What’s Holding Back Amazon’s Dash Button?

By: Sean Mott

In the Seinfeld episode “The Rye,” George needs to replace a rye bread to avoid embarrassment (it’s a long story). He conscripts Jerry to buy a new loaf at a bakery. Unfortunately, an old woman buys the last rye bread and Jerry, after begging for the loaf, is forced to steal it, uttering the immortal phrase, “Shut up, you old bag.”

This moment has far reaching consequences for the series, as Jerry will meet this woman again on several occasions. But let’s rewind. What if Jerry didn’t need to pulverize a senior citizen for a baked good? What if he could just stay home, press a button, and wait for the rye to come to him? Sure, it wouldn’t make for gut-busting comedy, but it would make his life easy.

Amazon took a step towards that reality when they introduced the Dash Button last year. The button is small and pill-shaped with a brand name emblazoned on the front. There is an indent on one end which users can press. Individual buttons cost $5 with over 150 different brands.

An Amazon Prime member can buy a Dash Button for Tide detergents and place it in their laundry room. When they run low on clothes solvent, they can press the button and receive a new load of detergent in a matter of days. It’s effortless shopping.

Amazon benefits from the Dash Button beyond raising brand awareness. It opens up a more constant stream of potential revenue. A customer surrounded by brand choices is likely to be a frequent buyer. Moreover, it gives them another source of customer data. Amazon is renowned for its wealth of customer data, but the Dash Button gives them a more direct feed into consumer habits. Amazon can apply this information for its own use or share it with brands. For Amazon, the Dash Button seems to have a lot of upside.

When the Dash Button debuted April 2015, it was met with open ridicule. Tech bloggers and culture critics expressed their contempt and disgust for the purchasing tool. The Huffington Post responded to it with its usual blend of sarcasm and snark, questioning why anyone would buy it. The New Yorker was appalled by its encouragement of a “state of constant shopping.” Mark Wilson, writing for Co.Design, bleakly opined that it is the “latest symptom of Amazon’s slowly spreading disease.” The Dash Button’s rollout on April Fool’s Day was prophetic, as most people viewed it as a joke.

The public reception seemingly matches these harsh criticisms. Slice Intelligence reports that fewer than 50% of Dash Button buyers actual made a purchase through the product.

Dash Button criticisms are varied. As mentioned, many decry it for locking users in a cycle of perpetual purchases. It ushers in an age of mindless consumption, where our every impulse is gratified with a mere push. Raz Godelnik, writing for Triple Pundit, notes that this mentality could be a sustainability disaster. He argues that, given the restrictive Dash Button brand options, users will be stuck in a rotation of repetitive products. They will not be encouraged to look for different or better items because the button provides instant satisfaction. This is dangerous for economic sustainability, as it closes and limits the market. It also hurts environmental sustainability, as people will try less to change their “consumption habits” and continue to use potentially harmful products.

Mark Wilson also points out that the Dash Button fails to consider the customer experience. He says the button’s rigid nature narrows user choice and lacks flexible pricing. It’s focused on impulse purchases, not consumer satisfaction. The Dash Button ignores the customer in order to “make some middle managers very happy.”

All these criticisms are valid, but the Dash Button’s main failure is limitation. Its restriction hurts customer and corporation alike. Consumers see the most obvious form of this limitation. The products are restricted to a certain amount of brands, reining in choice. Users can only buy so many Dash Buttons that match their interests. Customers are robbed of shopping freedom by this lack of choice. They’re reduced to passive observers in their own commerce experience. All they can do is press a button.

The Dash Button limits Amazon in less obvious ways. Amazon receives a steady stream of customer data, but it’s tainted. By its own design, the Dash Button creates a closed-circuit of information. The limited amount of brands means that Amazon can only pull from a shallow pool of data. Since they present users with selective brands, they don’t get a true sense of a customer’s buying habits. A user who is only presented with one option is, naturally, going to choose that option, but that doesn’t paint a picture of their shopping patterns. Commerce data without choice lacks credibility.

Companies needs to offer more interactive, user-friendly shopping experiences. They have to give choice back to the consumer. When shopping, customers want the power to choose from a multitude of possibilities. They want to act on a large collection of options. They want to be active shoppers, not passive observers.

Companies like Amazon have large reserves of data. They need to share it with their customers. Amazon, by studying shopping habits, understands consumer interests. They should convert this information into a customer service. When shopping, consumers should be presented with a series of products that match their personality. Companies can empower consumers while maintaining the shopping experience.

Amazon has dabbled with this technique, offering suggestions based on past purchases. But the Dash Button, in its current form, is too inflexible to allow for such elasticity. The Dash Button was built to satiate companies’ need for endless data. This philosophy needs to be inverted. The quest for limitless data should benefit the customer. The Dash Button is an important cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring that tenet.