Incognito shopping on amazon — a new private way to shop. Part I.

Elad Katz
8 min readAug 11, 2020

A long time ago, I wanted to buy something on Amazon, the details of which I preferred remained private — it wasn’t something horrible, but it was something I’d rather not be associated with me or my account.

I’ve since been searching for a way to shop anonymously if I need to buy things of that nature.

The easiest alternative for me is to check out as a guest on some site so I can buy an item while keeping my privacy, but it got me thinking, how many people are like me, and how much is Amazon losing on these customers…

LELO on Amazon — Back massagers, etc… :)

So I started investigating:

Reddit turned out to be a treasure trove of information regarding the need, but also the pain that the users are experiencing as a result.

What happens when you google incognito mode on amazon

The main customer reported pain points are:

  1. Certain items associated with my previously purchased private items may be on my suggested items list later*
  2. Private items I purchased might be exposed when I peruse my order history
  3. For a shared account, I might not want the other user to see what I shopped for (in case of a gift, etc)
  4. Amazon will have a long-standing record of these purchases and will leave me in a constant state of stress
  5. My private items & associated information may be shared with third parties (e.g. a 3rd party sellers who can later target me)

In other words, I’d like to continue to purchase from amazon with a higher level of privacy

The main product categories reported by customers as desired for discrete shopping are:

Gifts — this is the category of surprise items you purchase for loved ones — I don’t want my spouse to see or my children to know I’m buying them something when they ask Alexa or look at the order history, this also covers auxiliary items such as dog food when the puppy is the surprise

  1. Amazon has made shopping for gifts somewhat safer recently, and even introduced a way for Alexa to not show what’s coming during the holiday season, however, it seems that a shrewd and curious child can easily work around these solutions,
  2. NSFW/Controversial items — this is a broad category, ranging from the sexual — lingerie, adult sex toys, books, magazines, etc through the somewhat illicit — paraphernalia for marijuana, drug testing kits, alcohol and mixers to various self-defense items (e.g. machetes, don’t judge, there are literally thousands of options for those on Amazon)
  3. Items that represent private, political or other views — This category spans everything that can seem or represent a person’s political or personal private views — many would not like to get radical view book recommendations on their front page of Amazon because they bought a controversial book at some point.
  4. Items that might allude to your physical/mental health status — that covers books about anxiety to buying something for bad breath, foot fungus, baldness, or other, more serious conditions.
  5. Anything a specific person might feel judged about purchasing — this category can span anything from a dog wig to a pound of replica human fat — no judgment here.

So, wait, am I a Genius!?

Probably not, I’m sure Amazon has considered many approaches to resolving these issues and I’d love to talk about the risks that any general solution might incur on the business.

#1 — Data is money

Customers who use any form of private shopping contribute nothing to the knowledge base Amazon builds on its customers (see notes below) and can result in a reduction of CLTV and also hurt Amazon’s Advertising product.

#2 — Privacy is addictive

What if people opt to only use private shopping — the result of that could be less relevant recommendations and again, a decrease in CLTV. Moreover, Amazon uses these data to plan distribution — if the data is not exposed even to amazon, that could escalate into supply issues.

#3 — Complexity/Usability

Any solution we will come up with will inevitably make the user experience less simple, which goes against the “simplify” principle from Amazon’s principles

#4 — Cost (but also, maybe benefit)

Building anything new is expensive, and without proof that this is a worthwhile investment, this project will not fly. (more on this later)

#5 — Alienating conservative shoppers (PR)

While not the most intimidating of risks, there’s always a chance that a group might rise up and say that this enables Amazon to sell items that go against their beliefs and might, therefore, ban Amazon

#6 — A drop in sales of items from the categories above

For some people, the addition of another layer of security can actually make them more apprehensive to buy as they might feel that they are doing something illicit.

#7 — A drop in reviews for these types of products

Users can be even more aware and apprehensive to write reviews of these products if they feel that they are not savory.

The Current “Solution”:

On your amazon profile page, under privacy settings, there hides a checkbox that looks like this:

It’s checked by default and when you hit the read more button, you see that this is the solution that Amazon chose to address some of the pain points illustrated above:

Some other mitigation techniques that address some of the pain points:

  1. With Amazon Household each user should not be seeing the other user’s shopping history
  2. Users can clear their browsing history altogether
  3. Users can clear individual searches or products they viewed from being advertised for by selecting “Don’t use for recommendations or This was a gift”
  4. Users can archive any order to remove it from their order history

So, what’s the problem, it looks like they already have a solution…

The problem with these is that they are simply too complicated for the average user — and while I don’t have the data, I’m fairly certain that it will show that very few people actually use these abilities.

But let’s examine this solution from the pain points perspective:

While it addresses some of the issues in a superficial way, it doesn’t address all of them. For example, there’s nothing in that snippet that says that your data cannot be sold to 3rd parties, there is nothing about search history and nothing about how it would affect your personal homepage.

In reality, this is only a solution that enables users to post reviews about products that amazon deems to have an “embarrassing” nature.

Another huge issue with this solution is that it does not give the user the freedom to decide what they would like to keep private, but rather relies on Amazon as the arbiter of embarrassment — which is an incredibly subjective thing.

So, should they look for a different solution?

Let’s consider if this is worthwhile:

Customer Obsession

Customers demand more and more privacy, it’s Amazon’s job to meet their customers where they are. The other consideration here is that this is an opportunity for Amazon to earn the trust of their users and expand it.

Just see this privacy survey published by Cisco in 2019, it states that around 80% care enough about privacy online to act, 91% of which will not buy if they don’t trust how the data is used, this is especially prevalent in the 18–44 age group, which is a large chunk of Amazon’s shoppers.

This is already a thing — proof that users want this

All modern browsers are already using built-in “incognito modes”, there are hundreds of addons to help users control ads, and cookies available for browsers and even in terms of search engines, DuckDuckGo the private search engine has become more and more popular over the last few years and is yet another proof that people do care about the records that are being kept on them online.

There’s money being left on the table

As an example: there are countless articles recommending users buy their sex toys directly from the manufacturer and we can see an uptick in companies that sell sex toys direct to consumer

In the next article, we’ll talk about the product discovery journey, stay tuned!

As always, feedback is a gift, please share your thoughts in the comment section and if you liked this article, please consider sharing/clapping.

Feedback is a gift, really!


A bit about Amazon’s Personalized Recommendation System

Amazon is a leader in using a comprehensive, collaborative filtering engine (CFE). It analyzes what items you purchased previously, what is in your online shopping cart or on your wish list, which products you reviewed and rated, and what items you search for most. This information is used to recommend additional products that other customers purchased when buying those same items.

For example, when you add a DVD to your online shopping cart, similar movies purchased by other customers are also recommended for you to purchase. In this way, Amazon’s big data uses the power of suggestion to encourage you to buy on impulse as a means of further satisfying your shopping experience and spending more money. This method generates 35% of the company’s sales annually.