Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Growth

Amazon is constantly growing and evolving its algorithm to protect buyers and ensure a positive buying experience.  As a customer, I appreciate it a lot.  As a seller…sometimes its harder.  The old saying of having to break a lot of eggs to make an omelet comes to mind, especially when our clients are the eggs. This week I look at recent Amazon seller suspensions and other moves that sellers need to know.

Amazon Gives Your Seller Info to States Seeking Sales Tax

I started signing up to pay sales tax as soon as Amazon capitulated back in 2012.  They made it clear in their press releases that they would cooperate with states.  The day has come.  Amazon is releasing seller sales information to the State of Massachusetts:

Amazon has received a valid and binding legal demand from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue requiring that Amazon disclose the following information about sellers to the DOR:

  • Contact information (name, address, federal tax ID number, phone number)
  • Estimated value of the seller’s inventory in our Massachusetts fulfillment centers, calculated based on the seller’s selling prices in late 2016 and in 2017.

To comply with our obligations under the law, we plan to provide your information to the DOR by January 26, 2018.  Because each seller’s business and tax needs are unique, we encourage you to consult with a tax advisor to answer any questions you may have.

I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want my taxes estimated for me by the state.  I assume that sellers will get a chance to provide accurate information, but the letter you get from Massachusetts will no doubt include a figure they think you owe them. Prepare for the heart attack.

It is not clear what the threshold of sales is, or the criteria that Amazon/Massachusetts chose.  I didn’t get this notice, for example, but I know sellers who did.  I already pay there, and my account is small so that may be why.  Regardless of the criteria, sellers need to know that they have a tax risk that needs to be reviewed if only to make sure the information Amazon gives to the state is accurate.

A recent article on CNBC puts this move by Amazon in context.  I was delighted to read that Washington, Minnesota and Rhode Island have recently passed laws making online platforms like Amazon responsible for the collection of sales tax.  If only all the states would do that!

In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before other states follow Massachusetts’ lead.  Legally, all sellers should have been paying taxes from the day they began selling.  If you are not registered for sales tax, you are at risk for an audit and could be spending time in 2018 negotiating settlements and retroactively figuring out your taxes.

I’ve already had sellers reach out to me asking for a referral to an expert:  Chris Stout is a Sales and Local Tax guy.  His company is Sales Tax Solutions and you can reach him at chris@salestaxsolutions.us or http://salestaxsolutions.us. He’s been doing this for 20 years and really knows the ins and outs can help you assess your risk.  Just as important, Chris understands Amazon.

Amazon Has a Message for Arbitrage Sellers

As recently as last June Amazon executives stated that the company allows arbitrage and that they would never tell a seller they couldn’t use arbitrage as a selling model on the platform.  In reality, they have made it much harder to be successful through extensive category and sub-category approvals, brand approvals, brand takedowns, refusal to accept receipts from other retailers (including their own platform) and more.

This week I saw a post on Facebook of an email from Seller Support where they stated for the first time that they are moving away from the arbitrage model and would not accept receipts from Sam’s Club.  The Sam’s Club part we already knew, but this statement about arbitrage was a departure from their previous public position:

“…Amazon is getting away from being able to buy items from a retail store and then sell them on Amazon.  They are looking for manufacturer/authorized distributor proof that shows you are approved to be listing and selling those items.  I apologize this isn’t the outcome you were looking for, but without the needed documentation, this process cannot move forward.”

What does this mean to sellers?  It means that when you get an inauthentic or counterfeit or safety complaint that takes down your listing or your account, it will be harder to get it back.  You may not be able to sell that product ever again if they don’t accept your receipt.  It means that Amazon really wants invoices from brands or authorized distributors or they want you to be a real brand yourself if you are private label (trademarks, certified testing of your product, proper labeling, etc.).

We struggle constantly for our clients who sell Nike, for example.  Most are buying from the Nike Outlet Store.  In the past, Amazon accepted those receipts. Lately, they have been inconsistent in their acceptance.  It’s frustrating.  What could be more authentic than buying from Nike itself?  They also won’t accept Nike Outlet Store receipts for brand approval.  This has been devastating for our clients who have tens of thousands of dollars of Nike products at the FBA warehouse and who have suddenly – after years of selling Nike – been asked to get brand approved.

All retail/online arbitrage, liquidation and drop-ship sellers need to be aware that your selling model is at a higher risk for suspension (for many reasons) and that your receipts will not be accepted for brand approval.  Amazon’s latest email response confirms what we’ve been seeing in our client portfolio since 2016.  Things are changing.

Dirty Seller Tricks Continue with Brand Registry 2.0

The latest way for evil sellers to take out sellers who are brand owners is through Brand Registry 2.0. In this latest case, a brand registered seller with active trademarks was taken down because another seller listed his trademarks and claimed our client was infringing. The audacity!  We got him back quickly by proving – duh – that they were his trademarks and the other guy was a liar.  And within two hours, they were filing complaints again! This one has me hopping mad.  Iupdatt’s evil, it’s wrong and it shouldn’t be working.  This is a major flaw in the system if two sellers can claim the same trademarks.  It shouldn’t be able to happen in the first place. When it happens, it shouldn’t be able to happen again, right? Wrong.  The other guy is still making my client’s life hell.  I hope Amazon will fix this issue fast. Who am I kidding? It’s never fast enough.

Another trick we’ve seen by evil sellers is to take someone else’s common law brand and register it themselves with the USPTO. Once the trademark comes in, they take out their competition with trademark infringement.  This is some serious dedication on the part of the evil seller as trademarks can take a year or more to go through.  That’s not even the worst part.  The worst part is that it is legal.  If they get the trademark, you’re out of luck.  We encourage all our clients to protect their intellectual property today by registering their trademarks.  If you’re serious enough to build products around this brand, be sure you don’t lose it.

You can check out our worldwide trademark filing services on our website.

Fake Documents = Banned Forever

We’ve been trying for weeks to get our clients reinstated who submitted fake invoices to Amazon. They were taken down solely for this reason and Amazon is not relenting.  I’ve asked my colleagues in the industry and so far, I’ve not found anyone who has gotten Amazon to give their client another chance. The moral of this story is don’t fudge, fake, tweak or in any way manipulate the invoices you give Amazon.  It is OK to add red arrows and stuff to point out the UPC code or whatever – that’s called annotating – but never mess with the actual invoice itself.  My clients were trying to get ungated in a category or for a brand and the services they hired forged documents and turned them in on their behalf.

These were big brands like Apple and my clients were naïve to think that a service could wave a magic wand and get them approved without real invoices or a real letter of authorization.  I’ve had other clients submit faked utility bills to Amazon as part of verification and lose their selling privileges.  I hope everyone in the community reads this and takes heed.  We can’t get you back.

Failed Verification = Fail Forever

Some sellers have a real problem.  They’ve set up multiple accounts against terms of service or they have hidden partners, or they don’t have a physical location.  They then try to fake documents to get verified.  This does not work.  We help sellers before they submit documents but not after they’ve failed.  Once you fail, it’s over. Some of these problems can be overcome, some can’t.  I strongly urge sellers not to send Amazon verification documents until they have verified them themselves.  Make sure your bank, credit card, utility, etc. will confirm all your documents.  Verification means that Amazon will call them to confirm.  That’s why it takes so long.  Don’t take this lightly.  Your account is at stake.

If you are interested in a pre-verification document review, click here.

New Amazon AWS Rules Could Affect You

Amazon created a new Code of Conduct for Software Providers that plug in to Amazon’s API.  They can’t access certain data improperly, they can’t scrape the site, they can’t make excessive demands on the platform, etc.  What does this mean to you as a seller?  One of the new rules says they are required to turn in sellers who are abusing the platform with their tool.  If a provider knows that sellers are using their tool to violate Amazon’s TOS in some way, the provider must turn them in or risk losing their AWS privileges altogether.  This means that software provider would be out of business.

The software providers I talked to made immediate changes to their services to make sure they comply. This means some features they previously offered had to be removed.  Features such as matching a reviewer to an order, for example, are not allowed by Amazon.

Some programs are not inherently against TOS, but sellers abuse them.  I’m thinking here about sellers who use an email service like Feedback Genius or Feedback Five to spam sellers, ask for reviews improperly, upsell products, etc.  Used properly, tools like these are very helpful to a seller and provide value to buyers.  Used improperly?  Now you might get turned in by your software provider…if Amazon doesn’t get you first.

Don’t be mad at your provider if they take a feature away.  They are complying.  The companies I talked to are very uncomfortable with the role of “Cop,” but realistically they have a business to preserve. I strongly urge all sellers to look at the tools they use and think about how they provide the service they do.  Are they scraping the platform?  Is the data they provide against TOS?  Also, look at your own use of these tools.  Are you confident of your compliance in how you use that tool?

Right now, these changes affect providers who connect with Amazon’s API directly through AWS.  There are tools that do not.  How long before Amazon gets around to them?  I don’t know.  How will Amazon enforce against providers who don’t access the API?  I don’t know.  In the past, they went after the sellers who used these tools rather than the tool providers.

Bottom line?  If you are using a tool – any tool – that violates Amazon TOS for sellers or software providers, it’s a risk.  You will hear software providers tell you they are compliant.  Make sure they are.  Ask them how they get their data if it isn’t obvious.  Look at the Software Provider Code of Conduct and Amazon’s TOS and Code of Conduct for sellers to make sure you are using the tool in a compliant way.

Buyer Safety Beats Out Common Sense at Amazon

There are other ways Amazon is making it harder for sellers through safety complaints.  We know sellers who have sold product on the platform that was suspected to be defective – think about all those explosive Samsung devices, for example – and found out to their dismay that Amazon was holding them responsible, not Samsung.  They were required to prove the safety of their inventory, get testing and do all the things you’d expect the manufacturer to do.  This was an expensive proposition for these sellers.

Personally, I think it is unfair for Amazon to expect arbitrage and wholesale sellers to be responsible for every product they sell.  They buy it in good faith from a brand.  Diligent sellers ask for and review the company’s MSDS. Companies like Samsung have (usually) tested their products and gotten them certified.  We have a client dealing with a Mophie juice box where the buyer claimed it “nearly set my house on fire!”  Our client buys directly from Mophie.  The company has safety certifications in every country where it sells. Its MSDS is 17 pages long. Is that good enough for Amazon?  Not today.

We don’t know anything about the buyer complaint.  Did they use the cords that come with the Mophie? How did a cell phone case/recharger nearly burn down a house? Is this buyer even credible? Are they a competitor? To Amazon’s safety team, it doesn’t matter.  Our client did everything right.  Bought directly from the brand and yet…they are having to spend time and money on something they have no control over.

Consumer safety is very important, and I urge all our private label clients to get their products tested regularly.  It’s possible we will find out that these Mophie’s are time bombs like the Samsung were. In that case it is Mophie who will need to fix the problem and it will be very unfair if my client’s account is dinged for it.  If anyone at Amazon is reading this, I urge common sense.  Don’t punish the seller for the sins of the manufacturer.

Infringements Get Tougher

When a client’s account is suspended for Infringement, we go back and resolve all the previous infringement cases with the rights holder.  Sometimes, the rights holder won’t work with our client and we escalate to hiring our IP attorney partner Jeffrey Breloski.  Even he can’t always get the job done if the rights holder refuses to talk to him.

In these cases, it is much harder to get our clients reinstated.  Amazon has heard so many sellers say, “the rights holder isn’t responding” that they don’t believe it anymore. This is frustrating as hell.  The UK seems to be even tougher than the US.  A client of ours hasn’t sold the product in over a year and has tried for a long time to resolve the issue.  He’s gotten all the other infringement cases retracted but this one and Amazon UK still won’t let him back on the platform.

Most of the time when a seller’s account is suspended for infringement, it is because he/she has multiple unresolved infringement complaints on the account.  For this reason, we strongly urge sellers to resolve every infringement case as soon as possible even if they do not intend to sell the product ever again.  If sellers did this, fewer of them would lose their selling privileges.

In the UK, infringement takedowns are still done the old way.  They don’t have Brand Registry 2.0 (yet) so rights holders send their proof to the legal team for review. This means Amazon most likely has the patent, trademark, etc., in question and has received a legal document from a law firm confirming the validity of the complaint.  They won’t back down.  It’s retraction or nothing.  In the US, there are so many brands making mistakes and improperly using Brand Registry 2.0, Amazon is likely to be more lenient or to recognize a mistake might have been made.

However, if a seller lets infringement cases pile up unresolved, they are less lenient.  If you have a patent issue, you need an attorney to help negotiate the situation.  The repercussions are more serious, and the rights holder usually wants restitution.

Infringement Support Services

Besides normal ASIN and account reinstatements, eGrowth Partners offers support specifically for sellers dealing with infringement issues. These include:

Infringement Reinstatements – we have helped dozens of sellers navigate the confusing waters of infringement issues on Amazon since the launch of Brand Registry 2.0.

Legal Supportour partner Jeffrey Breloski is one of the fiercest IP attorneys in the country. He’s very familiar with Amazon as well as eBay and other online platforms.  Whether our clients need help resolving an infringement issue, filing a lawsuit against another company or competitor, or filing trademarks, we have a solution.  Check out our negotiated flat-fee services for infringement and trademark filings.

In my job I see a lot of things go wrong between Amazon and its sellers.  It’s easy to get frustrated and to complain about Amazon suspensions, mysterious new polices that spring up like mushrooms after a rain (translate after some kind of clusterf*ck at Amazon), confusing communications and the general black hole that Amazon puts between itself and its sellers.  Like the IRS, Amazon often treats us as guilty until proven innocent and the method for resolving issues is awful.  Nevertheless, we keep plugging away because we don’t ever forget what a tremendous wealth creating machine Amazon has created and allowed us to share in.  This week I wanted to look at what is going RIGHT for sellers. In addition, there are two pieces of exciting news from Amazon at the bottom of this blog.

Buyer Trust

If you understand nothing else about Amazon, understand that the buyer experience is number one for the company.  Its first principle is “Customer Obsession” and building trust with buyers matters more than anything including profits, short-term gains, relationships with partners/sellers, etc.  This intense focus benefits sellers tremendously.  Amazon is one of the most trusted brands in the world and the number one online site in the US because buyers trust Amazon.  They know they are going to have a good experience, and that Amazon will take care of them if they don’t.

The reflected glory of Amazon’s obsession makes the platform a tremendous wealth building opportunity for us.  eGrowth Partners clients who focus on buyer trust in their businesses have the fewest problems with their accounts because they intuitively know what to do when a problem occurs – take care of the buyer.

Category Approvals and Safety Complaints

When I started selling on Amazon, it was easy to get category approvals. I could pretty much throw anything into a box and send it to Amazon to sell.  The crazy wild-west days of 2010.  Today it is much harder because sellers need to get approved for nearly anything they want to sell, particularly in the riskier categories of topicals, supplements, medical devices, OTC drugs, baby, electronics, jewelry and food.

Even if they were approved previously in beauty, for example, now sellers must get approved in “topicals” to keep selling their profitable lotions, soaps, makeup and shampoos.  While very frustrating for the seller community (“The rules keep changing! Arrg!”), this is something Amazon has gotten right.

Amazon wants to make sure that when someone buys a product from its platform, it won’t hurt them. Pretty simple. If you are a private label seller, they expect you to behave like a large company and constantly test your products.  If you are a wholesaler, they expect you to vet your sources and make sure your products come from the brand owner/manufacturer.  If you do not do these things, YOU will be liable even if you did not create the original product.

We at eGrowth Partners have seen the most appalling abuses of Amazon’s previous laissez-faire policies.  Not only did our clients sell used or counterfeit as new, a few products were downright dangerous.

Some of the problems we’ve handled are giggle-worthy like “should vibrators be sold in beauty or sexual wellness?” But sellers with electronics that spontaneously caught on fire or babies that choked or toxic chemicals in shampoo or dangerous levels of unregulated herbal substances that were sending people to the hospital?  Not funny.  Not good.

Everyone in the community should support Amazon in its efforts to promote safe products on the platform. It is better for the buyer; it is better for us.

Brand Registry 2.0

There are plenty of problems with Brand Registry 2.0 (I’ll save that for another blog) because it is still new and undergoing improvements.  What is right, however, is outstanding and exciting.  For one thing, a brand owner no longer needs to be a seller on the platform and can be separate and distinct from the seller platform (even if they ARE a seller on the platform).

This is important because private label sellers will always have control of their listings and brand on the platform whether or not they are active sellers.  If, God forbid, sellers are suspended or permanently banned from the platform, they can still sell their products on Amazon through Amazon’s vendor program (direct to Amazon) or as a wholesaler to other sellers.

BR 2.0 also gives brand owners a better way to enforce trademark and copyright infringement problems on the platform. In addition, they have better support from Amazon for patent or counterfeit claims because they have proven to Amazon’s satisfaction that they are the rights holder by getting registered.

For wholesale sellers, BR 2.0 provides an opportunity to provide value to their supplier partners and brands that make the seller stand out from the tons of Amazon sellers who are scanning products in their booth.  Many companies are ignorant of how Amazon works and want help.  You can be that resource for them.

Brand owners will also benefit from the enhanced brand content, advertising and marketing programs Amazon is making available in BR 2.0.  If you are an agent for a brand, you can run these programs for your brand.  Even if you aren’t, your brand will start to perform better once other brand owners start using these tools.  BR 2.0 is a win for all sellers if used properly and strategically.

Continuous Improvement

It is one of Amazon’s principles that the company will launch new initiatives, policies, etc., that are about 80% ready.  Called “Bias for Action,” this principle allows them to get new things launched faster and then fix problems as they go.  Amazon believes that waiting for something to be perfect is a waste of time and resources.

Every time there is a new policy or initiative like last year’s Brand Registry 2.0, I know it is going to be a cluster for a while. Mistakes will be made.  Amazon acknowledges and expects that, but what happens over time is that the false positives are reduced to nearly zero. The process gets better and simpler.  Amazon’s efforts are focused on the things that are going wrong.  Operations are more efficient following this process.  While this causes some pain in the beginning (OK, sometimes LOTS of pain!), they do improve.

Whenever a seller tells me Amazon is wrong about a complaint or policy that has been in place for more than three months, I’m skeptical.  Amazon is nearly always right…at least in their world.  I understand that my clients disagree!  That’s why the first thing we do for a suspended seller is an account assessment.  We get a more comprehensive view of their account and see it through the Amazon lens. This helps us write appeals that Amazon will accept.

Like Amazon, we believe in continuous improvement and work to help our clients avoid making mistakes in the future. We will warn them of other things we see in their accounts that might become problems and talk to them about changes that will help them avoid needing us again.  Because we can usually see why Amazon believes they have violated a policy or have product quality problems, we can teach our clients how to do it for themselves going forward.

Forgiveness

As seller advocates and fellow sellers, we celebrate every time we get a client back on the platform. We even have a special Slack® channel for our celebrations and virtual high fives. Internally, we’ve acknowledged that we probably should not have been successful in some cases because our clients were not only guilty as charged, but they knew they were doing wrong when they did it. However, if they are willing to change, we are willing to fight for them.  Despite how harsh Amazon can be, the company has also decided that sellers deserve second chances if they show that they are going to change their behavior.

This policy/philosophy is quite extraordinary when you think about it.  It would be cheaper and easier for Amazon to say, “off with their heads!” and not let potential bad actors back on the platform.  That’s what the Merch seller performance division is currently doing.  You can’t even appeal.  Yet for most issues on Seller Central, Amazon will let us continue selling if changes are made.

The cynical among us might point out that Amazon needs third-party sellers for its own profitability reasons, but I disagree when it comes to seller forgiveness.  Amazon’s reputation and buyer experience are far more important to it than any seller on its platform.  I’ve seen them permanently take down huge brands and sellers for violating its policies.  No one is too big to fail.

Logistics

Amazon’s FBA program is amazing.  It allows sellers to run large selling operations without managing their own fulfillment in countries around the world.  In countries like Germany, we recommend all sellers use FBA unless they are shipping from Germany – that’s how often sellers get it wrong when they try to fulfill themselves.  We sometimes take FBA for granted as sellers and forget how it transforms our ability to scale and operate globally…from our laptops.  Most sellers are not good logisticians.  Now we don’t have to be.

Amazon has added Prime benefits/badges for MF sellers so there is no longer the Prime advantage of FBA over MF, but for many products it is still better to do FBA when you compare the cost of handling your own fulfillment and the penalties Amazon will impose if you do a poor job.

You won’t get this kind of leverage and scale from any other platform.

Documentation and Training

Amazon is constantly adding new information and training to its Seller Central platform.  I recommend that all sellers start with the contract they’ve signed with Amazon – there’s lots of information in there that Amazon expects you to know.  I printed mine out and put it in a 3-ring binder with tabs, so I could find things easier and review it from time to time.  Next, you want to read the restrictions for what can’t be sold on the platform.  We see several suspensions a year that could have been avoided if the client had realized that product was forbidden on Amazon.  Next, read the rules and restrictions for your categories. All items that can be eaten or put on your body must have an expiration date, for example, and you need to remove products well before that expiration date.

Lastly, move your way up to policies.  From product reviews to product safety, Amazon has policies on everything and they can all be found in Seller Central Help.

Amazon has online training for new sellers that is very helpful for understanding how FBA works and much, much more.  If you have a question about selling on Amazon, the answer is probably waiting for you in Seller Central Help.

Good News From Amazon!

Two exciting pieces of news for sellers:

Bad Actors Thwarted on Vendor Express

Other sellers can no longer screw with your listings through Vendor Express.  FINALLY, our complaints were heard, and Amazon has closed this loophole that was allowing competitors to make changes to existing listings that weren’t theirs.

For all our clients who have suffered from bad actors sabotaging their listings on the platform, I say THANK YOU AMAZON!

If you are in Vendor Express, you can no longer add any product to your account that already has an offer on it (whether a 3P seller or Amazon itself).  To add a new product, you must be brand registered in 2.0 and you can only add YOUR products to Vendor Express.  I’m not sure yet if this is the same on Vendor Central, but since VC is by invitation only and the sellers are vetted, my assumption has always been that it was Vendor Express that was causing all the problems

Manufacturers Offer Support Directly to Buyers

How many times have private label sellers/manufacturers wished that buyers could call them directly if they had product problems?  How many times have FBA sellers asked Amazon to let buyers return items to US instead of to Amazon?  Soon this will be a reality.

Amazon has started a feature where manufacturers and brand owners can offer support to buyers from the Amazon order page.  This is awesome news because: 1) the support button is highlighted and promoted above the reviews button which encourages people to get help before they complain; 2) buyers go directly to your tech support and webpage and it isn’t a violation of Amazon TOS and; 3) the transactions don’t count as returns, refunds or exchanges on your Amazon seller metrics.

This example from Plantronics shows how it works:

For manufacturers/PL sellers this means fewer returns and negative feedback. If products are returned, they can come directly to you instead of Amazon.  In the example above, I was able to get a new Plantronics charging case but there was no refund, no return and no blemish on Plantronics’ sales metrics.

I can immediately think of dozens of our clients who will benefit from this. These are clients who sell “imperfect products” that sometimes require additional support for the buyer to have a good experience. These imperfect products may be complicated or generally subject to misuse or misunderstanding by buyers–products that require installation or set-up of any kind, basically.

Sellers have told me “if I can just get on the phone with the buyer, I can usually fix the problem without a return.”  While we help our clients clarify their products through their listings and encourage buyers to contact them directly for support (usually through product inserts), it doesn’t always work.  Too many buyers end up returning perfectly good products and complaining.

In the new feature, not only will Amazon give them your phone number and support hours, they will also be given a link to your site!  Imagine that!  You can send buyers directly to the support section of your site where you might have videos, drawings, downloads, pictures and instructions to help them.  This is huge!

I know you are all wondering when you can make this happen for your account.  Me too.  It’s rolling out, obviously.  My assumption is it will be a feature of Brand Registry 2.0 although it could be Vendor Central.  Keep an eye out, folks, and let me know.  I’m reaching out to Amazon to find out more for us.

Brand Registry 2.0 Services

eGrowth Partners offers a range of support for manufacturers, brand owners and authorized brand agents.  These include:

Brand Registry 2.0 set up for those who want to make sure they are set up properly.

Trademark filing with the USPTO and other agencies worldwide.  Our IP attorney partner, Jeffrey Breloski, reviews your trademarks for potential rejection issues which makes your wait time shorter for approval.

File-Your-Own Trademark class for people who want to save hundreds in legal fees by filing themselves.  If you are prepared to file, this class takes you through the entire process and you can complete your first filing during the class.

Enhanced brand listings make sure your products shine on the platform.  Make sure yours are compliant as well as selling savvy. Contact us for a custom quote.

Infringement takedowns for sellers who want to make sure they are compliant with BR 2.0 rules.  We advise our clients on how to prepare for and handle takedowns. Contact us for a custom quote.

UPDATE: Why You Need Amazon Brand Approval Now

Let me state upfront that a lot is going on at Amazon and there are questions I’m trying to find out for all of us about all these restricted brands.  Some of this is official (i.e. from Amazon PR) and some isn’t (other sources, our clients’ experiences, etc.).  It is intended to provide more food for thought as you deal with the changes going on in the platform:

WHY IS AMAZON SUDDENLY GATING CERTAIN BRANDS?

This goes back to the issue of inauthentic that I talked about last week.

Amazon’s focus is on building and maintaining buyer trust. Anything that disrupts that trust is a problem that must be addressed.  This is why we have seen so many suspensions for product review manipulation, for example.

In the past there has been a rush of new sellers to the platform from all over.  With that rush has come bad actors which have increased the frequency of inauthentic events on the platform.  What we see this week is part of an ongoing process by Amazon to stamp our counterfeit and build buyer trust.

Building buyer trust is in the best interest of ALL sellers.

WHAT HAPPENED THIS WEEK?

There are many brands where you now need to get approved in order to sell them.

  • Must have invoices or a letter from the manufacturer to get approved
  • Some brands also require a fee ranging from $500-$5000 in order to sell
  • For some brands you now need: 1) category ungating, 2) brand ungating and 3) permission for specific ASINs.  So, if you’ve sold a particular item in the past with no troubles you may easily get permission to sell the ASIN, but you will still need to get permission to sell the brand.

The brand gatings are across the platform and represent hundreds of brands.  The brands initially gated are ones that already have a proven mid-to-high risk of counterfeit.

These also tend to be the most popular and desirable brands on the platform which is causing angst among the sellers who buy retail.

IS AMAZON TARGETING RA/OA SELLERS WITH THIS MOVE?

No.  Amazon isn’t even aware of what kind of seller you are. They don’t track us by sourcing model.  They welcome all sellers who can provide an excellent buyer experience.  This is part of what I said last week in that if your account is clean and there are no buyer complaints, Amazon’s not going to come after you and you can afford more risk. They are targeting the bad actors who destroy buyer trust and provide a bad experience.

In talks with several Amazonians this past week we learned that many do not even know what RA is.  We are just sellers to them.

WILL AMAZON GRANDFATHER IN SELLERS WHO HAVE INVENTORY AT THE WAREHOUSE?

We have been told that there will be no grandfathering.  This means if you have inventory already at the warehouse, you still have to get approved to sell.

Sellers have until 8/30 to either get approved or remove their inventory from the platform.

If you don’t have invoices to get approved, you are not able to sell.  This is very limiting for RA/OA/Drop-ship sellers.   Liquidators’ invoices are already not accepted by Amazon.

IS THIS MOVE AIMED AT THE CHINESE?

No.  This is aimed at bad actors.  They have counterfeiters and gray market sellers from all walks of life and all geographic locations.

HOW COME SOME SELLERS CAN STILL SELL ON THESE BRANDS BUT NOT OTHERS?

Until very recently, Amazon tended to view and weight all sellers equally.  That is changing now to where sellers will be grouped more according to their history on the platform.  They will start to take into consideration your tenure and your excellent metrics.

I don’t know if this is why some sellers can sell on these brands and others can’t but it seems to fit what is happening.

WHY IS THAT SOME ASINS UNDER A BRAND CAN STILL BE SOLD BUT NOT OTHERS?

This would relate to the risk of counterfeit.  This doesn’t mean they won’t gate those other ASINs in the future.

ARE THERE MORE BRAND SHUT-DOWNS COMING?

In discouraging bad actors by requiring invoices and charging fees, it is likely the fakers will move to other brands. There is nothing specific I could find out, but in general it seems we can expect this to not be a one-time event with Amazon but rather ongoing.

While this first round was about high risk brands and products, it seems likely to me that we can expect Amazon to spiral in tighter and tighter to brands where there is less of a problem with counterfeit or even pre-emptively (i.e. something is incredibly easy to create a knock-off). This would be in line with the total quality management principles practiced at Amazon as a company. I mentioned this in my book.

WILL PRIVATE LABEL SELLERS BE ABLE TO CONTROL WHO LISTS ON THEIR BRANDS IN THE FUTURE?

Sellers will have greater control. Amazon is offering Brand Protection Services to its sellers as well as its vendors.  They want Amazon to be a platform that helps build brands and helps brands expand globally.
We heard about the exclusives program at the Women’s Conference earlier this month. That is one step in this process. I don’t know what other services will be offered at this time.

WHAT IF I NEED MORE TIME TO GET APPROVAL OR REMOVE MY INVENTORY?

Many people got a letter from Amazon this week stating that if they didn’t get approved or remove their inventory by 8/30 it would be removed for them.  It seems likely that sellers in better standing will be able to ask for someone to review their case and possibly grant more time.  We’ve been told to start with Seller Support which may send it over to Seller Performance.  We’ve not tried it yet but would be very interested to know what other sellers’ experiences are.

WHAT WILL AMAZON DO WITH THE FEES?

The fees charged when you are approved to sell a brand go towards activity Amazon uses to manage risk and investigate counterfeit.  Among other things, this might involve laboratory testing, the use of expensive equipment, etc., to make sure products are not counterfeit.

IS AMAZON COMING OUT WITH AN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT?

New language in SellerCentral Help and possible webinars are expected to help sellers sometime in the next few weeks…possibly.  No one was able to say when for sure.

International Events in China and UK

Cynthia will be in China at the end of August speaking at a huge Amazon seller summit on Monday, August 29 at the Futian Sheraton in ShenZhen and at a special Amazon sellers’ meet-up in Hong Kong on August 31.

Register to attend this free conference now – seats are filling up. An all-star lineup of speakers includes WorldFirst, Wal-Mart, Jet.com, SlickDeals, Anker, SellerLabs, Marketplace Ignition, MerchantWords and much more!: Cross Border Trade eCommerce Seller Summit

Sign up for the meet-up here: Hong Kong Private Label Sourcing and Amazon FBA Selling

Let’s Meet!

In addition to these awesome conferences, you will find us traveling the US over the next two months:

  • SeattleSCOE. Lesley is speaking on the latest suspensions from Amazon. Use code CYNTHIA for $175 off! Join Lesley for dinner at the exciting Crow restaurant downtown. RSVP required.
  • Nashville – CES IV. Cynthia is talking about risk management in your Amazon business. Join her and Lesley both for dinner at Flyte restaurant downtown on the strip! RSVP here. Space limited to 20.
  • Los Angeles – Feedvisor conference. Cynthia is talking about the latest challenges facing high-volume sellers with Amazon suspensions. Sign up here for a $75 discount! (First 20 signups only. Expires 8/28/16) Use CODE LAVFC75.
  • Las Vegas – Retail Global conference. Sign up for $100 discount with code: STINE100. We will be co-hosting a meet and greet happy hour and dinner Thursday night Sept. 22 with the ScannerMonkey group. Register here – it’s free!

Last week’s blog post was full of bad news. Used media sellers can get suspended for inauthentic claims, UPC codes that don’t match the brand will be flagged for inauthentic – a huge source of heartburn for those who make product bundles or who use their own UPC codes for branded products that seemingly don’t have UPC codes. This week I tried to get some clarification from Amazon and other sources. Here’s my answers to your questions.

Q. Does Amazon Want us to Buy Our UPC Codes from GS1?

Yes. They recommend it. But, to be clear, these are UPC codes for YOUR BRANDED PRODUCTS. In other words, if you are selling Cynthia’s Amazing Birthday Boxes which has toys and candies in it, you should register your brand and then buy a GS1 UPC code for it. If you are selling a FROZEN® bundle of beauty products, then you CAN’T do that. You are not Disney and you do not have the right to license their products or bundle them without permission.

In this way, we are different from most retailers. A brick and mortar store can easily take a bunch of branded items and put them into a cute container and sell them to you as a special deal (buy a towel, get a free washcloth and rubber ducky!). If they need a code for the check-out kid to scan, they use an internal code system. The GS1 is a huge database that uniquely identifies your brand in the global supply chain. If you don’t own a brand, you don’t use their codes. It is as simple as that.

If you are a private label seller, then getting a GS1 extension definitely makes sense – although it is not required – because it will be easier for Amazon to help you defend your listings for those who might create bundles or offer for sale your products in some unauthorized way. You can prove you own the GS1 for your brand and Amazon can easily confirm it.

Q. What if I Already Have UPC Codes from Somewhere Else?

Those UPC codes should still be OK as long as you are using them for your own unique bundles and NOT someone else’s brand. What Amazon is doing is checking all UPC codes against the GS1 database. Their concern is for brands. So if you are selling a Disney bundle without a Disney UPC extension and/or code, then they will shut you down because your code is invalid. If you are selling your own brand using a UPC code purchased elsewhere, that’s OK.

Q. What is the GS1? Does it Give Us Authorized UPC Codes?

Not exactly. GS1 is three things: 1) a huge database of branded product extensions (the unique digits that identify each brand) that you can search; 2) a system that helps you generate and manage your own UPC codes; and 3) an annual subscription for as long as you want your brands in their database.

Think about it this way, if you want to be able to generate and manage 100-100,000 UPC codes (like many apparel companies with all their size and color variations for example), you don’t want to buy someone else’s UPC codes, you want to manage your own. You can make the numbers actually mean something internally rather than being random. You can tell immediately what the item is just from the numbers in the UPC code. In addition, you can track where it came from and when – critical to food manufacturers who have to be able to instantly recall tainted food or drug manufacturers with tampering scares. The GS1 also provides proof of brand ownership and makes it easy to tell if someone has added their own UPC code to your brand…which is what Amazon is doing now.

Q. If I’m Able to Buy a UPC Code with the Same Extension as the Brand I Want Is That OK?

Absolutely not! It is not only illegal, Amazon would likely ban you from the platform without an appeal. Then you would have to deal with the brand’s lawyers. And to the person who asked me how Amazon would find out (c’mon! really?!), you need to know that the big brands have given Amazon a full list of their UPC codes and continue to do so as they add new products. Amazon is not just checking their extensions. See answer below for many of these brands (not necessarily comprehensive).

Q. Does This Mean We Can’t Create Bundles from Others’ Branded Products?

Yes…and not exactly. If you read one part of SellerCentral, it makes it sound like it is fine to create bundles and use your own UPC codes. If you read another part, it indicates that your bundles may be closed by Amazon as inauthentic. Here is the difference. You can create bundles, but NOT branded bundles (unless you own that brand). So if you want to put together some cute Disney bath items you can, BUT you can’t call it a Disney bundle. It would be: Bundle: Shampoo, Conditioner, Bath Poof, Princess-themed. In the DESCRIPTION for the bundle you can mention that it is Disney Princess® Shampoo, conditioner, etc. But not in the title. In addition, you would NOT put Disney as the manufacturer. You are the manufacturer. Put your brand: Cynthia’s Amazing Bathing Supplies. Attach your UPC code that you bought from GS1.

Q. Can We Get an Exemption from Needing a UPC Code?

Yes. You can get exemptions in certain situations. If your bundle is eligible for an exemption, then you don’t need a UPC code. The trick is to get the exemption first before making a bundle or listing a product. PS. A GTIN is a Global Trade Item Number which includes UPCs, ISBN, EAN and other product identification numbers (because UPC wasn’t enough of an acronym…).

Eligible cases for GTIN exemption

  • Brand, manufacturer or publisher does not provide a GTIN for the products. For example, private label products, or hand-made products
  • Non-branded products that do not have GTINs. For example, wholesale products
  • Parts do not have a GTIN. For example, some automotive parts do not have a GTIN
  • Bundles that do not have a GTIN. For example, customized bundles may not have a GTIN. So if your bundle has a customized element like a person’s name, then you can possibly get an exemption. To create bundles correctly, see Product Bundling Policy before requesting for a GTIN Exemption

Q. How Do I Get an Exemption?

You need to prepare your case for Amazon. You will need:

  1. A support letter from the brand owner, manufacturer or publisher to prove that they do not provide a GTIN for the products or a list of sample products for Amazon to review. The letter has to have the issuer’s name and contact information and state explicitly that they do not provide a GTIN for all the products that you sell. It must include your physical address, phone number, email or website address. It must be in English or the marketplace’s local language.
  2. A website link to view the products. If there is no website, upload pictures to an online image service or Snagit or Google Docs with a link.

Here’s a link to a template Amazon recommends for the support letter: http://screencast.com/t/zJ4GNZuVaY

If you can’t get a support letter, you should submit a list of sample products for them to review using this template. Please note that if your bundles consist of products from the same brand, then use this template. If they are non-branded products, use this template:

Then you apply here.

We’re saved! Bundles galore! Oh wait, it surely isn’t that easy is it? Nope. Because some brands require a GTIN to list. No exemptions. Any ASIN that belongs to any of these brands and does not have a GTIN will be suppressed.

Q. Does Amazon Give us the List of Branded Products that Require UPC Codes?

Yes. Glad you asked! If you desire a UPC exemption in a category, make sure the brand of the item is not included in one of the following lists of major brands that require a UPC. My assumption is that these are the brands that have given Amazon their complete lists of UPC codes, BUT I would not rely on it to be comprehensive. I’m sure new brands are being added every day:

Q. Disney is One of the Brands That Requires UPC Codes. Does This Mean I Can’t Create a Bundle with Disney Products?

You can create a bundle but you can’t list Disney as the manufacturer and you can’t mention them in the title. Preferably you would have your own brand of gift bundles and list it under that. See my answer above.

In food it is clear. I can create a box of goodies from a mixture of brands and brand/label the product as mine (Cynthia’s Excellent Nibblies). If I want to create a multipack of Jelly Belly’s, I can’t. Only the manufacturer can. If I want to private label the Jelly Belly’s and take a 10lb bag and break it out into 10 1-lb bags I can as long as it is follows the health laws and is a private label product. If I want a 3-pack of three different kinds of retail box Jelly Belly’s I can do that. Wait, did I say food was clear? Sigh.

You’ll notice that none of the lists Amazon gave us includes food. I suspect this is because their rules were already set a year ago under grocery category restrictions. You can create food gift boxes with branded items to your heart’s desire as long as the bundle is under your brand.

Q. I Have Lots of Bundled Products on Amazon. What Should I Do Now?

  1. Change the titles. Take out the name of the brands.
    Instead of “Disney Cars® Conditioner and Shampoo Bundle,” call it “Boys Conditioner and Shampoo Bundle.
  2. You can still name the brands in the listing details or keywords
  3. Change the brand name/manufacturer to your brand
  4. Brand your bundle. Cynthia’s Boys Bathtime Fun Pack ¬– Conditioner and Shampoo Bundle
  5. Or, take your listings down if you are worried about getting caught with an invalid UPC code.

Q. What if I Can’t Change the Listing?

If the listing was created by the brand and you just listed against it, you are fine. If this is a listing you created yourself, you can change it. If this is a listing created by another seller, you should be able to change it unless they brand registered it. In that case, they need to change it. You can check the UPC against the GS1 to see if it matches the brand. If it doesn’t, you may want to close your listing until things get sorted out or until you can create your own listing that complies with the new reality. Obviously, if the listing is already compliant you don’t need to worry about it.

Q. If I Can’t Use the Brand Name in My Listing, It Won’t Sell!

Not exactly a question, but my answer is to put the brands in your description or keywords and make sure you have awesome pictures that follow Amazon style guidelines. In this way, your picture will hopefully be enticing enough for a buyer to open your listing and see the details on your bundle. If your items have a particular scent or flavor, you may be able to use that in your title even if you can’t use the brand. Neutrogena Rainbath Pear and Green Tea Shower and Bath Gel is trademarked but “Bundle – Shower and Bath Gel plus Shampoo and Body Lotion in Pear and Green Tea Scent” isn’t. You’ll have Neutrogena in the description or keywords and the picture. It should sell. Naturally if someone else has a similar bundle and they have not converted their listing to comply they may be higher on the search page than you because their bundle is more relevant.

Only you can decide how much risk you can live with. Amazon WILL get around to every bundle eventually.

Q. Is There Some Way Around This so Amazon Won’t Catch Me?

Gaming the system will make it worse for everyone by forcing Amazon to crack down on the brand registry to make it harder to cheat. Stop thinking this way. Focus on how you can comply vs how to get around the rules.

Q. What are the Disadvantages to Creating Branded Bundles on Amazon?

  • You don’t own the bundle. If the Brand decides to sell on Amazon as a seller, they will automatically have control of YOUR listing. They can change it or take it down at will. Once brands realize this, many will become “sellers” on Amazon so they can take over listings they don’t like. Think about that. If Neutrogena starts to sell on Amazon? Say bye-bye to your bundle.
  • Amazon will catch you if the UPC code is invalid.

Q. Is There a Safe Way to Create Bundles on Amazon?

I can never use the word “safe” with Amazon, but it seems like you can protect yourself if you follow these rules:

  1. Don’t put brands in your titles unless you own the brand
  2. Create your own branded bundle: Cynthia’s Bathtime Fun Pack vs. Disney Cars® Conditioner & Shampoo Bundle
  3. Create a FREE bonus or FREE gift. i.e. Disney Cars Shampoo + FREE Conditioner. This allows you to use the manufacturer’s UPC for the shampoo and yet create a bundle. It is one way to avoid the issues with UPC codes. This loophole will probably be shut down eventually.

Q. Amazon Hasn’t Sent Me Any Notifications. Does That Mean My Bundles Are OK?

No. It just means it will take Amazon a while to catch everyone. I expect this to be a long process.

Q. Will Amazon Grant Amnesty to Sellers?

Hah ha ha ha ha ha ha! Thanks for the laugh. Probably not. They only do that when they feel that something is their fault. They never feel that.

Q. What About Bundles That Are Already Up There? Are They OK?

Not if they are using an inauthentic UPC code. It is just a matter of time. I strongly urge sellers to fix their bundle listings NOW. Let’s put it this way, this next week is your amnesty. Use it wisely.

Q. What if Amazon Suspends Me for My Bundles?

Call us. 972-432-6398. Http://onlinesalesstepbystep.com/reinstatementfaq. While it is no comfort to you today, your experience will help other sellers.

Last Word About UPC Codes…For Now

Use your common sense. If you are looking at a familiar brand and want to create a bundle with it, it is probably registered with the GS1. If it isn’t, you are OK for now…but what about tomorrow when that brand registers? It is safer to not use brand names in your bundles. You can check the GS1 database if you really want to, OR create bundles that don’t list the brand as the manufacturer and that aren’t listed in the title.

More About USED Items with Inauthentic Claims

Q. Is Amazon Requiring that we Prove Authenticity for ALL Items Whether NEW or USED?

Technically, they only require we prove authenticity for items where there has been an accusation of counterfeit or inauthenticity…which means, YES. If you can’t prove authenticity when they ask you, you’re in trouble. You can recover from it once (assuming you don’t have a lot of problems with authenticity already in your NEW items), but that’s it. After that, you can’t afford one more claim where you can’t prove where you bought it. Counterfeit is counterfeit, stolen is stolen.

Q. Will They Actually Suspend You for Inauthentic USED Media?

Yes. My client sold a USED CD that got him shut down. I know I already answered both these questions last time, but many sellers are staggering around like deer in a headlight right now and I’ve been asked several times if it is really true.

Q. I Have a Lot of USED Inventory at Amazon That I Bought at Book and Estate Sales. What Should I Do?

So do I. My client had to remove all of his. Some of it he is selling on eBay, etc. This is a risk assessment you have to take for yourself. You can sell out of what you have and don’t buy any more where you can’t get a detailed, printed receipt (no hand-written ones), you can get rid of everything, or you can play the odds. CDs, DVDs and video games are much more likely to be counterfeit/bootleg. There are also counterfeit textbooks.

Q. What About Collectibles Like Collectible Games and Toys?

I’ve not seen anyone suspended yet for inauthentic collectibles…but it could happen. As Amazon said to us “counterfeit is counterfeit, stolen is stolen.” If they have a reason to believe that your rare game from the 1950’s is a fake, you’re in trouble if you bought it at an estate sale. This is very upsetting to me. I have a LOT of collectible games and puzzles on Amazon that I bought at estate sales for cash. I’m leaving mine up there for now but I won’t buy any new ones.

Also, one thing I’ve seen with collectible games/toys that is already against policy but which I think will really get sellers in trouble now is when they substitute parts for games that are missing pieces. If you can’t find the original piece, DON’T substitute something similar from another game. That is against Amazon policy AND very likely to lead to claims of fake, inauthentic, missing pieces, incomplete, etc.

Q. What About Refurbs?

If you bought your refurbished item (here I am referencing factory refurbs, not YOU re-conditioning an item) from a legit source, you should have an invoice or receipt and be OK. If you didn’t buy from a retail store or direct from the manufacturer with a factory warranty, then you can’t list it as a refurb in the first place. It’s used but not a refurb. Secondly, if you can’t provide an invoice or receipt, you will be in trouble if it is questioned as inauthentic.

Last Word on USED Media…For Now

We’ve not gotten my client reinstated yet. This part of the story is still unknown. Amazon is dead set that the CD was a bootleg which means that it should have been obvious to my client when he bought it that this was not a legitimate CD. Possibly it was recorded in secret (a “Live!” performance). I don’t know. Counterfeit and Inauthentic claims are mostly about perception. The buyer thinks there is something wrong for a reason. Fix the reason and you’ll stop getting complaints. In the case of USED media buyers, we need to be very careful about what we buy that it looks legit and put stuff down that seems a bit “off” for any reason. Sometimes the claims come from the rights holder. They KNOW it is a fake but the seller may have been fooled. In the case of this CD, it is possible that the symphony KNOWS they never made a CD so it has to be counterfeit. In either case, you can’t argue with Amazon, you can only confess and repent. Put together a plan that tells Amazon how you will ensure it never happens again.

Springtime in New York…

My business partner Lesley Hensell and I will be in New York next week. I’m speaking at the Feedvisor conference, we’re working with some of our clients and we’re hosting a special event Wednesday night for our clients and friends of the company at the Reserve Cut Kosher restaurant in lower Manhattan – one of the best steakhouses in the city with fabulous atmosphere and great reviews. We are very excited to eat something extraordinary while in the Big Apple. If you are in the area I hope that you will join us! Please sign up now, we have to give the restaurant our final numbers by the end of the day Monday.

Peering inside Amazon’s black box algorithm is a Kabuki play – full of style, drama and mystery. This week I interpret several new moves in Amazon’s ponderous fan dance including enforcement of UPC codes, inauthentic claims for USED products and a new pricing tool from Amazon.

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Amazon sellers who create bundles and multi-packs are worried. Amazon seems to be saying that they suddenly need a very expensive UPC code and that they have to have permission from the manufacturer/rights holder in order to do it.

People who are using their own UPC codes for multipacks and some bundles are losing their listing privileges. And to further make you unhappy, Amazon’s ability to check UPCs against the GS1 database has a huge impact on inauthentic claims – which are bringing down a lot of sellers of items that do not currently print UPCs on their items.

What Amazon is doing now is automatically checking Product IDs against the GS1 database. So if you are selling a product where you have added a UPC code that you purchased from eBay or some online dealer, basically, it won’t show up in the GS1 database as belonging to you or any other brand. IF this product is YOURS – a private label or manufacturer – you’re fine because you can register these with Amazon or even ask for an exception to have a barcode. In fact, they will give you a universal number for your unique products through the brand registry so you can sell them worldwide on Amazon’s platforms under that one number.

If the product is owned by someone else, then they have their own “product ID” [as Amazon calls the collection of UPC, ISBN, EANs (Europe) and JANs (Japan)] and you need to use that. Again, this is fine if you are selling solo items, but what if you have a multi-pack? You need a separate UPC code for that and if the manufacturer doesn’t have a multipack UPC code…then you can’t create one.

What Amazon says about Multi-Packs:

UPC Anatomy FINALFor most products listed on Amazon.com, a multi-pack listing is only allowed for a manufacturer-created pack with its own unique UPC. You must enter an Item Package Quantity (IPQ) for these products.

EXCEPTIONS: HEALTH & PERSONAL CARE MULTI-PACKS: One of the few cases where you can use 1 UPC code for all multi-packs.

Health and Personal Care Multi-packs — If you are selling more than one of the same product with the same UPC in “packs” (e. g. “Pack of 2”), enter the number of items in the pack into the “Count” field of the HPC template. Please note that you will need to upload your multi-packs in a flat-file.

Basic Bundling Rules:

There are a lot of rules about product bundling and you can read them in SellerCentral. I’m going to focus on the rules regarding Product ID numbers.

  • The bundle must have its own standard product identifier or manufacturer part number. The identifier of any individual product in the bundle may not serve as the identifier for the bundle. Using a UPC from any single product in the bundle to identify the entire bundle may lead to immediate removal of the listing. You are responsible for obtaining a UPC for each bundle you create.
  • Do NOT bundle branded products with generic products. This may mislead customers into thinking that the generic product belongs to the same brand.

If you read the basic bundling rules on Amazon, it would seem to be OK to use your own UPC code…as it has always been in the past. However, we see problems on the horizon.

Here’s the phrase that is causing so much angst:

“The use of false product identification information, including product IDs, is prohibited and can result in your ASIN creation privileges being removed. Product IDs will be confirmed against the GS1 database.”

Clear as mud, right? What is going on?

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. This rule is not new, but Amazon hasn’t enforced it until recently
  2. This is designed to stop sellers from creating derivative products from branded items
  3. It is designed to protect rights holders – a good thing if you are the rights holder
  4. It makes it easier for Amazon to verify authenticity of the products being sold on its platform
  5. It will encourage more sellers to go the Private Label route and….
  6. Yes, sellers will get suspended for not following the rules

We have two clients who are currently unable to create new listings because they lost their privileges.

Amazon started this last year about this time in Grocery. Food sellers were told they could no longer create multi-packs unless the manufacturer was selling a multi-pack (think Sam’s Club® or Costco® bulk purchases or wholesale bags/boxes) and commodity foods needed to be branded.

The interpretive dance at that time around this topic was a) what was a commodity food? And 2) would current listings be grandfathered in? Many current listings WERE grandfathered in. This doesn’t mean that Amazon won’t shut them down one day, but when the rules went into effect, they stopped sellers from creating new listings that broke the rules, but didn’t take down all the old ones necessarily (some came down).

Nobody got suspended at that time that we know of, but I have since seen warnings to sellers who are trying to sell commodity goods without properly branding and packaging their products. Under the new rules there is no piggy-backing on someone else’s listing for a commodity product unless they are buying it retail or wholesale, basically – like Hershey Bars®.

If I want to sell one-pound bags of certain kinds of candy, for example, I need professional equipment to take a 20-pound bag and place it into 20 bags with my brand on them – even it if it is a branded candy like M&Ms®. Someone else selling a 1-pound bag of M&Ms can sell the retail package or create their own brand and packaging. Confusing? You bet. Same with sunflower seeds, coffee or any other commodity. Simply putting it into a polybag or food-grade box won’t work anymore. If you want to make money on bulk food these days, you need to be in the food packaging business, basically.

People who sell bras, shoes and apparel need to particularly keep the GS1 database in mind. Often there is no manufacturer UPC code when you are buying the product at Marshalls® (for example) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a UPC code for that item somewhere.

In the case of multi-packs, don’t buy a UPC code and use it unless you are SURE there is no UPC number for the item. Just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s why you may need to check the GS1 database yourself if you are selling a branded product where you can’t find the UPC code. Contact the manufacturer first and then check the database. The GS1 database doesn’t tell you every single UPC code out there, but it tells you if your brand has an extension registered with them. This greatly enhances the likelihood that there is a UPC code for that item and that you need to find and use that rather than using your own.

An extension is like the first few digits of a credit card. They tell Amazon and others who owns the codes that follow that extension. For example, if brand X uses 1234 xxx xxx xxx for product ID codes, you know that ANY UPC code starting 1234 belongs to brand X. You don’t need to check all the digits. That is what Amazon is doing when it checks the GS1 database. If your UPC code doesn’t start with 1234 for that brand? You’ll eventually be flagged.

Now don’t even start. I can hear it now. “How long before they flag us?” We don’t know. I just know it will happen because now it is automated. That means Amazon’s searchbots are at work. Resistance is futile. Assimilation is inevitable.

Q. Do I have to buy my UPC codes from the GS1 Now? They’re expensive!

spongebob gift setI don’t know. If you are a manufacturer or private label, I’d suggest you do. When you put your bundles together now, really think through the issues first. As long as your bundles avoid being associated with any one brand, you should be OK – think Cynthia’s Fabulous Gift Boxes vs. SpongeBob Squarepants® Bundle for 8-Year-Old Boys. You probably don’t have the right to sell SpongeBob bundles, but you can sell gift boxes. Semantics? Yes, but think about how the Amazon robots work. They use key words, titles, UPC codes.

Cordelia Blake in the ScannerMonkey group is conducting an experiment with her own GS1 code. Check it out if you are interested.

Q. Why is Amazon Picking on Us?

It is all about cleaning up the catalog. There are too many duplicate pages and too many improper listings. In addition, it is hard to test the authenticity of a product if the UPC in the catalog is wrong. Many major brands (really big brands like Disney and Sony) have provided Amazon with their UPC codes. This means when you list a Disney product that doesn’t match their list of UPC codes, you’re in trouble.

We had one client who used her own UPC code for everything she sold on Amazon.  It was a nightmare cleaning up that situation.  She thought Amazon was like eBay. It wasn’t deliberate, but you can see why Amazon takes a hard line with that kind of behavior. It leads to lots of duplicate listings.

Q. What Bundles CAN I Sell?

productbundleIf you’ve created a bundle of, say, Disney Princess plates, napkins and cups for a party pack, is that OK to sell? Maybe. 99% of those items are licensed rather than direct from the brand. If you buy them from the rights holder (licensee) AND you have permission to re-sell them on Amazon, then you probably can create a bundle. What if you buy them at Target and create a bundle? Probably not. I say that from experience. I’ve been kicked off of listings by Amazon because I didn’t have the right to re-sell part or all of the bundle on Amazon even though I bought them retail at Target.

What if you are selling a gift bundle and it is full of candy and toys? If all the items are branded, you are probably OK. You can have a Hershey’s bar with a package of Minions Mike ‘N Ike® with a SpongeBob toy and a Cars® coloring book with Crayola® Crayons. That’s how I read the rules. In the title you would call it a bundle and not list any of the brands until the description bullets: Bundle: 8-Year-Old Boy Special “Feel Better” Gift Box by Cynthia’s Fabulous Gift Boxes for Special People™.

Last Word on UPCs…For Today

I’ll write more about this topic as I find out more. Currently I’ve not been able to reinstate my clients’ ability to create new listings once they’ve lost that ability. I’m not giving up, however. This enforcement is new which means mistakes will be made and Amazon will improve the process as time goes on.

Bottom line, I predict there will be suspensions and sellers will need to prove to Amazon that their bundle or multi-pack follows policy. It may be that sellers will need to provide invoices for every item in a bundle. If your bundle consists of a bunch of dollar store items, you may have a harder time proving authenticity unless the invoices are detailed and you are buying wholesale from the Dollar Tree® or Dollar Store® vs. retail.

Is Amazon Changing its Policies for USED Products?

Recently I’ve seen inauthentic claims that surprised and worried me as someone who sells used books and media on the platform. My understanding has been that Amazon does not seek authentic sources for used items. They know we are buying this stuff at book sales and thrift stores, etc. – all places that have lousy receipts. In fact, most of my receipts are hand written (disallowed as proof by Amazon). Many of my books were bought in large lots. I used to find CDs and DVDs the same way.

However, three times now I’ve seen Amazon go after a seller (including me) for inauthentic for used media. In previous cases I basically said, “Used media is not subject to the same authenticity scrutiny as new items” and it was OK. My Carl Sagan Cosmos book was allowed.

Last week we got a different response back from Amazon that said, “counterfeit is against policy whether new or used.” OK, but seriously? This was some obscure classical music CD my client bought at an estate sale. I felt a chill down my spine. If this is truly new policy, the implications are horrifying. Nearly all used, collectible and possibly refurbished items on the platform would vanish overnight if sellers had to provide detailed invoices.

What is Going On Here?

We escalated this issue with Amazon to see if we can get a clear answer on policy from Jeff Bezos’ team or someone senior. Rachel Greer and her team at Cascadia Seller Solutions helped us with our research. After a flurry of emails, a member of the senior executive team reviewed the case and told my client, “counterfeit is counterfeit,” and they still want to see invoices.

Here’s the problem. Counterfeit sellers are selling their products as used to circumvent the Product Quality team (who focus on New) so now they’re having to review Used products as well. Category gating has made it harder to list items of uncertain provenance as new, but it’s still simple to list as used. To combat these black hat tactics, used products no longer seem to be exempted from the automated algorithms. And as Rachel noted to me, “You know they’re not brilliant at separating the wheat from the chaff.”

She’s a master at understatement.

We were also told that it was not likely to be a regular thing (even though I’ve now seen three).  Amazon knows that we won’t be able to provide receipts/invoices so how many inauthentic/counterfeit strikes do we get before we’re suspended? Three in six months, five in a year are the numbers I’ve heard before.  I can’t confirm with Amazon, but seems right based on our experience.

Will They Actually Suspend a Seller for Inauthentic Who is Selling Used Media?

Yes.  We have a case currently. It upsets me a lot. If you are selling counterfeit as “used” to avoid inauthentic claims? Your days are numbered. If you are an honest used media and collectibles seller? Those dishonest bastards just ruined it for the rest of us.

What Should I Do if I’m a Used Media or Collectibles Seller?

Assess your situation. 

  1. Do you already have inauthentic claims against you that you couldn’t disprove?
  2. Are you engaging in other violations like listing DVDs in the “Everything Else” category, selling poor quality product, etc?
  3. Do you sell collectibles, DVDs or CDs? They are at higher risk for claims.
  4. Are you buying from sources with poor receipts or invoices?

Determine your risk comfort level and act.

  1. If you don’t have any claims against you now, take a wait and see approach. Going forward, buy from authentic sources. (see my blog post on the Gray Market for more on “what is authentic?”)
  2. If you have product quality, inauthentic and counterfeit claims on your account already, get rid of the high risk items in your inventory and sell them somewhere else or destroy them. Going forward, only list on Amazon products that you would believe to be authentic yourself, as this is really a customer experience/perception issue more than reality.
  3. If you’ve already been suspended for inauthentic claims in the past, time to clear out your inventory. You can’t afford another claim.

New Automate Repricing Tool by Amazon?

In case you missed it, Amazon soft launched in beta its new repricing tool…maybe. I have predicted for some time that Amazon’s insistence that we enter our high-low range for our inventory was the precursor to a repricing tool. Check out these two videos: Amazon beta launch; analysis from Stephen Smotherman and this article from eCommerce Bytes to learn more.

My friends at Feedvisor pointed out to me that this is a rules-based program rather than algorithm based which means it is focused on getting you the lowest price rather than the Buy Box per se. This is the problem with most repricing tools. It isn’t their fault, but generally that’s how it works. They race you to the bottom even if you decide not to go below the lowest price.

Right now you have to be invited to beta test the program. My prediction is that when they launch it officially, many sellers who are currently using rules-based programs will switch. Amazon’s is MUCH simpler and – as near as I can tell – will be free. It will be an awesome tool for smaller sellers and I’m excited to see Amazon offer it. For the high-volume and private label sellers, I think they are still going to want an algorithmicly based tool that allows them to compare their sales against their competition’s.

[Full disclosure: I am a Feedvisor customer. I’m biased…but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.]

May Travels

Atlanta Olympic ParkI’m heading to Atlanta next week for SellerLab’s RESONATE conference. In addition to being one of the experts at the conference, I’m hosting a dinner on Wednesday night (May 18) after the conference ends. Space is limited to 15-17 people. If you are in the Atlanta/Buckhead area, please join us!

The following week both my business partner Lesley Hensell and myself will be in New York City for the Feedvisor Seller Summit. I’ve been allowed to offer a handful of free tickets to this by-invitation-only event to my clients whose volume meets or exceeds $1.5 M annually (100K+ per month). The Miami Beach conference earlier this year was outstanding in terms of content and no sales pitches.

Please sign up HERE for the May 24 Feedvisor conference in Manhattan’s Meat-Packing District. You will be contacted by Feedvisor if you meet the criteria. RSVP cut-off is early next week. I am so delighted to offer this opportunity to my high-volume clients.

brooklyn bridgeIn addition to meeting our clients at the conference, we will be having dinner with our local clients while we are in town. Please check your in-boxes on Friday for an invitation to this very special private party at the Reserve Cut in lower Manhattan. It’s Kosher and supposed to be one of the best steakhouses in New York City. I can’t wait! If you don’t see your invitation by Monday, contact my assistant Lissa at: Lissa@onlinesalesstepbystep.com.

One of the services we offer clients is ASIN reinstatement for when a profitable listing is suddenly suspended. More and more Amazon sellers are receiving notices recently that their ASINs are being delisted due to restrictions.  Sometimes we can get their listing back for them and sometimes we can’t.  It is frustrating because Amazon didn’t tell our clients in advance that a listing was restricted and when a seller has spent thousands of dollars on a product and shipped it up to Amazon for fulfillment it can hurt financially.  What’s going on and how can you reduce the number of restricted listings in your inventory?

Restricted Ingredients

We see this issue quite often among our supplement, health and beauty clients.  Occasionally we’ll see itpotential-hidden-dangers-of-personal-care-products-9-638 in electronics, toys and auto parts.  The FDA or some other regulatory body will put out a list of ingredients that are either forbidden or there is a warning.  In the case of warnings, the FDA isn’t saying you can’t sell items with those ingredients in them but Amazon is very conservative and will immediately delist products with those ingredients.

If your product has a forbidden ingredient or one with a specific warning, there is nothing you can do about it.  However, do check to make sure they are right.  We’ve seen mistakes made several times where they claimed an ingredient was restricted and they were thinking of an ingredient that looked the same but wasn’t (some of them have very LONG names). Or it might be that a certain percentage of that ingredient is forbidden but anything less than that is acceptable.  Amazon will likely restrict all products with that ingredient but often you can get a listing reinstated if your product contains that ingredient in smaller quantities.  You will need to link to the FDA (or other regulatory body) site to prove your case.

Sometimes a different group inside of Amazon will be in conflict with Seller Support or Seller Performance on an issue. There might be a clash between HazMat and Seller Performance, for example.  We saw this around Christmas time with alcohol-filled chocolates.  It is not illegal to sell alcohol-filled chocolates and there is no HazMat danger, BUT Amazon was giving out a lot of conflicting information. In this case they made a policy change. It was determined that third-party sellers can’t sell it, period.  This made a lot of my clients sad.

These kinds of restricted notices can’t really be avoided because they are spontaneous and changing.  Assuming you are aware of potential restricted ingredients (like lead in paint, toys, apparel buttons and zippers…and so on), you’ve done all you can to avoid these issues.

If you are a private label (PL) seller, it is very important that you have your products tested before launch to make sure that they don’t have any hidden chemicals, lead or other problems.  One seller I know who tests his products regularly was shocked to discover a very serious toxin in his shampoo formulation.  When he went to his US-based supplier, he learned that they had sourced some of the ingredients from China and that those ingredients were tainted.  Because of my client’s diligence he not only was able to avoid paying for toxic product, but he taught his supplier a valuable lesson as well.  Never assume. Always verify.  If you are not testing your products regularly, you will probably be unhappy when Amazon decides to test it for you.  Another client who sells jewelry discovered by testing that his gold and silver that he was sourcing from overseas was heavily diluted with other metals.  While none were toxic, per se, if Amazon had tested his products and discovered that he was not selling the purity of gold he advertised he would have been banned forever…at best.  This is FRAUD folks and just because he was a victim as well, doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible.

In the food category all products now have to include the ingredient list as part of the listing.  For mine I took pictures of the product label with the ingredients which was acceptable to Amazon.  This also means it is harder for them to search my listings for ingredients.  I sell mostly candy so I’m not expecting any surprises beyond some food dye and 3000 versions of sugar, but our listings are part of the way they track restricted ingredients.  Health & Beauty items have the same issue.

Restricted Brandsmichael kors

This is much more confusing.  There are certain brands that can only be sold by authorized resellers.  They won’t show up on your Amazon Seller app as restricted because some sellers CAN sell it.  Logitech is an example of a brand that can be sold if you are approved. I’ve attached two lists of restricted products HERE and HERE.  One is sorted by category and the other by brand name to help you when you are sourcing.  These are by no means comprehensive lists.  We are constantly running across brands that are problems for our clients.  Some of these are outright restricted and you MUST be an authorized reseller to sell them.  These are the larger brands who have registered with Amazon and given them a list of authorized sellers. This is why you can’t sell Jones of New York, for example.

Others may not be restricted, per se, but they are problems for our clients and we advise that sellers proceed with caution.  Michael Kors and Swatch are examples of that.  They have kick-ass attorneys that are constantly filing claims against our clients for inauthentic, used sold as new and more.  They buy the product and then they complain.  This is to kick off the retail arbitrage and online arbitrage sellers, basically.  They also take legal action through the platform for some of their products.  If you aren’t buying directly from them or one of their stores…you are going to be hassled by them.  Under Armor is another problematic brand.  If you aren’t authorized, they may come after you hard.  Nike, same way. Coach, Versace…ditto ditto.  They will claim inauthentic.  Make sure your paperwork is in order if you plan to sell these brands.

And then there are some brands where Amazon itself is the watchdog. You may get a restricted listing warning from Amazon rather than the brand.  We’ve seen this with Disney and a few other brands. It not for everything Disney sells, of course, but some things.  We all know about Frozen and Star Wars.  Those are restricted because of potential counterfeit and it is possible for a seller in good standing to get authorized.  Some of the other stuff it isn’t clear at all. I’ve seen Disney baby blankets and other unexpected products be restricted. All I can say is, if you get a restricted notice from Amazon for a particular brand, you can try to get authorized, but you may be out of luck until you do.

Restricted Products

A restricted product is different than a brand.  Here you might be dealing with a category of products.  I had a client that was selling incandescent light bulbs on Amazon…you know, the same ones that NO retailer is allowed to sell any more by federal law?  No wonder they were so cheap!  I’ve had other clients selling weapons, stun guns, dog collars with spikes on the inside, prescription-only drugs…and they all wondered why their products were restricted!  For every category that you sell in on Amazon you need to carefully read all of their policies and restrictions for that category.  You aren’t likely to win your case with Amazon if you are selling products like these where Amazon has actually given you a list of restricted products.  Also, the “but HE’s selling them!” argument doesn’t fly with Amazon. This is when you hope that Karma exists because the fact is, they’ve not been caught yet…but YOU have.  Sorry, Charlie.

Health Claimsbath salt

This is an area where you might be able to get your listing back.  “Health Claims” are vague and – as practiced by Amazon – sometimes really stupid.  Most of the time if you fix your listing, you are fine.  For example, I had Bert’s Bees bath salts restricted for health claims once.  What the…?  It’s SALT, people!!! The listing talked about how diabetics can use it to increase circulation while in the bath tub – a totally true claim by way, hot water increases circulation – and it seemed kind of crazy to me.  They’ve shut down clients for selling aspirin because it needed a prescription (those baby aspirin you take to thin your blood)…uh no….and on and on.  In short, look carefully at the so-called health claim and see if you can either: 1) prove them wrong with information from an official website (federal or medical) or 2) fix the listing so the health claim is removed.  In those two cases you should be able to get your listing back.

HazMat

HazmatUnless the brand/product has been previously restricted for HazMat (hazardous materials), Amazon won’t necessarily tell you that it is a restricted product.  I’ve scratched my head at quite a few products that are restricted because of HazMat.  Basically anything flammable (it has gasoline, kerosene, alcohol, aerosol) is HazMat and certain dangerous chemicals, lead-acid batteries and other corrosives.  This all makes sense. We don’t want the warehouse to blow up.  What baffles me are things like the alcohol-filled chocolates, a web-shooting toy (propulsion), baby thermometers, anti-bacterial hand sanitizers, aquarium glass cleaners and false eyelashes.  I mean I know the ads say my lashes will be a dangerous weapon against the opposite sex…but Hazmat?  Anyway, my point is, read the list they give us in Seller Central Help.

Having a product restricted for HazMat is not the same as having a product be under HazMat review.  HazMat review is when it is the first time a product is being sent to the warehouse via FBA. Amazon’s team looks at it to make sure it is not HazMat. Their insurance requires they do this. If you are selling a book or something else clearly not HazMat, this is annoying.  However, once your product is checked, you’ll be fine. It can take up to a week.  For real HazMat they will destroy your inventory when it gets to the warehouse. You don’t get it back.  This is really upsetting if you got those web shooters at a steal at Target and 50 of them just went up in smoke or however Amazon destroys its HazMat inventory.

You have a very short window to dispute a HazMat claim before the merchandise is destroyed and that group is not very communicative or helpful.  Most likely you’ve lost. Amazon won’t always tell you if a product is HazMat.  My web shooters were a toy.  I was thinking “toy” not “dangerous weapon that could destroy the warehouse” when I sent them in.  Amazon didn’t stop me until they were checked in and then, poof! Every worker in the warehouse had a new Spiderman toy for their kid.  I’m very careful now.

ASIN Reinstatements

If you’ve lost a profitable listing due to restrictions or any other reason, let us help you with your appeal! For only $500 in most cases, we can help you get that suspended listing selling for you again: CLICK HERE.

Get Clean Stay Clean Additions

We’re excited by the growth of our suspension prevention services and are continuously making new improvements!  Starting in May we will be offering Shabbos Goy Services for our Orthodox clients who do not work on the Sabbath or Holy Days, but who need to make sure someone is answering buyer emails and managing returns.  In addition, we will be offering weekend, vacation and holiday customer service support for all our clients who want a break from the business or would like night shift and weekend coverage to supplement their internal teams.  Fill out this form if you would like to be notified when this service is live.

Buy Your Tickets for CES IV Early Before the Crush on 4/26

Jim Cockrum’s CES IV conference tickets go on sale on 4/26 for the general public.  Most tickets will sell out within an hour – and we’re talking more than 500 seats!  If you are interested in going, you can get your tickets starting on Friday April 22 IF you are a member of Jim’s Proven Amazon Course (PAC).  PAC members also get a significant discount on their CES VIP tickets as well (there are regular tickets and two levels of VIP).  I predict that the VIP tickets will sell out before 4/26.  If you want to buy PAC today, you will get immediate access to hundreds of hours of content relating to selling on Amazon (including an eBook from me) AND you’ll be able to go ahead and buy your CES IV tickets early.

If you don’t want to buy PAC, still click this link and look at the conference information.  On the day tickets go on sale you don’t want to waste any time reading or making decisions.  Last year the server had trouble handling the volume of sales so this year Jim’s crew has a rapid application program that will help you submit your order faster. Check it out!boots

This is one of my favorite conferences.  The educational content, the inspiring speakers, the workshops, the sharing, warm and welcoming atmosphere and the many opportunities to network outside of the sessions makes it a wonderful experience.  There are about 600 people and it is like a big party all week long.  It will be in Nashville this year.  Put your boots on and come join us!

May Flowers…Cynthia’s Travels in May

I will be tiptoe-ing through the tulips in Denver, Atlanta and New York City in May and I hope to meet many of you in my travels!

Springtime in the Rockies is the best time of the year! Come visit me in Denver during the Rocky Mountain Reseller Conference April 29-30! I’m hosting a dinner get together at the charming Stapleton Bistro for my clients and readers on Saturday night after the conference. Please RSVP here, I’ll send you details and reminders.

Our friends at SellerLabs are hosting a user group conference called Resonate in Atlanta May 16-18. botanical-flowersThis is a gathering of high-volume Amazon sellers eager to solve selling’s toughest problems.  The focus of this conference is more hands-on problem solving with roundtables, workshops and networking as well as high-caliber presentations.  Mike Brown of Deathwish Coffee will tell us how he became the number one selling coffee on Amazon against the biggest brands in the world, for example.  Contact Jeff Cohen to learn more.   I’m hosting a dinner on May 18th after the conference. Click here to RSVP.

The Feedvisor Summit in New York City on May 24 is by invitation only BUT I’ve been given several seats that I can offer to my high volume seller clients who want to come. Fill out this form and I’ll send your names to Feedvisor.  I spoke at the Miami Beach summit and I can tell you it is a top-notch, highly professional 1-day conference with food, networking, great content and strategic ideas aimed at the more experienced high volume seller.  Most of the sellers in the room were $1.5M a year and higher in volume just to give you an idea.  There is no selling by Feedvisor or anyone else (there are no vendors).  This is great content.

brooklyn bridgeIn addition to meeting our clients at the conference, we will be having dinner with our local clients while we are in town. Please check your in-boxes on Friday for an invitation to this very special private party at the Reserve Cut in lower Manhattan. It’s Kosher and supposed to be one of the best steakhouses in New York City. I can’t wait! If you don’t see your invitation by Monday, contact my assistant Lissa at: Lissa@onlinesalesstepbystep.com.

amazonreviewsAfter my recent blog post about conducting a safe product review program Amazon style I was deluged with questions so it seemed worthy of another blog post. These are a compilation of questions I’ve gotten. I have some news about a new book I’m working on and news about Amazon’s new ASIN requirements. Lastly, check out my schedule at the end. I host an event every time I travel so I can meet my clients and readers – join me!

Q. Are there any product review programs you recommend?

Because Amazon is deliberately vague, there is gray area. I can’t point to any one program (besides Amazon’s) and say “this is completely safe!” for this reason. However, there are some programs that are less risky than others. Some are also scary because their violations are so blatant.

What I did was research over 100 review programs/clubs in the US and UK and look at them for risk.Product Review Chart You won’t see all of them on THIS CHART because they aren’t all Amazon focused and so I didn’t include them.

I will preface my chart by stating it may not be comprehensive. The categories listed are the ones that I think are important. This is my opinion and advice to my clients. I don’t represent any product review product. This chart will not tell you which program is most effective. It is focused instead on how they operate. A few of them were very secretive on their websites and I did not sign up to see the “secret sauce.” If you choose to work with any product review company, be sure to consider compliance and safety among your criteria for selecting a service. To understand why I consider some activities “risky,” see my previous blog post for details.

Gray marks mean the behavior or technique is vague.  Red means the tool/technique is risky and green is safer. The ones highlighted in yellow seem safer to me.  Please be clear that I am NOT saying that they are safe or that I endorse them in any way.  Their practices, in my mind, are more in line with Amazon’s stated wishes for its reviews.  That could change tomorrow if I get a client who is suspended because they used one of these services.

You will notice that I marked quite of few of them for providing incentives.  These were sometimes cash like “earn” a gift card by completing reviews.  Other times the incentive was more esoteric like they would qualify for more free giveaways, that kind of thing.  Because it is not a direct relationship of “write this particular review, get $X dollars”….it is gray.  Maybe Amazon is OK with that. I don’t know.  It has not yet been tested.

I also marked services that had what I considered a highly targeted audience of professional reviewers. We have seen Amazon suspend sellers for targeting the same reviewers over and over again and going exclusively after professional reviewers (like scraping the Amazon site for reviewers) rather than the typical buyer for their product.  However, those were for campaigns the seller was running themselves rather than with a review company.  Maybe the review company’s reviewers are broad enough to satisfy Amazon.  Again, I don’t know yet. That’s why the check marks are gray instead of red.  Could be fine.  Might not be.

Some product review companies will kick a buyer off if they don’t leave reviews in a certain amount of time. They’ll get reminders, etc. and if they don’t comply they are out of there. In my mind, the fact that they are obligated is against the spirit of what Amazon intends.  Will Amazon suspend for it? I don’t know. Not that I’ve seen yet.

Most product review companies tell reviewers they want honest reviews and most insist on the disclaimer.  A few, however, were only paying it lip service.  All the “examples” they gave were 5-star highly complementary reviews.  These were templates for quick reviews that would satisfy their obligation. Those have no green “X” and you should be careful.

Red marks DO correlate to behaviors that have suspended sellers in the past or that are expressly against Amazon’s TOS like “requesting positive reviews.”

In addition, there were ones that strongly skewed the reviewers towards positive reviews even to the point of having the reviewer call them (the review company) first if they were leaning negatively.  I see that as slippery behavior,  a likely violation, and I marked those with a red X. Kind of like when Bill Clinton said, “it depends on your definition of ‘is’ is.”  Weasely. That’s the word I’m looking for.

I have a column to show you which programs have reviewers buy through the platform.  There is nothing inherently forbidden about this, but it can be risky.  Not going through the platform is safer.

Lastly, a couple of the included companies are not typical review companies but I included them because they offer an alternative to sellers who are looking to boost their rankings (ZonBlast) or get reviews off the platform as well (Trust Pilot).

Q. Can’t you just tell us which companies are OK?

The day Amazon publishes a list of approved product review companies, I’ll share it with everyone. I’m not holding my breath. What everyone needs to understand is that a product review program of any kind is a manipulation. You are trying to artificially speed up the organic process of product reviews and position your product in front of the competition. This is also called capitalism and good business, I get that. As far as Amazon is concerned you can do anything you want to create advantage for your products – until it affects their platform and the buyer experience.

Q. Does Amazon have a preference between free giveaways or discounts?

Sampling-And-DemosAmazon talks about free giveaways in its terms of service (TOS) and examples. The free giveaways it recommends are ones where you (the seller) mail the products to the reviewers WITHOUT going through the Amazon platform. Think of it like free samples at a grocery store or the beauty counter; or free books sent to book critics in the media.

To clarify the analogy: In the case of books sent to reviewers they are under no obligation to leave a positive review. In fact, there is no incentive for them to review at all if they don’t feel a book is interesting. It is this very independence that gives these critical reviews their value to the reading public.

Amazon does not specifically forbid sellers from using discounts to drive reviews, but looks at discounts to drive sales while free giveaways are used to drive reviews. Using a discount code for both seems to be OK as long as it is disclosed.

I have not seen any seller suspended for offering deeply discounted products. I have seen them suspended for excessive reviews, manipulation of platform, lack of disclosure and for paying for reviews.

Q. Wouldn’t it actually be BETTER to go through the Amazon platform so Amazon will know that products are being shipped to reviewers?

Not necessarily. For one thing, Amazon’s examples do not include using a discount code, they specifically cite the seller shipping directly to the reviewer. So even if you plan to use a discount code, they may prefer your reviewers to buy from you – it is unclear. Secondly, this can backfire on you. I have a client now who Amazon was able to easily call out for manipulating the platform and paid reviews BECAUSE the order had gone through the platform. Reviewers were posting their reviews within a day of the order. Clearly they had not had time to receive the product yet and use it.

The same holds true if the reviewer posts a review and doesn’t disclose that they got it for free or at a deep discount. If the order went through Amazon and it was for a 99% discount as so many of them are, Amazon can check the reviews to see if they have the disclaimer. If they don’t, you are in trouble.

Q. What happens to the reviews if Amazon warns or suspends you for improper product reviews?

You have to give them all the reviews – the name of the reviewer, what they posted and everything. These will ALL be removed. You also need to disclose the name of the review company you were using.

Q. At what discount percentage does Amazon consider a review to be unverified?

In the past, sellers would manipulate the platform by having reviewers buy through the platform so their reviews would appear as “verified.” Amazon is wise to that tactic and now automatically counts any deeply discounted product as “unverified.” Amazon does not share what the cut off percentage is. I’ve heard that greater than 49% is the line, but that is anecdotal from other sellers. To be safe, you should ask all reviewers using a discount coupon to disclose they bought the product at a discount.

Q. What is the big deal about SuperURLs? They work great!

A superURL manipulates the platform by enforcing your keywords. It uses the same URL that Amazonsuper-url uses internally to indicate how a potential buyer found your product. Obviously, if Amazon sees a lot of the same keyword being used and then purchases, it will move your listing up in the ranks. This is a very clear and obvious manipulation to me. Amazon’s policies state, “any attempt to manipulate the search and browser experience is prohibited.” Beware. Even if you simply tell your potential reviewers or buyer to search by certain keywords (beyond the name of the product/manufacturer) you are manipulating the platform.

Q. What about all those product review companies that use superURLs and claim to be compliant?

1) It is my belief based on Amazon’s past actions that their days of using superURLs are numbered;
2) There are different rules for different countries; and
3) if everybody else jumped off a cliff would you join them? Don’t be a lemming!

In the UK and Europe, I noticed that many of the review companies were highly risky. In fact, we had to search for DAYS to find one that wasn’t using superURLs or other risky behaviors. We’ve noticed in our work with Amazon UK that the UK and Europe platforms tend to be a year or so behind Amazon.com in terms of both capabilities and rules. There has not been the same crackdown there that we’ve seen here – yet. One day their algorithm will get tweaked and we’ll get a flood of UK sellers suspended for improper product reviews. I have no doubt of this. Most of my clients over there are looking for a better solution. They don’t want to be suspended.

Q. How does Amazon know that I’m using a reviews service?

Amazon sees the IP address your buyer is coming from. If your reviewers are stopping at a website to pick up a code and then clicking to buy the product or immediately going to Amazon to buy that product, they will see that pattern. Another reason not to use a superURL.

They also notice if they see the same reviewers over and over again with free or discounted product reviews. If a reviewer takes your deal for vitamin C, for example, don’t also give them Garcinia Cambogia. If that same reviewer reviews a lot of supplements by other sellers, Amazon will know they are a professional reviewer that is doing it to get free product via a reviews program.

Additionally, once a seller is suspended and gives up their reviewers to Amazon, Amazon now has that reviewer on a watch list.

Q. Amazon removed a bunch of reviews from one of my products and I can’t figure out why. I’ve not been warned or suspended.

Quite possibly it was because these reviewers had been identified as abusing the platform and all their reviews were taken down.

Q. Can reviewers get suspended for abusing Amazon reviews policy?

Yes. That is why it behooves them to use the disclaimer language in their reviews. It is not just the seller who is on the hook for compliance. I imagine they get a warning first and instruction on how to leave a review, but buyers lose their privileges every day for not following Amazon’s rules. If the reviewer is also a seller, they can lose their selling privileges at the same time.

Q. I got an email through the Amazon system from a reviewer offering to create a video review for me in exchange for free product. Is that OK?

The reviewer is using the message platform improperly. I usually report them (there’s a button for you to do that on the email). Amazon policy states that you must give them the free product FIRST before asking for a review. It is NOT an exchange. They state nothing about the situation where the reviewer approaches YOU with an exchange proposal, so that is gray area.

Common sense tells me that it could be a problem…but probably more for you than Amazon.

If a guy walked up to you on the street and promised you that he would tell 100 of his friends about your product in exchange for a freebie, would you do it? Probably not without some investigation, right? If the guy is a reporter for a major newspaper? Sure. But that’s not who is contacting you through the platform. Your guy is supplementing his income with freebies.

You can give him a free product if you want. Just be sure that you ship it to him directly (not through the platform), that you gather all his contact information, that you tell him to disclose (including sample language) and that you keep an eye out for his review to make sure he complied. Tell him it needs to be an honest review. Will he actually write a review? Who knows? If he doesn’t, you are out of luck. Keep track of the letter you send with the product so you can prove to Amazon that your actions were above board if you need to.

Q. I have a list of top Amazon reviewers scraped off of the website. Is it OK to offer them products for review?

amazon-reviews2No. Amazon does not approve of people scraping information off their site or contacting buyers inappropriately to ask for reviews. We have seen sellers suspended for this.

Q. Why would Amazon provide reviewer contact information on the website if they didn’t want us to use it?

Spoken like a true seller! Remember who Amazon exists for? That’s right – the BUYER. Amazon lets buyers check out other reviews posted by a reviewer to understand their bias and even gives them a safe way to contact them for clarification on their review. Whenever you come up with a brilliant idea, be sure to run it through your Amazon filter and think like they do – how does this benefit the buyer?

Q. I’m worried about other sellers buying my product at a discount and then selling against me on the platform. Does that happen?

Yes, it does. Some of the programs I looked at were very careful to tell reviewers that this was forbidden and to kick them out if they did it. In addition, some programs make it so the reviewer can only buy one product at a time. When looking at a program, be sure to ask them their policy on this and how they work with their reviewers.

Q. Just how serious is Amazon about product reviews?

Very. Just ask the product review companies it sued in 2015. I can tell you almost to the day when Amazon received the lists of customers from these companies, because a whole bunch of sellers got suspended and were required to turn over their reviewers and reviews to Amazon in order to get reinstated. If I were a product review company and I got a stern letter from Amazon’s lawyers, I’d roll over and submit immediately. They’ve already proven just how much the issue matters to them.

The final word on product reviews

Just kidding. I’m sure there will be more questions. But here’s what I’d like to say to the community.
Of all the conversations I’ve had with sellers about reviews and their review programs not one of them was concerned in the least about the quality of the review or what the review actually said. It was all about the stars. I’ve seen a lot of these reviews (my clients have to turn them over to Amazon) and they were utter crap for the most part. They weren’t honest, they weren’t specific and they weren’t well written. It was a clear transactional thing. I got free product, I need to post 4 or 5 stars and say “I love it!”

The sellers didn’t care because this was just a product to them. They weren’t invested in their own brands enough to care about their corporate reputation or what buyers actually thought about their products. Many of them were basically selling commodity products with a fancy label on it. I find this disheartening. I’ve spent decades bringing unique products to market for companies big and small where the results actually mattered and their reputation was everything. They worked hard to have a quality product and a sterling reputation. Their products had to survive everywhere not just on Amazon. Many sellers just don’t give a damn and then they wonder why Amazon comes down on them like a ton of bricks.

I’m a seller advocate through and through, but I agree with Amazon about product reviews. Throw away reviews devalue the buyer experience and make the platform less trustworthy. Whatever program you decide to implement for your private label or exclusive products, filter it through the Amazon lens before you lay down your money. Don’t believe what review companies tell you about being compliant without your own investigation. Anybody can throw up a website (and some of the smaller ones I looked at were incredibly unprofessional and light on information). Be diligent. Remember what the ultimate goal is: quality reviews for the buyer so they will feel comfortable buying from you.

Best Practices for Customer Service

I’m excited to announce that my company Online Sales Step by Step LLC is collaborating with Cascadia Seller Solutions to create a “Best Practices” book on customer service for Amazon sellers. This is our answer to the new customer satisfaction and returns metrics.

What both our companies have realized is that many of our clients are struggling with delivering consistently high quality customer service to Amazon’s buyers. Many are experiencing growing pains from rapid growth, some have never built a business before, others don’t have internal expertise on how to provide outstanding service to buyers.

customer serviceThe book is due out in the Fall. In the meantime, Emily has written The Seven Deadly Sins of Customer Service to give sellers food for thought. Get your free copy and be on the list to be notified first when the book is ready!

Cascadia’s Emily Murray worked for 5+ years at Amazon and was one of their top customer service agents. She is contributing strategies, templates and advice to the book. Our joint goal is to help fast-growing sellers implement best practices into their companies and make their customer service operations easier to manage.

Get Clean, Stay Clean with Amazon

Our new Get Clean Stay Clean services are helping sellers avoid suspension and save money! We’ve been refining our service options. What we learned is that sellers who use our service to clean up their accounts and monitor their accounts for problems eventually run out of suspension problems! It is a high class problem to have.

What we’ve done is add other service for our clients to help with their accounts including hunting down reimbursements that Amazon owes them. One of our clients got a $5,000 surprise in March because of it.

We’ve also started to break out our services based on the type of seller you are:

Basic – $250 per month. For the hands-on seller or the seller with a team. Includes:

• Weekly account monitoring and early warning report
• Minor account clean-up (2-3 hours a week) like feedback removal (up to a year back), suppressed listings, enhanced listings, reconciliations, reimbursements, etc.
• Emails to all your “negative returns” to determine why they returned their products
• 10% discount per month towards any future suspension (god forbid) up to 50% off
• 15-20 minutes a month of consultation time to review questions, issues, your reports, etc.

Concierge – customized. For the hands-off seller who says “just take care of it,” includes:

• Everything above
• We take action on your problem ASINs
• Customized services ranging from handling your customer service, advanced admin or account clean up, ASIN reinstatements and more.
• Extra consulting time per month
• Prices determined by the time required. Starting from $500 per month.

In the short time since we launched this service, we’ve seen amazing account transformations from mary-poppins-practically-perfect-in-every-waydozens and dozens of inventory problems and negative returns to “Mary Poppins” reports – “Practically Perfect in Every Way.”

SIGN UP HERE for the basic service. If you want concierge, contact us after signing up and we’ll discuss your particular needs.

Just to be clear, our focus is suspension prevention first and foremost. There are good services for those wanting a VA for sourcing or bookkeeping, etc. We help with issues that can impact your metrics like customer service, product quality, policy violations, listing improvements, etc.

April Excursions

Dallas is the place for international sellers this month! Barrington McIntosh and the MM8 group are putting together an exciting program teaching sellers how to source from overseas and to sell in international Amazon marketplaces April 14-16. I’ll be making a brief guest appearance.

springtime-in-the-rockies-2-1247400Springtime in the Rockies is the best time of the year! Come visit me in Denver during the Rocky Mountain Reseller Conference April 29-30! I’m hosting a brunch get together for my clients and readers on Sunday after the conference. Please RSVP here, I’ll send you exact details later.

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to a large group of sellers at the Feedvisor conference in Miami Beach. Most of these sellers are $1.5M+ a year and higher and they are understandably concerned about losing their seller privileges. Feedvisor also shared a survey of 1,500 Amazon sellers with us and I was startled to see that 63% of sellers count fear of suspension as one of their biggest worries. Be sure to check out the full report, it was fascinating. Here are some questions and scenarios that came up that I thought would be of interest to you, my faithful reader:

Q. My Mom and I both have seller accounts. They are separate accounts but I’m worried that our accounts might be linked and if one of us goes down, we both go down. I’ve logged into her account to help her out sometimes. What should we do?

Your accounts are definitely linked. They know you are related. While you are both in good standing, you need to address the issue with Seller Performance. Follow the process for operating multiple seller accounts. Even though you are simply wanting an annotation on your account rather than owning two accounts per se. Here’s the process:

Operating multiple seller accounts: Operating and maintaining multiple Seller Central accounts is prohibited. If you have a legitimate business need for a second account, you can apply for an exception to this policy. From the bottom of any page in your seller account, click Contact Seller Support. Select Your account, then select Other account issues.

In your request, provide an explanation of the legitimate business need for a second account. To be considered for approval, you must have the following:

  • An account in good standing with excellent Customer Metrics
  • A separate email address and bank account for the new account
  • No intention to sell the same products or services in both accounts
  • Intention to sell in entirely different categories
  • The inventory sold in each account must be different

You’ll receive a response to your request within 2 to 3 business days.

Provide the information above for both accounts and explain that you are separate businesses and want to remain that way. You are concerned that your accounts are linked and if one account should be suspended the other one will be also. Explain your product mix and how each of you sources your products to sell on Amazon. Ask for an account annotation on both accounts stating that the accounts are operating legitimately.

Lastly, be aware that a seller should NEVER go inside another seller’s account without precautions. We have a client right now that used to help other sellers set up their accounts. She is linked to many seller accounts right now and we suspect that is why she is not getting reinstated. Once we un-link her, we hope she will be back.

The gray market isn’t just in China, of course, but this is a good chart of how it works. Where does your supplier fit in this cycle? Are you sure your items are legit?

Q. How does Amazon perceive the gray market and why is it cracking down on it?

Gray market inventory consists of legal, non-counterfeited goods sold outside normal distribution channels by entities (us third-party sellers) which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods. That’s the basic Wikipedia definition. In practice, this means that products don’t qualify for the manufacturer’s warranty and were never intended to be sold to you for resale. It also means the items could be stolen or could be inappropriately imported from another country that does not meet all of the U.S. regulations. It could also be slightly different from the version sold in the U.S. Or it could be forbidden for sale online.

An example that I see a lot in Beauty is sellers who also own a brick and mortar salon. They order designer hair product through their salon that their contract specifically forbids being sold online. They sell it on Amazon under a different store name. A competitor or the manufacturer complains (or else Amazon already has that brand in their list of restricted products) and the seller’s listing or account is suspended.

Another recent client was selling products from MLMs. She bought from Herbalife and Creative Memories distributors and then sold on Amazon.  While this seller is not violating a contract with the manufacturer, their hand-written receipts won’t hold up with Amazon who knows these are inauthentic goods. Why did Amazon allow them to be sold in the first place? I wish I knew. You would think they’d have made it impossible to list certain goods that are clearly inauthentic.

Why does inauthentic matter if the product is not counterfeit? Here is what Amazon says in its policies:

We take product authenticity very seriously. It is each seller’s responsibility to source and sell only authentic products. If you sell counterfeit goods, we may immediately suspend or terminate your selling privileges and destroy inventory in our fulfillment centers without reimbursement. In addition, if we determine that a seller account has been used to engage in fraud or other illegal activity, remittances and payments may be withheld or forfeited. The sale of counterfeit goods can also lead to legal action by rights holders and civil and criminal penalties.

We are constantly innovating on behalf of our customers and working with manufacturers, content owners, vendors, and sellers to improve the ways we detect and prevent counterfeit products from reaching our marketplace. We work hard on this issue every day because we know that our customers trust that they are buying authentic products when they shop on Amazon.com. This is why we stand behind the products sold on our site with our A-to-Z Guarantee. We also encourage anyone who has a product authenticity concern to notify us, and we will investigate it thoroughly and take any appropriate actions.

In the first place, it is related to counterfeit in that it is much more likely that you might be buying and selling counterfeit goods if you are buying from an unauthorized source. You might also be selling stolen goods. That is certainly one way to find inexpensive goods to sell on Amazon. You may not have stolen the goods yourself but you are equally responsible under the law and with Amazon. That is why it is so important to check out your suppliers to make sure they are authorized to sell goods to you for resale online. They may only have permission to sell to brick and mortar stores or they may be unauthorized to sell those products at all. Notice how Amazon says they are working with manufacturers, content owners, vendors and sellers? You can take that to the bank. I’m confident that a number of my client’s inauthentic claims came directly from the manufacturers. Amazon MUST take their claims seriously. So if you are screwing your supplier and violating your agreement….more fool you.

Wall St. Journal points out that gray market vendors for top luxury brands remained high despite Alibaba’s efforts to purge them. This is what Amazon is fighting.

Inauthentic claims abound in all categories and it is really hard to get some sellers back on the platform – particularly if they’ve been reinstated previously for this and didn’t change their ways.

I know other sellers who make up invoices, lie about their sources or refuse to reveal their source. Amazon is rigid on this topic. Confess, cough up the real invoices, throw yourself on Amazon’s mercy, and stop buying on the gray market. It is your only hope.

One seller said in all seriousness, “what will I sell then?” That summarizes the issue nicely. Sellers need to find product cheaply and don’t really care where it comes from as long as it isn’t counterfeit. Amazon cares and will kick you off forever if you can’t prove the authenticity of your goods. Remember, you signed a contract that said you would source and sell only authentic products. The burden of proof is on you.

Q. I’m confident that my goods are genuine. Are you saying I need to get proof from my supplier all the way back to the manufacturer/brand owner?

Yes.  If the supplier can’t prove they are an authorized reseller, or that they bought from an authorized reseller (or direct from the manufacturer), then you are buying gray market goods.  You can no longer afford to make assumptions.  It is your responsibility to verify authenticity.  And remember, if it seems too good to be true…it is.

Q. If I tell Amazon I bought from a gray market source, will they tell the manufacturer or legitimate supplier?

I don’t know for sure. I’ve seen no evidence of it. What I know for sure is that they won’t reinstate you unless you do. They don’t work for the manufacturers so my guess is no. This is about Amazon protecting its platform and reputation as well as possible legal repercussions. They have to show that they have policies in place to eliminate counterfeit from the platform or else they could be legally liable for counterfeit and stolen goods sold on their platform. This is why inauthentic and counterfeit are among the toughest claims to get reinstated. They have no tolerance for invoice fakers and repeaters who don’t learn their lesson the first time.

Q. I sell high-end luxury goods and I get a lot of inauthentic claims from Amazon and it is such a hassle to get my listings reinstated. Is there any way to make this faster or to make them stop?

Michael Kors is rabid about kicking sellers off the platform. The others are also diligent. If you sell these brands, you can expect to be questioned by Amazon and to have to produce invoices or receipts.

No. Your best offense is a good defense in this case. Make sure that for every product you sell you can immediately produce the invoices and trace the product directly back to the brand/rights holder. The shorter the distance between you and the manufacturer, the better. For each middle man you will need to provide information to demonstrate that they bought their product from a legitimate source. The best time to ask your supplier for a letter or other form of verification of their inventory source is at the time of purchase. Get it, file it. If they are unwilling to share their source, you may have a problem. A client of mine recently proved the purchase trail of her inventory all the way back to Versace in Italy. What a hassle!

Luxury goods sellers be aware that Amazon knows the legitimate distribution channels for these high end brands. If you come up with an unknown name for a supplier, it will come under intense scrutiny. Another reason not to fake your invoices. Also, some brand owners do not allow their items to be sold online. This is why it is important for you to determine if your supplier has the right to sell product to you for resale on Amazon – not just if they are an authorized reseller of that brand.

Q. Is there a specific number of inauthentic claims I get before being suspended?

Amazon doesn’t share that information. If you regularly get inauthentic claims but are able to prove you bought from legitimate sources, you should be OK. If you get caught buying from the gray market, you must stop selling all gray market goods immediately. You risk your entire account. If you get a bunch of inauthentic claims in a short time that is more damaging to your account than one here and there. If you repeatedly get inauthentic claims for the same brand and/or the same ASIN, that is more damaging than random claims for different items in your inventory.

If you are selling gray market goods now, I strongly urge you to find new sources for your inventory.  Amazon has an uncanny ability to ferret out gray market goods.

Q. What about items I buy new from thrift stores, garage sales, charities, etc.? Are those gray market?

Yes. There is no way to know if they are genuine. Do NOT sell them as New on Amazon’s platform. Two Miracle Max 1of our recent clients were able to get reinstated by getting a letter from the charity stating where they had received the merchandise initially (it was a large donation from the brand owner). They were LUCKY. You probably won’t be. Don’t do it. It took days-to-weeks to get these letters. It is a big hassle. Our clients lost a lot of money.

Another client had the brand owner accuse him of selling stolen goods and he has no recourse because he bought them at a garage sale and doesn’t even have a receipt let alone an invoice.  We got him reinstated but it was a “Miracle Max” miracle.  When he was filling his bags with cheap inventory he was thrilled and thought he’d found a bargain.  Now in hindsight he feels badly for being so naive and not questioning where the goods were coming from.

Q. Is there anything I can do if Amazon thinks my invoices are fake?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  We have several clients who Amazon flat out doesn’t believe them – most for good reason.  I can’t emphasize enough how good Amazon is at spotting fake invoices and how seriously they take this issue.  It is better to throw yourself on their mercy and confess than to send in fake invoices.  I have a client right now who is sending in genuine invoices BUT they won’t believe them because they had previously sent in fake invoices.  I’m trying to figure out a way to fix this but for now it could be an account-ending mistake.

If our clients can’t put their hands on the invoices immediately, we know we have a problem on our hands. Friends, it should not take you hours to days to get us an invoice.

Q. Why does Amazon want to see invoices for 180 days of sales?

One trick some sellers use is to mix authentic goods with gray market goods to improve their profitability. By asking for invoices that show six months of sales, Amazon is looking for sellers playing these games.

Q. Why does Amazon keep rejecting my invoices when I know they are legit?

There’s a lot of possibilities.  They may know more than you do about your supplier/distributor.  You may have sent your goods to an unknown address – a trick used by sellers trying to fool customs (really, the things you learn in this job!).  We had  that happen recently with a client.  The address wasn’t a trick, but they had moved a year previously and not updated their Amazon profile.  That flagged their invoices and we had to prove the move and legitimacy of their current address where the goods had been sent.

Your product may also be one that is known to have counterfeits/knockoffs.  I have many clients that sell luxury brands which puts them under Amazon scrutiny to begin with.  If they are also buying from the gray market – importing from Europe to sell in the US, for example – it can be a problem.  Most luxury brands have very specific distribution channels in each country and don’t authorize goods from one country to be sold in another even if they are the same.  We have a sunglasses seller who ran into this problem when he brought in inventory from Europe to sell in the U.S.

Q. How can I avoid getting inauthentic claims?

Make sure your product is perfect and well packed. If you are selling a luxury item, make sure it is a satisfying experience for the buyer to open.  Gift boxes, tissues, seals, luxury labels — all make a difference.

We had one watch seller who was getting inauthentic and counterfeit claims for a luxury watch band.  He received them in a bulk package and then put them in a poly bag. Buyers thought they were fake. We suggested he call the brand and see if they could send him seals and/or official labels or tags – which they were happy to do.  Now his watchbands are better packaged and they look official to the buyer.  He eliminated the root cause of the complaints. Optics are very important when selling expensive products. Always keep the buyer experience in mind.  The more expensive your product, the more they expect.

This won’t necessarily protect you if the manufacturer is making the complaint, but it will help to show that your buyers are satisfied.  If you also had a lot of complaining buyers….that would be bad.  In the case of my client, he buys his watchbands directly from the manufacturer so there was no problem getting his ASIN reinstated once he fixed the buyer complaints.

Q. I bought gray market goods without realizing it. Will Amazon let me sell again?

Usually yes.  Are you a repeat offender?  Have they asked you to provide authentic invoices for the same product over and over again?  You need to stop selling those.  If Amazon lets you back, you need to clean up your inventory and get rid of inauthentic goods.  For all of those reading this with a pit in your stomach (and who haven’t been suspended or asked to provide invoices) I suggest selling out your current supply and making sure you are clean going forward.  If you are already in the cycle with Amazon trying to get a listing or your account reinstated, start your clean out now.

I know this is a very expensive proposition that will make a lot of sellers angry.  All I can say is that you need to decide the level of risk you can live with.  Getting back on after inauthentic claims is very hard…or maybe it just seems hard to me because so many of my clients have fake invoices I have to explain.  Regardless, forewarned is forearmed.

Time to Get Clean with Amazon!

For the past few months we have been developing and refining a new service for sellers that allows them to see the “hidden metrics” on their accounts and take action before Amazon suspends their listing or – worse – their account!  Called Get Clean Stay Clean™, our service provides a weekly “Canary Report” that gives early warning of product quality and performance issues that can bring your account to a halt.

For $250 a month, you can have the peace of mind knowing that you are addressing problems before they become big. You will also have access to us if issues come up that require more intensive attention like ASIN reinstatements.  LEARN MORE….

 

Skyline of downtown Salt Lake City with the Towering Wasatch Mountain range in the background

Skyline of downtown Salt Lake City with the Towering Wasatch Mountain range in the background

On the Road Again!

My next stop in my travels is beautiful, chilly, Salt Lake City for the Prosper show February 7-9. My business partner Lesley Hensell and our colleague Nate McCallister will be joining me as we anticipate quite a few of our clients will be attending. We are hosting a special client appreciation happy hour on Monday night the 8th – check your email for an email from us! I sent it on Sunday. If you are going to the show, please be sure to say hello!

You can see my speaking engagements and travel schedule on my Suspension Prevention website which I keep updated.

Suspension Prevention BookJan 22 16 ranking

Want to learn more about suspensions and reinstatements on Amazon.com? Be sure to get your copy of my new book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account.  The softcover is on Amazon and the Kindle, Nook and PDF versions are available from me.

Already we are hearing stories of sellers who were able to reinstate themselves after reading the book – music to our ears!

Every time Amazon makes changes to its suspension algorithm, we know about it…not because they tell us, but because we start to see a rash of the same kind of Amazon suspensions.  From this we conclude that Amazon tweaks its algorithm often.  It is still mostly for product quality although we’ve begun to see a bunching of performance suspensions over the past few weeks as well.  This quick post covers some of the latest issues so you can look for them in your seller account.

Late Shipment – Confirmation Before Shipping

These two related issues have been rooted in a couple of changes. First, Amazon does not consider a package shipped until it is picked up by the carrier.  Some sellers missed the memo on this and were dismayed to learn that all their packages were suddenly late.  Some sellers marked the packages as confirmed shipped thinking that would fix the problem and got in trouble for confirmation before shipping. To fix this problem, you may need to arrange for your carrier to come at a different time or more often.  If you are dealing with USPS which is notoriously bad about scanning, give them a bulk barcode to scan that will register all the packages at once (check out how from USPS).

Valid Tracking Rate – Enforced February!

This was a head scratcher.  Most of our clients use a major carrier for their packages and they provide tracking data but Amazon was saying that they got invalid tracking data.  When we looked at the invalid tracking data report and checked the tracking data, it was all accurate! What the…?

After much back and forth with Amazon by one of my intrepid (and incredibly persistent) clients, we learned what was going on. It was a feed issue.  A space or weird character might get added to the tracking number and it would be recorded as “invalid.”  Later, it would self-correct as Amazon continued to interact with the carrier.  However, the seller was already dinged for invalid tracking data.

You can fix actual errors manually on the buyer’s order page. For errors that have been corrected, however, you need to inform Amazon immediately.  It can take 72 hour for updated metrics to show on your report.

Right now this metric is not being counted against you but it will in February.  In my opinion, Amazon is having problems on their end and I suspect a lot of sellers will find their metrics plummeting in February.  They have a special email just for this problem: sellersupport-performance-metrics@amazon.com.  If you find, as my client did, that most of the tracking data is accurate, then send them the report so they can annotate your account.

[PS. Be sure to send the email from the same email address you use for your Amazon account]

So how often should you check this report?  Every day.

How do you check it?

  1. From the Performance drop-down menu, select Customer Satisfaction.
  2. Click Valid Tracking Rate.
  3. Click the Request Report button.
  4. Select the date range you would like to view.
  5. De-select Shipped late and Delivered late to view orders with invalid or no tracking information.

When should you start? Today!

V080_TrenchLesson from the Trenches

This is a lesson for all sellers, MF or FBA.  When you have a problem with a listing or a feed, shut it down.  This seems obvious, but it is not when you are under stress.  Several of our clients over the past year have gotten in huge trouble because of a technology glitch (feed issues) or a problem ASIN that they compounded by not shutting it down immediately.

In most cases, the seller would call seller support and try to work on the issue but they would forget a critical step which was to stop the problem in its tracks.  They didn’t close the listing and got in more trouble as the product kept selling (which, maybe, didn’t match the listing or was the wrong item).

In one case with an MF seller, there was a huge glitch with Amazon’s feed system – it wasn’t an outside third-party software or anything like that – which caused a lot of orders to appear not to have shipped on time.  I mean A LOT of orders. This seller’s ODR was 98% (goal=<1%).  Amazon shut them down in a hurry, but it wasn’t so easy to get them back up.  For one thing, they had 700-800 orders to fix first.

What should they have done?  In their case, they could have manually fixed each order as they went along.  A pain in the butt?  Yes, but it would have saved their account until the glitch was fixed.  Alternatively, they could have closed all their listings until the problem was fixed.  Expensive? Yes.  Getting suspended cost them several days of sales and our fees, however.

Now this was Amazon’s fault, shouldn’t they have taken responsibility?  Nope.  You are responsible to manage all your vendors, suppliers, etc.  Even Amazon.  They did forgive him (for trusting in their technology!) and reinstate him after he fixed all those orders.

To add insult to injury, the ODR takes time to adjust itself back to normal which means his ability to get the buy box and to sell will be affected for a few days to a week.

In the case of clients who continued to sell faulty product or while they were fixing an ASIN, they were suspended which is a high, high price to pay.  In addition, their account will have this negative mark on it forever.  Even though they were reinstated, there will come a time when Amazon will not reinstate them again or, they won’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

That happened with a client this week. Amazon immediately decided against them in a situation.  We wanted to figure out why our normal tactics weren’t working for them for an ASIN issue.  We discovered that they had so many annotations on their account for using copyrighted images, copyright infringement, etc., that Amazon didn’t even read what we sent them.  They’ve lost the benefit of the doubt.  I haven’t figured out what we are going to do about that and it makes me very nervous if they are ever suspended again.  We were told that his negative account annotation was “one of the longest we’ve seen.” That’s not good my friends.

Most of our clients who are reinstated are eager to make things right and avoid ever getting suspended again.  Their accounts show a marked improvement in just a few weeks.  There is a certain percentage, however, that are slow learners and they get suspended over and over again. Don’t be one of those guys. Remember that EVERYTHING is in your account. It never goes away.

Coming to a city near you!robot-cocktail

My business partner Lesley Hensell and I are going to be coming to a city near you this year!  At least, we’re going to try.  I’ve set up speaking engagements so far in Miami Beach, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis. I’m working on opportunities in Chicago, LA, Las Vegas, and Denver. I’ve also got regular meet and greets in Dallas that I attend.

In each city, I will be hosting a get together (for all my friends!) or a private client event.  I look forward to meeting many of you in person!

I’m in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale this week on the 14th.  Please join me for lunch or happy hour. I’d appreciate your RSVP so I can make sure we get a big enough table/space in the restaurant.

January 14, 2016 — In town for the Feedvisor Conference. Sign up for lunch or happy hour the day after in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale respectively.  RSVP here.

February 8, 2016 — This will be a private event for clients only at the PROSPER Show in Salt Lake City. Watch your email. I’m still working on the venue.  Save the date/time 5-7 PM on the 8th.  Lesley, Nate McCallister and I will all be at the show. We look forward to meeting you!

March 20, 2016 — Orlando.  I’m in town for the awesome ScanPower conference. I’m coming in early so I can meet local clients for brunch at the hotel. Please note there are only a few more days left to sign up for this conference if you want to attend.  Registration closes on the 15th. You donate to Wounded Warriors to attend. It is not your typical conference.

March 23, 2016 — Philadelphia. I’m speaking at SCOE and would love to get together for dinner the night before.

July 22, 2016 — Minneapolis. I’m speaking at Midwest eCom and will be arranging a dinner somewhere near the Mall of America.

As details for the meet and greets are arranged, I’m posting them on my speaking and events page so you can join me. I will also send out emails closer to time for those who are interested.

OK, I can’t fool you guys. You can tell can’t you? I don’t like to eat alone! 🙂

Suspension Prevention Book

If you’ve not yet read it, January is the perfect time to pick up a copy of Cynthia’s newest book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account.  Amazon is getting stricter and stricter with its sellers. You owe it to yourself to be prepared and take a defensive approach.

http://suspensionprevention.com

 

 

Now that my book Suspension Prevention: Get Reinstated and SP cover_001Protect Your Amazon Seller Account has been out for a couple of weeks, questions are starting to come in. I’m grateful to my thoughtful readers – and hope their questions help you, too:

Q. Most of the first book you wrote told FBA seller startups to shop at retail and discount stores as a good way to get started. Given why sellers are getting suspended, if you were going to get into this business today would you?

Amazon FBA has changed a lot since I got started. Mistakes that I made in the beginning without consequence are more vigorously pursued by Amazon today. That being said, I still think Amazon is a great opportunity for a small seller on a budget to get started. I would still dive in. What I would tell the new retail arbitrage seller today is to make sure that the products you buy are PERFECT and gift-ready. If you find yourself standing at a shelf wondering if you should buy something based on its appearance…the answer is probably “no.” You can’t afford faded, dirty, scuffed packages with crushed corners, torn labels, etc. It needs to be pristine. Take great care removing labels so the box/package is perfect when you send it to Amazon.

Next, make sure that there is plenty of protective packaging whether it is bubble wrap, poly bags, double-boxing…whatever it takes to make sure that your product makes it all the way from your house to the customer in perfect condition. You can’t rely on Amazon to ship your product with the same care that you would. Ultimately, product quality is your responsibility.

Lastly, buy from sources that provide an invoice or receipt that Amazon will accept. You need to have the full name of the product on your receipt/invoice and – ideally – the UPC code. This means, for example, that Target receipts are usually OK, but Marshall’s receipts aren’t. If you are ever accused of inauthentic or counterfeit, you MUST have an acceptable receipt or invoice. When you shop, you need to look at the receipt first and then the product quality and then the price and potential margin.

You may want to sell some of your goods as Used-Like New instead of new.  While they do not explicitly say so, Amazon considers goods bought retail as being used and they are not currently pursuing product quality claims on used goods unless there are a LOT of complaints like you might see with a defective product.  I’ve not yet seen anyone selling used goods suspended for counterfeit or inauthentic.

I would also say for new retail arbitrage seller that the ultimate goal is to graduate to wholesale or private label. The reason I say this is that these sources provide invoices that meet Amazon’s requirements. Private Label products are branded by you and – presumably – unique to the Amazon platform and hard to duplicate. This provides maximum profit to you. Wholesale offers opportunities that may not be available via retail arbitrage or at least not in the desired quantities.

Q. How are you approaching your business today?

Even before I started reinstating Amazon sellers, I was moving away from retail/online arbitrage to wholesale sources and representing exclusive products. I did this for two reasons. In the first place, I was moving my business to one that was automated and where I could outsource many of the processes to a pick and pack company and my team of virtual assistants. I wanted to spend as little time as possible sourcing and shipping. When reinstatement work blew down my doors, I had to automate or close up shop. That meant wholesale. I didn’t have time to shop nor did I have time to teach anyone else to shop for me. Luckily my work with Frank Florence made it possible.

Once I saw how Amazon was suspending sellers for issues relating to buying retail to resell on Amazon and how having the wrong invoice could make the difference between selling or banned for life, I decided to focus on unique products where I would have little to no competition. I would like to stress here that there is no way I could have started where I am today. I had $200. Selling used books and retail arbitrage was the only choice I had with my limited budget.  I still have a lot of books in my inventory that I will be selling off over the next year or so.

robotsQ. Are there any stores you won’t shop at today?

Yes. I’ve stopped shopping at dollar stores, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, thrift stores and other stores with poor receipts – at least for NEW items.  I’ll still shop thrift stores for used books, etc. I’m clearing out old inventory and won’t be buying more from those sources.

I stopped buying from ToysRus.com a long time ago because of their poor quality control. I would routinely order new product from them and get something that had obviously had some hard shelf wear before they threw it (yes, threw it) into a box.  I got tired of sending inventory back and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.  They obviously re-sell returns as new to their online suckers…er, customers.

Lately, I’ve been equally unhappy with the Disney Store online.  They have cute, cheerful boxes but they take no care with my goods. If you are buying via online arbitrage or wholesale, it is important that you either see the goods before they go to Amazon or you work with a partner you trust to really inspect the items when they come in.  I outsource my prep and packaging and I have been very pleased with the experience because my partner is very particular about pulling out less-than-perfect inventory.

Q. Are there any “safe” categories?

Every category has its own rules and the seller who ignores them puts his/her account at risk. When I look at the majority of our clients, I can see that Amazon has been cracking down hard on health & beauty and electronics.  That doesn’t mean we haven’t had suspensions in the other categories.  What this also tells me is that we may see Amazon bear down on different categories over time.  They closed the fine jewelry category for more than a year while they tested everyone’s product and rooted out counterfeits.  Hopefully this will not be necessary for other categories.

I predict grocery will be next. There are a lot of sellers who are not following the rules in that category and Amazon just changed the rules this Spring without much fanfare (one email, basically) for commodity goods which includes candy. Most sellers don’t realize that.  I had to eat (not literally) hundreds of pounds of bulk candy that I suddenly could not sell and that I had ordered wholesale in advance.

Q. I’m nervous about selling on Amazon now. I don’t want to be suspended. Should I be worried?

Most people are worried about selling today because the suspensions seem so random and catch the sellers by surprise. Sellers are waiting for the other shoe to drop and fear that something they don’t know about will bite them in the butt. That’s why I wrote Suspension Prevention – to arm sellers with information, strategies and tactics to keep their accounts active. Forewarned is forearmed. Sellers aren’t happy to hear it, but many of us will have to change how we do business – there’s no way around that. A deeper commitment to the customer and to product quality often affects customer service, shipping, sourcing inventory and company policy. However, all of these are within our grasp. We can do it.

Q. You mention in the book that there were some sellers you couldn’t reinstate. Why not?

We’ve learned that there are certain situations that we can’t fix:

  1. If Amazon shuts you down for selling stolen goods or if someone has illegally accessed your account and you can’t plug the security hole, you are out of luck. Amazon will keep your money, your inventory and lock you out of your account forever. Depending on the situation, you may need to hire an attorney to protect yourself from prosecution (not from Amazon, from law enforcement).
  2. Illegally maintaining multiple seller accounts on Amazon. To do this successfully involves a great deal of deceit. While they don’t arrest you or anything, you are banned for life. Many people who secretly opened up additional accounts on Amazon were dismayed to learn once they were suspended that all their accounts were shut down. This is because Amazon doesn’t turn on the “seek and suspend” software until after you are suspended. All those folks who thought they had successfully hidden themselves from Amazon were unhappy to learn how wrong they were. While we have gotten some people reinstated who made this mistake, they still lost the second account and had considerable expense getting their inventory back.
  3. Old suspensions. We’ve had sellers come to us months to years after their account was suspended and we were not able to get them reinstated. There seems to be some time frame beyond which they will not look at your account again. If your first appeal was turned in within the 17-day timeframe and you keep working on your appeal with Amazon, there doesn’t seem to be a set cut-off time. If you let it go and don’t try to appeal again in a timely way (wish I could tell you what that was exactly), then they won’t look at it after a certain point.
  4. Genuine counterfeit. Most counterfeit claims aren’t actually counterfeit goods. The product may be damaged in shipping or may not be in the retail packaging the customer expects, or it may be dirty, dinged and faded, but it is authentic and we can usually prove it. Even if the invoices/receipts aren’t what Amazon wants, they will sometimes reinstate a seller because their source seems legitimate enough. If Amazon is convinced that your product is counterfeit, however, you will not be reinstated. We had this happen to a client of ours. She bought 1 DVD at a Walgreens or somewhere similar with a bad receipt. We originally thought they were denying her because of the receipt. We found out later that they denied her because she priced her product so far below Amazon’s that Amazon was convinced it must be counterfeit. After all, they get terrific deals that most sellers can’t get on DVDs, etc. They concluded that she had bought counterfeit product – it was the only way she could have priced her product so low. Tragically, we could not convince them otherwise. She was a new seller and made a bad pricing mistake on top of buying from a retailer with a bad receipt. Had she actually sold the DVD, it would have been at a loss. It was a rotten situation all around.
  5. Fake invoices. Amazon knows that some sellers will make up receipts and/or invoices. They are not amused. This is why they ask for contact information. They want to verify your source. We tell our clients not to modify their invoices/receipts in any way beyond inserting arrows and/or highlights. This is why they don’t like digital receipts from online arbitrage sources. They are too easy to manipulate.
  6. Repeat offenders. If our clients were suspended and reinstated previously and then suspended again for the same reason, then Amazon concludes you are a poor learner and unlikely to follow your second plan of action any better than the first.  If you promise Amazon you will do something in your plan, you better do it. I have gotten clients reinstated multiple times, but the situation was different in each case.  They had proven they could learn from previous experiences.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give a seller on how to avoid getting suspended?

Toe the line. Many of my clients are in trouble because they tried to get away with something whether it was sending in questionable quality inventory in as new or buying from questionable sources or opening multiple accounts. One seller broke his agreement with his supplier to not sell their product online. They made an inauthentic claim and he can’t defend himself because he did acquire the product improperly. It is not counterfeit, but it is inauthentic because it is disallowed by the manufacturer.

Q. I’m afraid a competitor can lie about my product and get my listing or my account shut down. How can I prevent this?

This is a rational fear and it happens. What I can tell you is that we usually get our clients reinstated in this situation…and then we go after the son of a…gun later. There are three things you can do to help yourself in this situation:

  • Investigate all claims. If Amazon is sending you performance notices and you cannot find the complainer in your negative feedback, messages, returns or product reviews, then what has most likely happened is that another third-party seller has filed a policy violation that you can’t see. Alternatively, it may be that the other seller left you negative feedback. This is helpful information to you when preparing your counter-claim later. So first, find out what someone told Amazon.
  • Send your results to seller performance – even if they say you don’t need to respond. Once you find out what is going on, let Seller Performance know that you investigated, what you found and what you will do later to prevent it from happening again.
  • File a policy violation of your own. Even though you may have no idea which of your competitors filed the bogus claim against you, you can ask for Amazon’s help to investigate the other seller’s behavior. Sometimes it is stupefying how obvious your competitor can be. I’ve seen cases where two buyers in different geographic locations sent in the same picture to Amazon (of the open box of the so-called counterfeit product). The exact same picture. Did they think no one would look at the pictures together?

Q. Is there anything new at Amazon since you wrote your book?

In the brief weeks since I finished my book, things are already changing at Amazon, some good some worrisome.  I’ve noticed that Amazon is giving sellers a bit more help with their plan of actions. They are now giving examples which is helpful. If you are suspended and you click on your “appeal” button you will see links to examples.  These are new and much better than what they used to give us.

Amazon is cracking down on listing quality now.  This is a natural extension of their focus on product quality.  What I mean by them cracking down on it is they are issuing warnings and making it a suspension-worthy offense if unaddressed.

I suggest that all sellers regularly close down/delete inactive listings.  You do not want to be on the hook for a listing quality issue on a listing that you are not even selling on anymore.  Also, you need to inspect your listings as you send in new product to make sure your product matches EXACTLY.  I can’t tell you how many of my clients swore to me that their products matched exactly and then when we looked at them together you could see the differences.  Whoops! You don’t want to be suspended for something as stupid as a listing problem.  If you can’t fix the listing, create a new one but make sure no one can claim “not as described” or “not as advertised” with your inventory.

Q. Are you teaching any classes on Suspension Prevention?

Next week (Friday, Nov. 6th) Chris Green, Stephanie Inge and I are hosting a full-day conference in Dallas, Texas and I will cover suspension prevention. It is $199 for the whole day and includes lunch. We have a few seats left.  It is a small group so sign up now if you are interested.

Otherwise, I don’t currently have plans for a formal class.  Anyone who leaves me an honest book review on Amazon over the next two weeks will be invited to a private video cast with me to ask questions.  I will also be speaking at various conferences next year on the topic.

Q. Where can I buy your book?

Just like my previous book, I sell the Kindle/Nook/PDF versions myself and Amazon sells the softcover version.

Suspended? Worried about being suspended and want an assessment?  Interested in having us keep an eye on your account for you every week? Check out our services at my new website: http://suspensionprevention.com. Still have questions? Please ask them in the comments below and I’ll answer them in a future blog!