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Skincare brand Sunday Riley wrote fake Sephora reviews for 2 years: FTC

Should Amazon only allow verified reviews?

Skincare brand Sunday Riley reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. on Monday after the brand was accused of writing fake reviews on Sephora’s website for two years.

Sephora, one of the biggest beauty retailers in North America, can show customers hundreds of products ranked based on ratings and user reviews.

The FTC noted employees of Sunday Riley were told to write fake reviews on the website, while also “disliking” negative reviews, CNN reported. The company was also charged with two violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Sunday Riley agreed to no longer use employees to write fake reviews, the FTC reported. But the company did not admit to the allegations or receive further punishment.

READ MORE: Vancouver restaurant owner fires back at one-star online review

“The Commission’s investigation confirmed the whistleblower’s claim and found that the scheme to generate fake reviews of Sunday Riley products involved Ms. [Sunday] Riley herself,” FTC commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said in a statement.
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“Rather than relying on satisfied customers to generate real buzz about her products, she directed her employees to write glowing reviews and bury negative ones, while offering detailed instructions on how to avoid detection.”

The Texas-based company posted fake reviews from 2015 to 2017, the report noted. A former employee accused Riley, the company’s CEO, of faking the reviews in 2018 on Reddit.

READ MORE: How to spot growing trend of fake online reviews

In one example, Sunday complained to employees that two of her products were rated “too low.” The CEO wanted to see an overall rating of the products jump from 4.2 to 4.8 or more.

“On another occasion, a manager directed employees to discuss how a Sunday Riley acne mask ‘increases radiance and doesn’t dry out the skin like all other acne masks do’ and ‘works incredible [sic] well compared to the cheaper masks out there,'” the report added.

Earlier this week, Amazon also came under fire after watchdog company Which? found that fake reviews for some of the site’s top-rated and highly reviewed products were misleading customers, the Independent reported.

The watchdog company tested eight products made by “unknown” Chinese companies and sold in the U.K. The company found the Onson cordless vacuum cleaner and headphones by a brand called Yineme did not live up to their reviews. In fact, the products were of poor quality and difficult to use.

“Customer reviews should be a helpful resource for shoppers choosing what to buy and billions of pounds are spent every year based on this feedback, so it’s vital that Amazon takes stronger action to ensure people can trust the information they see online and aren’t duped into buying poor-quality products,” a spokesperson for Which? said.

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Importance of online reviews

The FTC further added that over the last several years, businesses have heavily relied on online reviews to boost sales. One study found one-star rating increases on Yelp, for example, lead to a five to nine per cent increase in sales for the restaurant.

“Another study found that a one-point boost in a hotel’s online ratings at sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor is tied to an 11 per cent jump in room rates, on average,” the report added.

Many beauty consumers rely on online reviews on sites like Sephora for help making purchases themselves.

Another report from Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center showed when five reviews are added to a product, that product is 270 per cent more likely to be sold, LinkedIn Business reported.

“Our research found that as products begin displaying reviews, conversion rates escalate. Having five reviews causes purchase likelihood to increase by a factor of nearly four times,” the report noted.

And while five-star reviews make a product stand out, they can also lead to suspicion. The report found products rated 4.7 to five, for example, were less likely to be purchased compared to items rated 4.2 to 4.7.

And, not surprisingly, readers always read bad reviews.

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“Readers are skeptical of reviews that are too positive and, in many cases, a negative online review is seen as more credible. Additional research by social commerce specialist Revoo indicates that consumers spend four times as long on a site when they interact with negative reviews, with a 67 per cent increase in conversion rate.”

How to spot fake reviews

Donna Dumont, a marketing and social innovation expert at Mount Royal University in Calgary, previously told Global News there are ways to spot fake reviews.

She said that generally, products with fake reviews get called out very quickly — customers tend to challenge positive reviews by leaving negative ones. If you notice a product has five stars followed by many low-star reviews, it could be a sign the top reviews are fake.

“You’d probably see a trend there and see much more negative reviews versus the very small of percentage of positive if they’re paid.”

READ MORE: Calgary business owner acts fast after false online customer review

Also, expand your research. If you’re buying a new sunscreen, for example, try finding reviews on multiple sites, including skincare blogs, beauty magazines and even on-camera reviews on YouTube.

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If you’re still unsure, you have to take the risk to test the product yourself, she said.

One way to work around this is to ask people you know and trust or read reviews on news sites by neutral parties.

— with files from Tomasia Dasilva