brother while on transit as unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles.

I won’t be using Travelocity again, and I suggest that you don’t either.

 Posted by at 10:25 am
Nov 162011

I remember the added story of customer service woe I had forgotten when writing my earlier post.  What could it possibly have to do with kids names?

My friend Jing had a baby not so long ago, a son that they named Odin.  Not only does this conjure up images of great power for anyone who has played the Final Fantasy series of JPRGs (Zantetsuken!), but is also sufficiently unique that you’re not going to run into too many other Odins out there.

My name, on the other hand, is a lot less unique. While this has some advantages, like keeping Adrian guessing as to whether any of the people with my name on Facebook are actually me (answer: still no), I encountered a massive downside when moving to Washington state – someone with my first name, last name, and date of birth had committed a string of traffic offenses in New York State, which landed him – and effectively, me – on a national registry of people who ought not to have a license.  So after waiting for over an hour at the Department of Licensing here in Washington, and passing my knowledge test, I was told I couldn’t get a license until I could prove that I wasn’t the offender in question.  Which was difficult, because he never drove with a license, and didn’t have a social security number associated with his numerous offenses.  This led to a string of interactions with an organization renowned for exceptional customer service…

I had to call about 8 times or so before things were resolved, and had a whole range of experiences on those calls. A few highlights:

  • Washington state sends you to the Driver Improvement division of the DMV, when what you really need is the Traffic Violations group.  A little transfer tag is par for the course in telephone based customer service.  However, Driver Improvement has a veritable maze of an IVR explicitly designed to prevent you from reaching a human being.  It took several calls, taking notes on their IVR, to even identify how to avoid the traps that get you into a “cannot possibly reach a human” branch of their IVR tree.
  • Driver Improvement takes calls from 8:30am till noon.   Of course, you have to hold so long that you really need to call by 11:00am.  Oh, you’re in Washington?  Well in that case, the effective hours are 5:30am till 8:00am.  And this is what you need to go through to get told that you’re talking to the wrong place.
  • Naturally, the first time I got transferred to the right place (Traffic Violations), I got put on hold and the call got dropped.  My only way back was… that’s right, through the 5:30am-to-8:00am-can’t-speak-to-a-person Driver Improvement group.  When I got through the second time, I didn’t even explain my situation, I was immediately begging for a number I could call if I got disconnected again.
  • The opening conversations I had once I got to the right place went something like this:
    • Me: “Hi, I have the same name and birthdate as someone in New York and need a ‘not me’ letter I can use here in Washington?”
    • DMV: “We don’t do ‘not me’ letters”.
  • The next conversation (with a different person) was only marginally more encouraging:
    • Me: “Hi, I have the same name and birthdate as someone in New York and need a ‘not me’ letter I can use here in Washington?”
    • DMV: “We can’t give you a letter like that… how do we know you aren’t that person?”
  • There’s no such thing as a case or ticket number.  In fact, after I reached someone helpful – who ominously said that I might have to appear in front of a judge to convince him that I’m not Mr. Bad Driver – they got me to fax all my documents over so they could look into things.  I called back a week later to see how things were going.  They asked who was working on my case – in the same way that a waiter at a restaurant might ask you the name of the chef/cook who is making your meal if you ask where your food is. Once I found out – Alison was helping me – I made sure to write down her name, as indeed I’d need it on every subsequent call.
  • Google has a very stringent set of standards and access control limiting access of employees to potentially confidential/personal information of users. The DMV? Not so much. Whenever I reached someone other than Alison, they’d often say “oh, she’s a manager, she’s in meetings!  Let me check for you”.  Then they’d go over to her desk, look through papers they found, and either they’d find my documents or not.  Then they could leave notes for Alison related to my file.
In the end, I did get the letter I needed even though it took a month, and I actually appreciated the staff there – even though I’d chuckle as someone went off to ruffle through Alison’s desk to find my information.
But the people defining these federal databases definitely need to understand the concept of a primary key. Similarly, the designers of infuriating IVRs should try and understand that even if they try to be comprehensive, a case like “I need a not me letter because I am out of state but have the same name and birthday as an in-state offender” is never going to be an IVR menu option.  Heck, most of the people I talked to had no idea how I should proceed!
And last but not least, name your kids something like Odin.  If you name them John Smith or Zhang Wei (I don’t think my old roommate Wei reads this, but his name might actually be the most popular in the world), just imagine the trouble they’ll have once these poorly designed databases go global!
 Posted by at 10:17 am
Nov 162011

It’s been a long time since I posted an update of many sorts; the move and new job kept me very busy, as you might expect, and while I did get walking to work everyday into my routine, I didn’t fare so well when it comes to posting things here that I found interesting and/or wanted to remember.  That said, I do have a list of things I meant to get to writing down… the first being on customer service.

When you move, you need to start, update, or cancel virtually every relationship you have with a company.  This is painful enough to discourage moving – as if exorbitant real estate commissions didn’t take care of that (more on that later, perhaps). Amongst this flurry of customer service interactions, there’s bound to be a few “exceptional” cases worth noting… Continue reading »

 Posted by at 9:36 am
Aug 052011

At the end of last week, I finally got my D7000 back from Nikon, after having sent it in for servicing. In the interim, I’d been using the D3 that I was temporarily in possession of, and had started to forget just how gargantuan the D3 really is:

The D7000 is by no means a small camera – but it looks and feels tiny in comparison to the D3. It’s amazing what you can get used to; if we think of the size of a Walkman now versus an iPod Touch (let alone an iPod Nano), it seems huge – but the size never bothered us at the time. That said, the D3 is simply enormous in absolute terms – if you’re trying to use it one-handed with a big lens (often necessary due to the kids), you’d best ensure your wrist is in good shape!

If you’re wondering, I took the picture above using my Canon PowerShot S90 compact camera. It actually took quite a bit of effort – there’s no good light in our home at night, and the S90 doesn’t support an external flash, so I was holding and manually firing a Nikon SB-600 in one hand, and a Nikon SB-800 in the other.  I missed quite a few times :).

So why did I have to send the D7000 back, and how did Nikon do?

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 7:33 am