Online Reviews vs. Peer-Based Online Courts

Imagine getting purchase satisfaction instead of leaving bad reviews for a company in the hope that they'll respond by giving your money back. In some places, online reviews are being augmented, if not replaced, by online courts with cases decided by shopping peers.

We all know the anticipation of purchasing something online and waiting for that box to arrive at our doorstep. However, many of us also unfortunately know the feeling of ripping it open and discovering what we find inside doesn't live up to our expectations.

Often, we can simply return the item. However, this can be a long drawn-out process and for some people, it's just not worth it for a small item or if the seller is being difficult or has less than generous return policies. There are times it's easier to just keep it and leave a negative review and chalk it up to experience.

But it's upsetting. Sometimes we just have to vent and our weapon of choice tends to be online review sites like Google Reviews, Yelp, Trustpilot and others. The feeling of burning a company online feels like justice, but is it? There may be a better way. One that gives shoppers the justice they crave while reducing the number of dings to corporate online reputation that are dealt with every bad review. 

Online courts can be better for both the consumer and the company.

Several Chinese commerce companies have come up with a novel way to address the problem. Facing major issues with counterfeit goods and bad sales practices in the country, buyers can now take sellers to an online court where a jury of their shopping peers can decide who was right... under the watchful eyes of a cartoon crab!


Welcome to Crab Court

Idle Fish is a used goods marketplace owned by Chinese commerce giant Alibaba. It has well over 100 million users and created a peer-juried court to handle online disputes. The Idle Fish Jury deals with about half of all dispute cases on the site.

An example of the proceedings is the case of Kendra Schaefer, who paid the equivalent of $3 for a white designer shirt. When her order arrived, it was a white, non-designer T-shirt, size 2XL. Schaefer asked for a refund, which the seller refused.

"A white shirt is a white shirt,” the seller replied to her. "You’re clearly the kind of person who buys things and finds fault with them just to get a freebie.”

Schaefer turned to the Idle Fish Jury and its mascot of a gavel-wielding crab. The jury was made up of 17 anonymous jurors pulled from the users of the marketplace. With 24 hours to decide, they reviewed the evidence and sided with Schaefer, who received a refund.

Other Chinese platforms have experimented with the idea. With over four million users, Meituan, China’s largest delivery service platform, has one of their own jury systems called Little Mei’s Panel of Judges. This jury does not limit how many users may be jurors on a particular case, however they can only take part in six cases per day. According to a Meituan spokeswoman, nearly two thirds of the participating jurors are between the ages of 20 and 30.

"Young people have a strong sense of justice," the spokeswoman explained. 

Idle Fish's parent company Alibaba experimented with a similar system up until 2018. Known as Public Jury, it handled more than 16 million cases over six years.

While it may never replace larger-scale lawsuits or disputes regarding online commerce and reviews, it's an interesting approach and has created fans in its users. 

Online lawsuits in the real world

However, not all cases are limited to the online world. One person was so unhappy with their online purchase of inflatable bumper balls and the verdict in the online jury forum that they took the case to a real Chinese court. Their case was dismissed.

Other countries have begun to look into the problem of online sales. In 2022, Thailand established a legal division to handle disputes with online purchases, allowing customers to file complaints online without the need of an attorney or additional fees.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has specific rules over online sales. As for reviews, there are cases where online reviews have led to lawsuits, but the laws lie heavily in the favor of consumers, and it's almost never a good idea for a business to pursue one

Bidtopia – Blame The Platypus

Sometimes, in order to avoid the dissatisfaction of ratings and disputes, companies will go all in with the concept of "let the buyer beware."

In the early 2000s, sales company Bargainland exploded onto the online scene. They offered massive amounts of goods in various states of quality. They racked up huge sales on the online platform eBay and quickly became Powerseller, but their feedback rating was dismal. They were open about what they were selling, often offering boxes of items with little description of the contents. Many buyers saw it as a sort of lottery, never knowing what they might get and willing to take a chance. Others were not so pleased and left poor reviews - Bargainland's ratings plummeted.

Eventually, the company left Ebay and began their own auction website Bidtopia with the motto "don't blame the platypus," referring to their mascot. The tongue-in-cheek motto was meant to express the fun of the "grab bag" approach to sales. Bidtopia became immensely popular with their simple system; if a customer paid for their auction, they received a point; if not, they lost a point on their reputation.

Even though they were doing well with this model, in 2008, a tornado struck one of their main distribution centers and then suffered from a fire shortly thereafter. The company was never able to recover and soon went out of business.


What rights do you have as an online buyer?

So if going to crab court isn't an option, what do you do as a buyer if you have an issue with an online purchase? 

Online purchase resolution process

Most online and auction platforms have very detailed dispute resolution processes that usually begin with contacting the seller. The majority of sellers are highly concerned with their ratings and reviews, so they will quickly respond and work to remedy the problem. If they do not, reach out to the sales platform.  Most sites have a form-based system that will quickly get you a remedy.

Gotten a package by mistake? It's a gift.

According to the FTC, if you receive items that you did not order, you have the right to keep them "as a gift." While not required to do so, if you would like to return the item you didn't ask for, the seller must pay for any shipping costs.

Sellers must ship within 30 days

There are also very specific rules about how quickly a seller must ship your item. They must ship it within 30 days of you placing the order, unless other arrangements have been made between the two parties.

If you are unsatisfied with a purchase, make sure you read the fine print for the return policy. You may be responsible for shipping costs and if it came from overseas, this could get very expensive. Many foreign sellers will offer to refund a portion of your purchase cost as long as you don't leave a negative review.

If you purchased through your credit card or PayPal, they have programs that cover buyer protection and refunds. Contact them or visit their websites for more information.

What can sellers do to avoid issues?

No matter the size of your operation, always use very careful wording in not only the description of the item you are selling, but how you handle shipping and returns. Make sure you understand the policies of the site you are selling through and adhere to them. We're not talking about just the small print, it needs to be very clear.

From the beginning, be straightforward and honest about what you are selling. Be sure to have an accurate and detailed description of the item, including condition, sizes and shipping with accurate photos that properly represent the items up for sale. Also include information about your return policy, including who pays to have it shipped back to you and under what circumstances you will accept returns. 

If a customer contacts you with a problem, respond immediately. If it's a shipping issue and they haven't received their item, determine if it was something on your end or a problem with the mailing system. Many sellers will use registered shipping or have receipts and tracking numbers so they can easily prove they did everything in their power to ship safely. You may also choose to insure items.

If your customer has an issue with the transaction, try to resolve it. If you cannot and they leave a bad review, many sites will allow you to dispute it or at least respond.

Always be polite and professional and try to address the issues clearly or you may end up in Crab Court!




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