Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Reinstatement

Lately, there has been a rash of scams and schemes to separate Amazon sellers from their money. Sellers are getting suspended and sometimes getting permanently banned-It’s frustrating and depressing. But there is hope! The State of Washington has just filed a major lawsuit to protect sellers. Amazon is clearly behind the move and this is good news. In this post, we look at the lawsuit, as well as how to detect and protect yourself from potential rip-off artists, liars, thieves, and cheaters.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus For Amazon Sellers

On Dec. 6, 2017, the Attorney General of Washington State filed suit against Adam and Christopher Bowser and their companies FBA Distributors, Inc., AWS LLC, DOE Companies and FBA Stores, Inc. for unfair business practices, fraud, and violations of the Consumer Protection Act.

To summarize a 26-page lawsuit, the State of Washington alleges that these guys:

  • Lied to new sellers about selling on Amazon
  • Swindled them out of money – up to $35,000 per person
  • Pretended to be affiliated with Amazon
  • Sold them inventory that they made money from even if the students didn’t
  • And taught them practices guaranteed to get them suspended on Amazon – all under the guise of being Amazon gurus, “big sellers” themselves and consultants

To top that off, they offered reinstatement services to their clients when (not if) they got suspended. It was a full lifecycle business.

Their approach was to go to a city and blast out thousands of free tickets to teach people about selling on Amazon and making big money on a part-time basis. They’d meet in a ballroom and sell them hard for the intensive 3-day workshop. After that, attendees would pony up more money for inventory purchases and coaching. They told people that Amazon endorsed what they were doing and that they worked closely with Amazon. They used Amazon brands, images, and logos on all their materials and websites.

The lawsuit further alleges that once they got attendees signed up, they taught their students to open multiple accounts, manipulate product reviews, “misrepresent” their identity to get into gated categories and brands and sell refurbished products as new.

As someone who has spent years picking up the pieces after bad actors who teach them the wrong practices, I was excited to read this. At last! Amazon is doing something to protect third-party sellers! Finally, they are hearing our complaints and reading our plans where we state that some self-proclaimed guru was teaching sellers the wrong way to sell. So many of our clients fall afoul of Amazon rules out of naivete and trust of someone to whom they gave their hard-earned cash. It breaks my heart.

The Bowsers are in the spotlight right now, but the fact is, there are lots of companies out there with similar approaches trying to get a seller’s money without delivering what they promise. I’ve personally turned in dozens of companies for abusing Amazon’s trademarks and intellectual property. One company gets shut down and another 10 pop-up. What’s a seller to do?

Want a teacher/coach? Avoid these Red Flags

Having a coach or mentor can make a tremendous difference in getting you started on Amazon. I benefited greatly from my friendships with Chris Green and Frank Florence, for example. The question is, who can you trust? How can you detect the people who don’t have your best interests at heart?

  1. Verify their claims. You can’t trust screenshots that people show you. They are easy to fake. But talk to others who have worked with your chosen coach. Ask about their strengths and weaknesses. Recognize that no one is perfect, but honesty and delivering on their promises are what you want to hear. Talk to other students on the phone, not through email or social media – This is thousands of dollars of your money.
  2. Never be pressured to buy something expensive on the spot. Never. That “good only for the next 30 minutes” deal? They’ll offer it to you again. Believe me.
  3. Do they offer a full refund within a reasonable amount of time to review the program? I’d advise at least three days. Many of the legit ones offer 30 days or more.
  4. Don’t buy inventory from your coach. This will get me some angry emails, but if they are not teaching you how to find and evaluate your own deals then they are doing you a disservice. If a coach has a vested interest in you buying inventory from her/him or is pushing it hard…think twice. Some “gurus” I’ve seen are marking up the inventory as much as 35% before selling it to their students. They’ll make money no matter what…but will you? And, believe me, if the deal turns out to be a dud? They are going to blame YOU for not looking at the deal closely, not themselves.
  5. Check their resources. If they are offering you shared warehouse space or a prep and pack center or whatever, check the prices against others in the industry. This is your business.  You owe it to yourself. The bundle package can be enticing and helpful. Just make sure you are not paying a huge premium for it. You should be saving money working with your coach.
  6. Are they compliant? This is a tough one for newbies to figure out, obviously. They don’t know what they don’t know. I’ll give you the best advice right here for free: Read the contract you signed with Amazon. Devour Seller Central Help. You are looking for policy violations, style guidelines (for your listings), restricted categories and products. Look up GS1, bundles, multipacks. Anything you plan to do, check in Seller Central Help first. Want to sell refurbished products? Know the rules. Find out how to become a certified refurbished seller. Want to sell books? Learn how books are graded. Understand why textbooks are vulnerable to counterfeit claims. Know the rules for sending inventory to Amazon.
  7. There are no “tricks” or shortcuts to fool Amazon or manipulate your sales. Amazon always finds out eventually. They have a remarkable god’s eye view of their platform, and I promise you they will find out and shut you down. Be very careful about the fads that go around Facebook and compare what they are doing to the rules Amazon has given us. I hate to say this, but many companies that say they are compliant…are not. There are exceptions, but there are service providers and gurus who are teaching ways to manipulate the algorithm, buy reviews without being caught (hah!) or improve your rankings artificially with blitzes on the system (typing in your keywords hundreds of times a day, for example). We help sellers suspended for product reviews or platform manipulation every week. I’ve been teaching compliance for years and still the message isn’t getting through to everyone. Be the seller who hears me on this.
  8. You must have permission for multiple accounts. If you are opening multiple accounts without Amazon’s permission, you are taking a big risk for “linked accounts.” I understand why sellers do it, and I have no comment on whether they are wrong or right to want a backup account (or 10), but I make sure they know they are violating Amazon’s terms of service and taking a risk. Anyone who tells you it is safe or OK, or even a good idea does not have your best interests at heart.
  9. Don’t give up control, ever. Some consultants offer to take over your account and manage it for you. This is a helpful service – if they are trustworthy. Before you do this, however, you should learn how to run your own account from soup to nuts. Make sure you understand what is happening on your account and that you retain ultimate control. I’ve had several suspended sellers who turned over control to someone else and got suspended. Guess what? Amazon doesn’t care if you have helpers, but they hold YOU ultimately responsible when things go wrong. Make sure you are getting regular reports and that you are reading them.
  10. Don’t fake documents. This is a biggie. We had several sellers recently suspended for submitting false documents to get ungated in a category or to prove the authenticity of their inventory (obviously, it wasn’t). Never, never alter or manufacture documents. Amazon has several ways of finding out from specialty software to a huge database of real invoices to compare yours to. One ungating service provider has a testimonial on its website that says “…got it approved with no info from me! I wish I knew the secret!” We know the secret. They faked documents which got our naïve client suspended. This is a big red flag! There are only two ways* you are going to get ungated without the invoices Amazon requires – an insider contact who is violating his/her employee contract with Amazon, or faked documents. Neither of these strategies works for very long. Do you want to be the seller caught by Amazon when the music stops? Once Amazon annotates in your account that you are submitting fake documents it is really hard to get you reinstated. The risk of faking documents – any documents – is huge. We’ve had clients fail verification because they faked their required utility bill – they were never allowed to sell on Amazon. Their chance was gone. Verification means that Amazon calls and checks everything you send them. Don’t screw it up.

*Private Label sellers can get ungated in some categories without invoices, but there is paperwork associated with that method as well.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2

Compliance Questions? Buying or Selling an Amazon Business? Call Us!

If you are concerned about some tactic being compliant or the health of your account or don’t understand a notification from Amazon, contact us. We offer hourly consulting for questions like these. In addition, our Suspension Prevention Assessment looks at your account the way Amazon does and gives you an hour-long consultation about your account – and anything else you want to talk about.

Our assessment is also helpful for investors looking to buy an Amazon seller’s business. We can tell you risky behaviors and potential problems in the company you want to buy. We are discreet and will sign confidentiality agreements. However, the company in question must give us permission to look at their account. We’ve also had clients get an assessment to give to potential investors/buyers.

Retailers generally make 60% of their annual revenue during Q4. It is the happiest time of year for all of us. Like the ghost of Christmas Present, however, the threat of an Amazon seller suspension hovers nearby causing anxiety. We hear “Amazon closed my account!” every day. This week I look at concrete steps Amazon sellers can take to avoid the most common reasons for account suspensions: Product Quality, Performance, Inauthentic/Counterfeit, and Infringement.

Product Quality

Product quality is about the condition of your product. Is it dirty, dusty, dented, faded, or torn? Is the product your buyers receive different from what they saw in the listing? Is it missing parts, broken or plagued with safety issues? Is the sizing off? How do you know if a product is in trouble?

Here are the steps you can take to reduce product quality issues:

  1. Review your returns reports, buyer-seller messages, seller feedback and product reviews at least once a week – more often for high volume sellers. Sort your returns report by ASIN and scrutinize the ones that have high returns.
  2. Look for words that trigger the Amazon suspension algorithm:
    • Used Sold as New
    • Not as Described
    • Fake
    • Missing Parts
    • Defective
    • Damaged
    • Wrong item sent
  3. Check your listings every time you replenish or make a new listing for accuracy.
  4. Understand your defect range.
  5. Close listings where you are getting a lot of returns until you can fix the problem.

For most sellers, the range of acceptable defects/returns is under 2%. Certain categories like apparel and electronics have higher acceptable ranges of less than 12% and less than 6% respectively. Amazon knows that when clients buy two pairs of shoes and return the one that they were testing for the right size. However, if the reasons for the returns are consistently about sizing (“runs small”) or the quality of the product (used, dirty, not as described, shoddy, etc.) then you have a problem.

If you see a product with high returns for product quality reasons, close the listing until you’ve had a chance to investigate the problem and fix it. Sometimes the fix is easy – a better description, more pictures. Sometimes it is harder – inherent product problems that need to be fixed at the manufacturer level.

If your product is getting beaten up on its way to the buyer, you may need to invest in better protection, so it can withstand the rigors of the warehouse and shipping. While you may feel this is Amazon’s job, Amazon considers it your problem. Amazon sellers are responsible to make sure their packages are properly protected for shipment all the way to the end user.

Ask yourself, “If Amazon threw this in a bubble envelope or simply slapped a label on the box, would it get to the buyer in perfect condition? If your answer is “No freakin’ way!” then you need more packaging.

Amazon’s algorithm looks at returns, product reviews, seller reviews and buyer emails for trigger words. It is a pattern beast so if your returns suddenly soar or you get the same negative return reason 3+ times (varies by size of the seller) in a short period of time, their “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” alarm goes off and your ASIN is suspended. If you have multiple listings triggering the alarm or have a poor history with Amazon, they may suspend your account.

Prevention is your friend here. We have helped many of our clients virtually eliminate PQ issues with Amazon by checking their accounts for them every week.

Performance

These suspensions affect mainly merchant-fulfilled (MF) sellers although I have seen some sellers shut down for performance issues relating to shipments to Amazon that don’t have an accurate number of units. For MF sellers the issues are usually things like marking something as shipped that hasn’t actually been scanned yet by the carrier, order cancellation, too many A-Z claims, 24+ hours to respond to buyers, no tracking number (a real problem for our small and light sellers), late shipments, lost packages etc.

Here are 5 concrete steps to take to prevent these ASIN and Amazon suspensions:

  1. Watch your dashboard daily. If your metrics dip, you need a lot of perfect orders to balance them out.
  2. Get your products to buyers on time.
  3. Answer your buyers in under 4 hours.
  4. Respond to A-Z claims with an immediate refund AND an appeal.
  5. Don’t cancel orders.

Of these, #2 can be the hardest for MF sellers. The carrier has some role to play in timely delivery. However, Amazon does not accept finger-pointing. If you are having trouble with the USPS or Royal Mail delivering on time (most sellers do during the holidays), then you MUST switch to a more reliable carrier or to the USPS’ expedited delivery. If you can’t make any money on your products using UPS or expedited services, then raise your prices or stop selling it. Really, it’s that important to your account.

If you are drop-shipping and your supplier isn’t performing…drop them. Keep a close, close eye on whether your customers are getting their products on time and stop selling products from unreliable partners.

For A-Z claims, Amazon won’t count them against you if they agree with your appeal. If you responded to your buyer in under 4 hours, you have a good case for an impatient buyer or if they never contacted you at all, you should be able to get the claim removed from your ledger. Sometimes buyers complain because they feel they’ve been treated unfairly or your customer service was brusque, or you argued with the buyer. In those cases, Amazon will side with the buyer. Good customer service means fast refunds and friendly service. If your internal team does not have written templates with customer friendly messages for commonly asked questions, you are asking for trouble. Consistency is key. I could write an entire post on the appalling things sellers have said to buyers through Amazon’s buyer-seller messages – don’t be a case study in my next book. Please.

Lastly, don’t cancel orders. If the buyer cancels the order that’s fine. If you are canceling the orders, Amazon thinks you are not managing your stock properly and they’ll shut you down fast. Make sure you have proof that they wanted to cancel it. If the product has already shipped, tell the buyer they can mark it “refused” and hand it to the carrier for return. In this way, you will refund them without charging fees. You may think you are doing the buyer a favor by canceling an order but most the time you are doing yourself a disservice. If you actually do run out of stock with orders pouring in, you need to 1) turn off the listing; 2) fill them from other sources and 3) get yourself a better inventory management system.

Inauthentic/Counterfeit

This is by far the most consistent reason Amazon sellers get shut down. They can’t prove the provenance of their goods to Amazon’s satisfaction.

If you are still selling items on the platform that you bought at a thrift store, garage sale, from dollar stores (with no details on the receipts), grocery liquidation stores, liquidators, eBay, Alibaba or from Amazon itself, you are at a high risk for suspension.

If you are selling refurbished items as “new,” if you are buying from other online retailers (or Amazon) and drop-shipping to Amazon’s buyers if you are selling an item manufactured to another country’s specifications – even if new – you are risking suspension.

Here’s the best way to reduce inauthentic complaints and to resolve them quickly if you do get them:

  1. Keep all your receipts and invoices. Be organized.
  2. Make sure your receipts and invoices are detailed with a clear product description.
  3. Use the credit card you have on file with Amazon to make purchases.
  4. If you are using gift cards to buy inventory, be sure at least part of the purchase is paid with your credit card.
  5. Make sure you have invoices from authorized distributors/wholesalers only. Can you prove that they buy directly from the manufacturer/brand owner?
  6. Get invoices, not pro forma, not packing slips, not shipping statements.
  7. Do not buy from eBay, Alibaba (it has multiple websites, know all of them), online discounters (Drugstore.com is specifically disallowed by Amazon, for example), liquidators who buy from retailers, other Amazon sellers, etc.
  8. Drop-ship directly from the manufacturer, authorized licensee or brand owner.
  9. Make sure your products are in pristine condition when they get to the buyer. Many inauthentic claims are due to buyer complaints about the products they received. It looks trashed when they get it, so they think it is counterfeit.

Amazon is working hard to get rid of stolen goods and counterfeits. They have to deal with a lot of dishonest sellers who fake invoices…as do we. Don’t ever fake an invoice or receipt for any reason. Amazon always knows. Recently they have started to ban sellers from the platform specifically for providing fake information.

Seller Beware!

Recently we’ve had sellers suspended who used a service to get them approved in Amazon Topicals or for a particular brand. They were caught providing fake invoices and suspended for it. Read that carefully. They weren’t just rejected for approval, they were suspended.

Considering that the service provider never asked for invoices from the seller, it should have been obvious that something fishy was going on. If you are going to hire someone to get your brand or category approved, ask questions. It’s your account that is on the line.

If you think it is OK to sneak past the Amazon hall monitor, then shame on you. Amazon Topical approval is as much about buyer safety as it is about authenticity. Do you really want to be the guy selling toxic shampoos to consumers? See my recent blog post on Topicals.

Infringement

My advice here depends on the kind of seller you are. Arbitrage sellers, liquidators and drop-shippers get a lot more infringement claims on average than wholesalers. They are often selling products that the brand neither intended to be sold on Amazon nor gave its permission to Amazon to use its brand, logo and copyrighted materials to create a listing. Arbitrage sellers may be listed under someone else’s ASIN and have no idea whether it is violating trademark or not. Private label sellers are not immune to infringement claims if a brand thinks that their patent, trademark or copyright are being abused.

To avoid infringement:

  1. Make sure your products are authentically sourced and that you can prove it.
  2. Don’t create new listings on the platform unless you know you have the brand’s permission.
  3. Don’t use another brand’s name or trademarks in your description, keywords or listing. Velcro® took down a lot of listings that improperly used the word “Velcro” to describe a fastening on a product, for example.
  4. Respond immediately to all IP claims and resolve them.
  5. Use the correct UPC code from the manufacturer, not your own.
  6. Get permission to use product artwork and copy or create your own.
  7. PL sellers should make sure you are brand registered in 2.0.
  8. PL sellers should hire an attorney early in the process to test for patent and other possible infringements.
  9. PL sellers need to make sure all their products are properly tested and labeled for all applicable safety/regulatory standards in the country where the product will be sold.

 

Evil Seller Trick!

If you have not registered your trademarks and brand with the USPTO, do it NOW! We’ve seen several cases where a competitor registered a seller’s brand and trademarks with the USPTO. Once they were set up with Brand Registry 2.0, they used their ownership to eliminate the competition from the platform. If you are serious about designing your own products, spend the money to protect your intellectual property. Sellers who aren’t willing to do that are considered “generics” by Amazon and not supported in their claims.

Through our legal partner and IP attorney Jeffrey Breloski, we offer a full range of intellectual property services including registering trademarks, negotiating with rights holders and more.

In conclusion, good habits make for good accounts. I’ve seen some beautiful high-volume accounts that rarely have any issues with Amazon. It is possible. In studying these clients’ accounts, I see that they are aware, proactive and consistent. Like Amazon, they focus on the buyer experience. They follow the rules and don’t try to game the system. You can join the ranks of the lovely account. I would love to say to you one day, as I did to a recent client, “There’s nothing on your account to talk about. Do you have other questions for me?”

Happy Q4, Y’all!

Cynthia

Where’s eGrowth Partners Next?

Cynthia is traveling to Atlanta January 9-12 to participate in the Scanner Society workshop intensive. Check it out here! She will also be arranging a dinner on Wednesday night of that week. Stay tuned for details!

Did You See Us in the News?

5 Questions about Amazon Account Suspension Prevention” with Jeff Cohen of Seller Labs and Cynthia Stine

Is Amazon the Grinch Stealing Your Christmas?

When you need an Amazon account specialist, we are just a phone call, email or website away. Let us help you get your valuable listing/ASIN back on your account. With our expedited services, we can turn your plan around in less than 24 hours and get you back even faster. I worked two expedites this weekend for inauthentic claims and both were back to selling the next day.

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There’s a lot going on with Amazon right now. Amazon is getting closer and closer to shutting down retail arbitrage and online arbitrage on the platform. The customer dissatisfaction metrics are due to go live at long last in October. A new paid Seller Support program promises better support for those willing to pay. Sellers have discovered new tricks to manipulate seller reviews…and Amazon is catching them.

We are opening new markets in China and the UK to help sellers learn and implement best practices in their businesses including a conference on August 29 (ShenZhen, China) and on October 26 (London). We hope to meet our international clients!

Lesley will be speaking at SCOE. Cynthia will be speaking at ShenZhen (Seller Summit at the Sheraton) and Hong Kong, CES IV, the Feedvisor Conference in LA on September 12 and at the Retail Global event the next week in Las Vegas – please join us for dinner or drinks!

The End of Retail and Online Arbitrage?

Four reliable sources informed us that Seller Performance will no longer be accepting receipts as proof for anything. This has already happened in the groups that ungate categories and it has been slowly happening in practice at Seller Performance as they refuse more and more receipts from retailers (online and brick & mortar), even places like Disney.com or Coach or Nike outlet stores.

While we have seen this coming for a while, what surprised us was that the rumored planned date for implementation is “sometime in October.” If true, that’s awful news as it would be happening right before the holiday sales season. What’s yet to be seen is how Amazon plans to enforce this new policy. It could be disastrous as many sellers have already sent inventory to FBA for Q4 that they purchased from retail stores. This gives sellers very little time to shift gears to wholesale or private label.

Officially, Amazon stated that there are no “immediate term plans” to change how they accept receipts.  This is the difference between a casual conversation and what a public company will say out loud before they are ready.  My hope is this also means that we are looking at Q1 next year rather than Q4.  Regardless, it is my opinion, based on observation and working with the seller performance team that this change IS coming.

Why is Amazon moving in this direction? To protect the customer experience. Basically, they don’t consider items bought retail and resold to be

By shutting down arbitrage, they will also have fewer complaints from rights holders and big brands. Goods will likely be in better condition as many will be shipped in pallets.

Regardless of WHEN it happens, here’s the implications for sellers as we see them today:

  • More buyers will go to eBay as they realize it is the only platform for USED, COLLECTIBLE, discontinued and hard-to-find/exclusive NEW goods normally only found in retail stores.
  • Long-tail sales items will disappear from the platform.
  • Sellers will be taking a high risk if they sell USED media on the platform. Used items will decline.
  • It will be harder for sellers to start an Amazon business because more capital will be required.
  • It will be even easier for evil sellers to take RA/OA sellers down. We expect there will be a lot of bad behavior for a while.
  • Brand restrictions will increase and become even more common. Sellers will need to be pre-approved for many, many brands and prove they are buying from authentic sources as a matter of course.
  • OA/RA sourcing and scanning tools won’t be needed. This will be a financial blow to the industry.

Our Recommendations:

This is based on what we know today. Things may change. It is possible that Amazon won’t actually start suspending on this new rule until next year (that would be so nice). In the past, they warn in Q4 and suspend in January. Let’s hope that is true.

  • Make sure all your inventory is perfect, pristine and packaged properly for rugged travel.
  • As long as you never get inauthentic or counterfeit claims, you should be OK.
  • If you get an inauthentic claim and it is your first claim, Amazon will likely forgive you even though they won’t accept your receipts. If you get a claim, you will need to remove your other RA/OA inventory at that time.
  • If you’ve gotten three or more inauthentic/counterfeit claims in the past year, you will want to consider moving your inventory through another channel like eBay once the changes take place. You may not have any chances left. You can still use Amazon to fulfill your off-platform sales.
  • Sell off your RA/OA inventory as quickly as possible or move it to another platform.
  • Find new sources from wholesalers/distributors or directly from the manufacturer. Make sure all invoices are detailed and your sources are legit.
  • Understand that USED books, CDs, DVDs, etc. are susceptible to inauthentic claims same as NEW items. Most USED sellers don’t have good receipts let alone invoices.

What about the first sale doctrine?

The first sale doctrine says that you are allowed to resell items you bought in stores and other places and that brand owners can’t stop you from doing this since you paid retail when you bought the item. If you buy Coach bags from the outlet store and resell them, that’s arbitrage and is perfectly legal.

Just because it is legal, doesn’t mean Amazon has to allow you to do it on their platform. All it means is that the rights holders can’t stop you from re-selling goods you bought from these sources.  Coach can’t forbid you from reselling a Coach bag you bought at their store.

Amazon has the right to not accept receipts as proof of authentic. After all, they have no way of knowing for sure where the other stores got their merchandise.

What about you? Do you see other implications? Have questions? My mind is still processing all this. Ask your questions below and I’ll try to answer them.

Colleagues who attended the Women’s Conference in Seattle this week indicated that Amazon still seemed supportive of the RA/OA model.  I imagine this is true. What we’ve learned in our work with Amazon is that Seller Performance is different from the rest of the company.  It is quite possible for one group to not know what is happening with another.

Paid Seller Support Program

At the women’s conference this week, Amazon rolled out some interesting ideas. One of them was a paid Seller Support Plus program that will allow you to escalate your issues for $400 a month. Here’s what they said:

Seller Support Plus (SS+): A value-added service that gives you access to an experienced single point of contact (Seller Success Manager) to simplify your selling experience and allow you to focus on your business.

For a monthly subscription fee of $400, you will be able to escalate important issues to your Seller Success Manager for advanced troubleshooting and time-critical resolutions. By understanding you and your unique business, the Seller Success Manager will seek to remove persistent technical barriers and offer coaching opportunities during the course of your escalations. For more information, please send any questions to Seller-Support-Plus-Inquiries@amazon.com.

I was able to find out more today and basically, this is still Seller Support which means they can’t help you with Seller Performance issues like suspensions, listings take downs, policy violations, etc.  They will forward your email to seller performance and act as a “liaison.”  I have not seen that be particularly helpful in the past.  It is possible that these guys have a special queue with seller performance, but I wouldn’t bet my account on it.  They will help you get ungated and get a faster response from Seller Support.

In addition to the subscription service, they are offering basic training for new sellers for $100 to help them understand FBA, creating listings and stuff like that.  They have three different training modules (each $100). In listening to the description (we talked with one of their coaches), it is VERY basic. I think this will be helpful for new sellers but not anyone who has been selling for a few months unless you have a gap in your business like creating new listings.

Dissatisfaction Metrics To Go Live

Since last year Amazon has been tormenting sellers with the metrics of customer dissatisfaction rate and return dissatisfaction rate. At first they were going to go “live” in January, then February and then May and now…October. We’ll see if they really mean it. I’m glad they waited because a lot of my clients were failing the two metrics for lack of enough responses to make a statistically valid ratio of negatives to positives.

Assuming this intel is correct, what does it mean to you? If you are a MF seller it means that you need to really be on top of these metrics. If your metrics are poor now, think about how you can bring them up by October. In other words, how can you get happy, happy customer responses?

We’ve been helping some of our MF clients to create customer service templates that encourage buyers to leave positive responses or at least not to leave negative ones if they are unhappy.  You can contact us at customerservice@onlinesalesstepbystep.com to learn more. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

Product Review Manipulation Still Rising

We continue to see sellers suspended for using product review companies that violate Amazon policy – even when the reviews are off the Amazon platform. Amazon is very serious about cracking down on paid reviews of any kind, fake reviews, overly enthusiastic reviews, those that are written before the buyer gets the product and reviews that don’t use the disclaimer. As an example of what Amazon is suspending for, in the past few weeks we’ve seen sellers who hired writers to create hundreds of fake Amazon buyer accounts and write fake reviews.

This kind of behavior led directly to Amazon’s new rules about reviewers in that they CANNOT leave a review unless they have bought at least one full-price product on the platform for more than $5.00. One client had literally thousands of reviews from people who opened an account JUST to leave a hyped-up review for their product.

While those examples may seem obvious, sellers need to know that ANYTHING that smacks of gaming the system is suspect. AMZ Tracker has been directly named in numerous suspensions but that hasn’t changed their business practices. This is a letter they sent their sellers recently. See if you can spot the problems:

Hey,

I know that all the analytics in the world won’t help if you don’t have any sales or reviews for your product. That’s why we set out to create the ultimate review network for you. We knew that AMZ Tracker wasn’t enough. We knew we had to help our users kick start their sales and reviews, so they could start climbing the ranks and begin making money with their products on Amazon.

We’ve created an ethical review network for paid subscribers called Amazon Review Trader where you can offer heavily discounted and free products in exchange for reviews.

This is the perfect way to get reviews when you’re just starting out. We literally have thousands of potential reviewers just waiting to review your product. These reviewers have the freedom to leave any type of review they want, but 99% of them will always leave 4 and 5 star reviews.

We monitor our reviewers’ profiles, and boot them out if they leave too many negative reviews. We only want reviewers who are eager and upbeat about trying new products.

If you don’t have at least 15 reviews (or more for more competitive niches) with an average of a 4 star rating or higher, you could be suffering as a result.

Check out Amazon Review Trader now in your AMZ Tracker paid account, so those analytics start showing GROWTH in sales!

To your Amazon success,

AMZ Tracker Team

Our postal address: 20th Floor, Central Tower,, 28 Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong

Several things to note: 1) they seem to be moving away from AMZ Tracker to a new service that seems to be the same; 2) they kick out reviewers who leave negative reviews; and 3) they guarantee 4- and 5-star reviews. All of these are against Amazon’s terms of service. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing suspensions shortly from this new entity. Because they are located in Hong Kong, it is hard for Amazon to go after THEM, but they are certainly able to go after the sellers who use them. Beware.  Amazon has recently started suing sellers as well as service providers.

What everyone needs to understand about product reviews is that Amazon can see EVERYTHING. The data they have is breathtaking. It is pointless to lie or try to fool them about your reviews. When they ask for your non-compliant reviews, they already know the answer – they just want to see if you will be honest about it.

There are other reviewer groups that have the same rules as AMZ Tracker and we’ve had clients suspended for using private Facebook groups to giveaway product. While the client’s post may have been compliant, the instructions to the reviewers in the group by the administrator was not.

Be very careful who you work with. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that they are compliant. Instead, compare their programs and reviewer messages to Amazon’s terms of service. Ask questions. Find out what they are telling their reviewers. Be suspicious of anyone who offers you “guaranteed page one” and other rosy promises. To get you there probably involves gaming the system or manipulation of the platform as Amazon calls it.

People ask us constantly who we recommend.  There is enough gray language in Amazon’s TOS about reviews that I can’t declare that any company is 100% compliant and so I don’t name names or make guarantees.  However, there are plenty of companies who are clearly NOT compliant.  We see their customers suspended over and over again.

If you plan to use a service, be sure you see everything that they say to their reviewers and that their process meets Amazon TOS for giveaways and discounted products. Remember that paid blogs are not acceptable to Amazon and they are tracking them.  Next, if reviewers are coerced or “encouraged” to contact the seller first before leaving a negative review, get away from that service as fast as you can.

In case you missed them, here’s links to my previous blog posts on product review services. The second one has a comparison chart:  Safe Product Review Program and More About Product Review Programs.

New Product Review Audit Service for PL Sellers

Because we’ve had so many suspended sellers for product reviews, we’ve created a proprietary software solution and approach to help identify which reviews are non-compliant in our clients’ accounts. This is especially helpful for our clients who are suspended because we can give Amazon a detailed list of non-compliant reviews and tell them WHY they are non-compliant. It goes a long way to getting our clients reinstated.

For clients who are not suspended but are concerned that their reviewers may not be following policy, we have an on-going audit service where we check their reviews each week for compliance. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

If you are interested, send an email to: productreview@onlinesalesstepbystep.com. We don’t have official sign up forms yet but will get back to you. Pricing is based on the number of orders you’ve had over the past 3 months.

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

Let’s Meet!

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

  • Seattle – SCOE. 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.

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!