They don’t get paid, but they do get tons of free stuff.
In the past month alone, Kort Kramer has written thoughtful reviews for socks (“a stylish, aggressive pattern that looks like business”), bath mats (“perfect to place either outside the shower or tub to dry off”), and wicker storage baskets (“doesn’t feel sturdy enough to hold anything but sheets”).
The products themselves, all reviewed on Amazon, carry the trademark qualities of the e-commerce giant: algorithmic, splashed in primary colors, designed to blend quietly into the corners of duplexes and condos all over the world. In that sense, Kramer is the Zagat of tasteful suburbia. After 15 years on the site, he’s published more than 5,000 reviews, which makes him the No. 9 all-time reviewer according to Amazon’s internal metrics.
You could argue that Amazon established the universal expectation of the “customer review” after the company was founded in the mid-’90s. Everything on the internet since, from YouTube videos to Yelp listings, is punctuated with a barometer of user taste. This trend has completely altered our consumer culture; as Wired reported recently, much of a product’s success on Amazon hinges on its star rating. But would you ever take unsolicited advice from the humans behind those reviews? Who knows. It’s difficult to judge character from a simple four-out-of-five.
That’s what makes Kramer different. He rigorously tests each product he reviews, and has strict definitions for what should be categorized in which star value. One of his pet peeves is the Amazon reviewers who toss out a petty one-star rating after putting in a fraction of the work that he does.
In 2007, Amazon granted a small cadre of its most dedicated reviewers the ability to request, receive, and review certain products available on the site for free (albeit with a small tax), in a program called “Amazon Vine.” Kramer had been reviewing books and CDs on Amazon since the company resembled a local co-op (rather than the television studio/grocery store we know today), so naturally, he was among the first invited to be a “Vine Voice.” He’s taken great advantage of the license: From laptops to couches to Roblox toys, most everything in the Kramer household has been supplied by the Bezos estate.
Kramer, now 48, works as an art director in Boca Raton, Florida, and regards his Amazon duties as a nominal second job. His status in the Vine program injects the typically frivolous art of the customer review with a sense of gravitas, and he goes the extra mile of analysis on even the most mundane products in his purview. (Here, for instance, are two robust paragraphs on a pair of flip-flops, which Kramer deems “good for quick jaunts outside or to the pool.”)
He says he hopes his massive catalog of Amazon judgments is enshrined as part of his legacy, and since his reviews have been marked as “helpful” more than 17,000 times in his career, it’s clear the rest of the world recognizes his talents. We talked about that, as well as his intensive process for reviewing clothing, the nightly unboxings he and his family host, and what it’s like to have a house bulging with Amazon products.
When did writing reviews become a hobby for you? When were you like, “You know what? This is fun.”
Well, I enjoy writing. I wasn’t doing too much of that. I like the idea of helping people out with my experiences. I saw the other reviews, and I liked some, and some I thought shouldn’t be on there, so I wanted to do my own thing.
I enjoy the products too, of course. Early on, I was passionate about the music, mainly; I was getting CDs from groups I liked. I liked to leave my feedback on what they sounded like on their latest release.
How many products do you think you review in a given month?
Well, that obviously varies. Some weeks I end up doing a lot, sometimes less. There was a time when Amazon Vine started, if you didn’t get in when the newsletter came out, everything would be gone. That was that, and you waited till the next week. Recently, though, things trickle in every day. You can end up having very angry UPS guys bringing you 20 packages.
I’d say per day, I average three to four reviews — sometimes more, sometimes less. It peaks sometimes at, like, 8 or 9. I’d do one in the morning before going to work, and then several at night. I feel a responsibility; I get this thing and I want people to know how it works.
How much of the stuff do you end up keeping?
There was a time where you had to keep it. You couldn’t even give it away. They changed the guidelines, where you have to keep it for six months. I keep what I’m using, if it [breaks] I throw it out, and if there’s some reason it’s not worth saving, it goes into the garbage. In the meantime, my wife and daughter and I get a lot of use out of the stuff we have. But there does come a time also when the garage gets full and you’re like, “We have enough of this stuff.”
That’s got to be tough to pare down, when your house is just bulging with Amazon product.
Yeah, and we have an evening unboxing party [of the new stuff that’s showed up]. That can be fun. And we definitely have an eclectic-looking house now.
You mentioned to me that you have a formula for your reviews of things like clothing. What are some of the key points you hit?
If it’s a T-shirt, I’ll mention the fabric, and how comfortable it is. I’ll give my size, height and weight, and how it fits me to give people an idea. I’ll shoot photos, I’ll talk about the buttons, the stitching, and the look of it. I’ll talk about how well it washes. People forget if a shirt turns into a wrinkled mess every time you wash it, you won’t want to be wearing it as much.
You do seem to take a pretty in-depth approach with your reviewing. I’m sure most people on Amazon wouldn’t bother washing a shirt to see what happens before writing their review. Is that something you like to emphasize?
[A lot] of reviewers will say, “Oh the shipping was terrible, it arrived broken, one star.” That’s not going to help anybody. I like to use the product for a while. I want to take a more interactive approach and spend some time with the product before I give an assessment, because oftentimes things pop up that you don’t see right away.
What to you is a five-star product?
Well, it’s a funny thing. It doesn’t have to be the greatest. If it’s really good, if it does everything it’s advertised to do, then I’ll probably give it five stars. If it’s good but it has a few things that don’t quite gel, then I’m more likely to give it four stars. If it’s just okay, nothing special, that’s three stars. And if it’s not working right, that’s two and below.
I saw that you write some reviews on behalf of your wife for some women’s products, particularly women’s clothing. How does that work? How do you collaborate with your wife in the review process?
As it happens with Vine, you get offered certain things, and it’s great having a partner who can try things on. You get offered things from diapers to women’s products to men’s products. She would generously model for me, take pictures of a lot of things, and she’d give me her feedback on it. She does the same thing for me; she takes pictures of me in clothes. It’s almost like a second job.
Does she give you a star rating? Like, “Oh, this is a four for me.”
Yes, and there’s definitely been times where we don’t agree on stars. Usually, I don’t tell her, though. I say, “Oh, you liked that dress, okay!” I don’t argue much on that. And I appreciate her female perspective on it too, because maybe there’s a reason she likes it more than I do.
Do you have a favorite product you’ve received from Amazon?
Obviously, there’s more than one thing. But I have to say I got a nice HP laptop that’s served me well. When I got another one, I was able to let my wife take over the older one. That got a lot of use. I was fortunate enough to get a nice couch. We’ve gotten tables, and chairs, and patio furniture. Our house … I wouldn’t say it’s been furnishedby Amazon, but if you throw a rock, you’ll probably hit an Amazon product.
If I asked you what the worst product you reviewed was, does anything come to mind for you?
I’ve reviewed over 4,000 now, so I don’t have any single worst [product.] But some have arrived broken, some that are just really bad and fall apart. There are clothing items that don’t fit. Things like that. I had some shorts that I reviewed, and when I put them on the first time, the button popped off. I had two or three pairs of those, and the button popped off on two of them. I’ve read some books that weren’t edited well, where the author wasn’t ready for primetime. But I try to write about things I do enjoy, and things I’m going to enjoy. So the negative ones are fewer and far between.
I’m also not a big fan of the star system. It gives you a general idea, but it’s the content of the review that matters.
It must be nice when something comes through Vine where you’re like, “Well, this is nice, and I’m going to review it, obviously, but it will also be a nice present for my daughter.”
Yeah, basically same with my wife. Things I wouldn’t be able to get them normally, or that I’d have to be more selective about.
Another motivator is that there was a time, years ago, when I was getting close to the Top 100 of Amazon reviewers. They changed a bunch of stuff, they deleted old reviews, and I lost some ranks. I was like, “Oh well, I guess I’ll never get there.” But then this past year, I did break into the Top 100. I’m looking right now, and I’m No. 13. [Since this conversation, Kort has moved up to No. 9.] It’s hard to fathom. If you put time into something, it pays off.
Would you like to be No. 1?
I don’t know what it would take. I’ve put in as much time as I can. I’ll keep reviewing; if I’m fortunate to get there, great. If not, I’m happy being 13.
Do you look at your time as an Amazon reviewer as any part of your personal legacy? Do you look at this huge database of reviews as something you’ll leave behind?
I hope so. Only time will tell if they do last [or] if they delete all the reviews, which has happened in the past a couple of times due to a glitch in the system, and I had to go through a process to get them back up. That’s very frustrating. But I do hope that it’s some sort of legacy, something I’ve been able to contribute. Whenever I get a like on a review, it shows me that someone found some value in it. It makes me feel good. Like any hobby, I enjoy the writing process, I enjoy the testing process. As long as I’m having fun with it, [I’ll keep going.]