It took more than two months, but the Georgia woman charged $7,455 to have three cartons of toilet paper delivered from Amazon was refunded on Wednesday.
The culprit? Likely an unfortunate combination of an Amazon seller who overcharged for shipping, breaking Amazon rules, a buyer failing to check the final delivery bill and an Amazon customer service system that stumbled.
The story began March 2, when Barbara Carroll of Berkeley Lake, Ga., ordered three boxes of Pom toilet paper for two office buildings she manages, using the company's debit card. Each box held 48 rolls.
There are multiple sellers on Amazon who stock this particular product and she chose one called The Ideal Store. The cost for the toilet paper was $88.17. She clicked two-day shipping, then Buy and was done.
Two days later the toilet paper arrived at the building and all was well. Or so she thought.
Less than a week later, Carroll was doing a regular check of the bank account when she discovered a deduction dated March 6 for $7,543.17. When she went into her Amazon account, she found that she’d been charged $88.17 for the toilet paper and $7,455.00 for the delivery.
Carroll, like an estimated 63% of Amazon's U.S. customers, is a member of the company's Prime membership program, which for $119 a year gives customers free, two-day shipping with other perks — something Prime members come to expect and can sometimes forget isn't available on every product.
As a long-time Prime member, Carroll wasn’t worried.
“As soon as I saw that number I knew I didn’t have to worry, because Amazon would see it was a problem and fix it right away,” she told USA TODAY this week.
That’s not what happened. Carroll called Amazon’s customer service multiple times and each time the person who opened her file laughed and said the delivery fee was obviously crazy. Then they’d poke around a little more and tell her she had to take it up with The Ideal Company, the third-party seller from whom she’d bought the toilet paper.
Less than 50% of all items on Amazon’s website are actually sold by Amazon. They instead come from what are known as third-party sellers who use Amazon’s site as a sales platform. Some ship their products to Amazon’s fulfillment centers and let Amazon take care of the shipping and packing, a service called Fulfilled by Amazon. These products can be eligible for Amazon's Prime two-day free shipping services.
Others ship from their own warehouses and generally aren't Prime eligible. In all cases, payments go through the buyer’s Amazon account.
In Carroll’s case, she’d ordered from a third-party seller that doesn’t do its fulfillment through Amazon, so the order was shipped by The Ideal Company. S
She called that seller's phone number when Amazon told her to take it up with the company. No one answered, but she left several messages. USA TODAY called the The Ideal Company's New York (347) area code, too, and also left a message. Neither got any response.
At this point, Carroll was getting a little frantic. The owners of the building, whose debit card had been charged for more than $7,500 for some toilet paper, were not happy.
So she wrote an email to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, explaining what had happened and asking him to stand by the company’s policy of providing customers with high quality service and being responsive to their concerns.
Between her letter to Bezos and her emails to Amazon, she sent in six different complaints. Each time, she got back a form message saying that she could not be refunded because there had been no shipping problem: the toilet paper was shipped on time, it was shipped to the right location and it wasn’t damaged.
Except that the order did run afoul of another Amazon policy. While it's clearly stated that shipping pricing and speed can vary, Amazon’s policy also says that "sellers cannot set excessive order fulfillment or shipping costs.”
A $7,000 charge for three boxes of toilet paper would not be an acceptable charge under any circumstances. In fact, an Amazon staffer told Carroll on Wednesday that to get to that price, “it would have to have been flown first class from the other end of the world,” she told USA TODAY.
With no response from Amazon or The Ideal Company, she called the consumer help team at the local Atlanta television station, WSB-TV. A story aired May 11 and was picked up by media around the country, including by USA TODAY.
Amazon told USA TODAY last week, and WSB-TV earlier, that Carroll had been reimbursed for the shipping charge and that action had been taken against the seller. We couldn't reach Carroll to confirm.
But after the story ran, a friend told Carroll about the article and said Amazon had refunded her. Except, she told USA TODAY, she’d heard nothing from Amazon and the bank account was still more than $7,000 in the hole.
Amazon now says it has begun reimbursement procedures, and on Wednesday, an Amazon finance staffer called Carroll at home to tell her that the money should appear in the building bank account “within several days,” in his words.
In a statement, the company said it is investigating Carroll's interactions with Customer Service so it can improve the experience of all customers.
How could this happen?
The $7,455.00 shipping charge is probably a result of two mistakes and a shipping-reality, said Brian Bourke, vice president of marketing for SEKO Logistics, an e-commerce logistics company based in Chicago.
The first mistake was that Carroll requested two-day shipping for a non-Prime item, meaning she wasn’t getting free delivery when she might have thought she was.
Bourke's shipping reality is that the boxes of toilet paper were big enough that their dimensions have to be taken into account when factoring in the transportation cost. If The Ideal Company were across the country and the package had to go out by air, it’s possible the shipping cost would have been high. For air freight, the measure used is called the “dimensional weight” because it’s based on the items weight and size.
“So even if it’s only 5 pounds, the dimensional weight could be much higher, say 50 or 80 pounds,” said Bourke.
However the final, and most important, mistake Bourke believes was on the part of the seller. The delivery fee “just looks wrong and is definitely beyond any normal shipping charge,” he said.
Because delivery is calculated by the weight of the item, “you’re always going to get a number that ends in something like 23 cents or 68 cents,” he said.
So the $7,544.00 looks very suspect. What seems more realistic would be $75.44.
“A lot of these third-party sellers don’t have the right technological tools available. You could have someone putting the decimal point in the wrong place," he said.
For Carroll’s part, she understands that by asking for two-day shipping on a non-Prime product, she might have gotten dinged for a higher shipping fee. But $7,455 seemed unreasonable.
“I’m willing to pay what’s correct, but I’m not willing to pay what's exorbitant,” she told USA TODAY.