Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Suspension

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

Amazon Gives Your Seller Info to States Seeking Sales Tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Has a Message for Arbitrage Sellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Seller Tricks Continue with Brand Registry 2.0

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

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

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

Fake Documents = Banned Forever

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

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

Failed Verification = Fail Forever

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

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

New Amazon AWS Rules Could Affect You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer Safety Beats Out Common Sense at Amazon

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

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

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

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

Infringements Get Tougher

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

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

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

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

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

Infringement Support Services

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

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

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

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.

Amazon continues to accelerate the pace of change for its sellers. With the rollout of its new dashboard many sellers were told they were in immediate danger of suspension…even though most of them weren’t.  Talk about the Amazon glitch that stole Christmas!  Client after client asks us “Why is Amazon Doing This in Q4?”

grinchyWhat’s Up with Amazon Being Such a Grinch?

My friends, it is only going to get worse. Our sources have indicated that a lot more changes are in the works over the next few months due to the following issues that the company is dealing with. Please note that the following is my OPINION and is speculation based on what I’ve heard and my experience working with Amazon.  The company has announced NONE of these things:

  • Counterfeit – It is a huge problem for Amazon that they take very seriously.  This is why you see them coming down so hard on claims and being less forgiving for receipts and buying from middle men.  They want to see a year’s worth of invoices because some sellers mix counterfeit goods with legitimate goods to cut down on their cost per unit, for example.
  • Inauthentic – Stolen goods are the big issue here.  The products are legit but basically stolen or possibly stolen.  It is only a matter of time before Amazon refuses all receipts, all online invoices and starts to verify invoices by phone.  They do it sometimes now, but I predict it will be standard very soon which will mean it will take a lot longer to get an answer back from Seller Performance.  In addition, more and more of our clients are having to provide Amazon with a list of their NEW, authentic sources before they can sell again. I suspect one day that all sellers may have to provide that list to Amazon…and stick to it.
  • Multiple accounts – There’s a reason you only get one selling account and that is RISK.  Sellers with multiple accounts are trying to mitigate their risk, but Amazon sees it as they are trying to get away with things…which increases their risk.  Some sellers want to buy from liquidators, counterfeiters, inauthentic sources and then still sell when Amazon does a takedown of their account.  In this Amazon is usually correct.  Most of my clients with multiple accounts get in trouble a lot – more than other clients who only have one account.  It is job security for me, but not good news for Amazon.  The latest algorithm update that looks for linked accounts is only the beginning.  They will be looking much more closely at sellers in the future.  My clients are already getting tripped up by things like sending inventory for one account to the address and name of the other account and stuff like that. It is hard to maintain a lie and Amazon is looking for deceit.
  • Account verification – This is already a reality in Europe because of EU anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist laws. My speculation is that we will see Amazon start to require a lengthy verification process for all its sellers. They may shut down the platform to new sellers and make it much harder to sell.
  • Rapid listings – Bogus, misleading, infringing and duplicate listings are being uploaded at an incredible speed. It is currently taking too long for Amazon to find them and take them down.  Even when they do, a new listing will be up within hours.  All of you out there who have been complaining about this very thing…believe me, Amazon knows. They are playing whack-a-mole and losing.  My guess is we will see Amazon make it harder to become a seller and to add new listings.  They will require more verification from new and existing sellers before they are allowed on the platform. They may shut down new applications for a while (they do this in China already). They may require a significant fee just to sell on the platform (already in place in China).  Already they are removing listing privileges from some sellers who abuse parent/child rules, create duplicate listings, don’t understand variations, etc.  I believe this will only increase. They are tinkering with the algorithm already.
  • Dirty seller tricks – They see rampant abuse of the platform by sellers against sellers.  Recently we saw them change how they handle copyright infringement cases because they realized many of the cases WERE bogus.  Changing a picture or description to mess with your competition, they are aware of that loophole.  I expect we will see it closed in the future and offenders more severely punished.  Right now, if they are caught messing with a listing they get a warning.

dontpanicThe Glitch

Many sellers have seen the new dashboard and were freaked to see that their accounts were apparently in danger of suspension.  Even more alarming, the complaints were ones from months ago that they had never seen before.  To a community working frantic hours for Q4 and on edge from previous policy changes…it was the last straw for some.  We realized it must be a glitch of sorts and immediately made Amazon aware.  For many of our clients we resolved the issue this way, but for the broader community the dashboard glitch stays on their account unless they do something about it.

What can you do?

  1. Don’t panic.  Very few sellers are actually getting suspended and they have other problems in their accounts.  Amazon is aware of the problem.
  2. Respond.  I was hoping to get the problem fixed holistically but until then, respond.
  3. Be patient.  Amazon is very busy right now. It is taking longer to hear back from them.  We are getting a lot more “punts” where they simply send a form letter back stating they need “more information.”  It is a stall tactic. You will need to be persistent as well.
  4. Try this.  Sometimes just noting the glitch is enough for it to be removed:

“Hello,

We have recently seen on our new Seller Central dashboard that we have a X claim and yet we never received a performance notification at the time. We looked closely through all our performance notifications to confirm this.  Is this a real notification or a glitch from this new system rollout?

Just in case, here is our plan for Y safety complaint. [alternatively:  here are our invoices/receipts.]

Thank you for your help.”

Safety Complaints

These are not real safety concerns on Amazon’s part.  Most of these are product quality issues.  Just like McDonald’s putting “Caution: Coffee is Hot” on their cups, Amazon wants us to reduce returns and complaints by making buyers aware that they might be sensitive to some of the ingredients and what to do (stop using the product, don’t drink hot coffee, etc). In other cases, they want us to better explain to the buyers how to use our products.  If you are getting safety complaints, read through your product reviews, seller reviews, returns reasons and buyer messages to see if you can figure out what the problem is and fix it.  Sending your sheet with your latest ingredients test isn’t what they want and it won’t get your listing turned back on.

Need Help?

We are helping our clients deal with the glitch for $500.  For the holidays we are also offering expedited services for suspensions.  Please note it is a higher charge for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.  Sign up at the expedited link and we’ll be notified immediately by text.

Hopefully you won’t ever need us.

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of Amazon changes that are making the seller community run in circles….right before Q4.  From brand restrictions to linked accounts to new suspension reasons to its continuing crack down on product review programs, Amazon is vigorously cleaning house. Our volume of suspensions has been increasing.  What is going on?!? Does Amazon even realize it is Q4? All these changes come at a really tough time for sellers who are suddenly afraid to ramp up for the holidays.

If you have never sold on the platform using Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) program, you are now blocked from sending in FBA shipments until after December 19, 2016. We found out about this last Friday and were able to warn our clients, but many new or all-Merchant Fulfilled (MF) sellers are finding out the hard way this week.
Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done at this point to sell FBA. Sellers can still merchant fulfill.

[vc_custom_heading text="WHAT’S THE LATEST WITH RETAIL ARBITRAGE?
" use_theme_fonts="yes"]

We announced last month that Amazon was going to stop accepting receipts as proof of authenticity which we speculated meant the end of retail arbitrage on the platform as we knew it. So far, sellers in good standing can still use receipts to answer inauthentic complaints and – sometimes – even to get ungated in a brand (NOT a category, however). That’s the good news.

Sellers with accounts in poorer condition or who have previously been suspended are required to provide invoices. New sellers of a brand – even if their accounts are in good condition – generally need invoices and must pay a fee.
So the retail arbitrage party isn’t over yet, but the banners are hanging above the entrance so to speak.

Another sign of change: Earlier this week, a seller was suspended specifically for retail arbitrage. They were told they are no longer allowed to sell items they bought retail as NEW on the platform. They can still sell them as USED of course but that severely limits the kind of inventory they can buy since many products like toys and clothing can only be sold NEW. In their case, they also need to recall their inventory and re-sticker it – thousands of SKUs.

This suspension really surprised us because so many people inside of Amazon don’t even know what retail arbitrage IS, and because we have never seen a suspension that specifically said you could not buy in retail stores and sell as NEW. We’ve been telling our clients this for years that Amazon felt this way, but we never thought Amazon would put it in writing.

Right now this is one case. We are waiting to see what unfolds.

Does Amazon Realize It Is Q4?

[vc_custom_heading text="EVERYONE GETS THE TRACE FOR LINKED ACCOUNTS
" use_theme_fonts="yes"]

This has been in the works for a while. Anyone who has heard me talk in the past month knows that normally Amazon doesn’t put the “trace” on you for linked accounts until you are suspended. We were told last month that was changing and, as of 10/3/16, it looks like the trace is on:

Dear Seller,

Our records indicate that you may own multiple seller accounts. Amazon’s policies strictly prohibit operating or maintaining multiple accounts. Exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis based on each seller’s circumstances.

If you currently have multiple seller accounts, have operated or maintained more than one seller account in the past, or if any members of your household (besides yourself) have operated or maintained a seller account, please reply to this email with the following information:
– The email address(es) associated with each account you own
– The email address(es) associated with each account owned by members of your household other than yourself
– The reason(s) why you need to operate each account

Failure to disclosure your accounts may result in a loss of selling privileges.

If you only own one account, have never owned more than one account in the past, and no one else in your household has or has had an account, please disregard this notice.

Best regards,
Seller Performance

Is Amazon going crazy?

Click to tweet

This is an odd warning from Seller Performance and came by email rather than a performance notification. It looks like a fishing expedition more than a warning BUT you have to assume it is the only warning you will get before you are suspended. One client who received it has never had another account or another account in his family so we don’t know what to think. Another client had a brother who opened an account and never did anything with it.

We are advising our clients to answer even if the answer is “I only own one account and have never owned more than one account in the past.”

If you have family members with accounts be sure to explain all the relationships to Amazon and why they should not be considered part of your account.

I hesitate to use the word “amnesty” here, but Amazon is clearly giving sellers a chance to come clean before dropping the hammer. This is your chance to fix things and either get proper permission or close down your additional account(s).

If you’ve not gotten this notice yet you may be OK, or it may be that they are rolling this out in waves. For those of you who just broke out into a cold sweat because you KNOW you have multiple accounts or because you have family members with their own accounts, now is the time to confess.

If you have deliberately set up multiple accounts for yourself as a “plan b,” you will now get to see if your measures are good enough. Many of our clients who have a plan b account were previously suspended, so one could conclude that their efforts were good enough to thwart the trace. We will see now for sure. For these sellers there is no upside to confessing. They are already violating policy and will not be allowed to keep their account(s).

For those sellers who have never been suspended but who set up a second account “just in case,” you have reason to sweat. You don’t know if your measures will hold up against Amazon’s relentless algorithm. Should you confess? Should you roll the dice? Your decision. The safest move is to confess and close down an account. I realize it may be more complicated than that.

One seller was stating on Facebook that he’ll be fine because Amazon never said anything about his second account before. Please hear me. They didn’t catch you because they weren’t looking. They are looking now.

If you want to chat about your particular situation, sign up here for a one-hour consultation.

[vc_custom_heading text="NO MORE PRODUCT REVIEW PROGRAMS?" use_theme_fonts="yes"]

As part of Amazon’s ongoing efforts to build and maintain buyer trust, it has been cracking down on product review companies and sellers who use or abuse them. We have seen sellers suspended for using facebook groups and small private review clubs as well as big names like AMZ Tracker (by name).

ReviewMeta recently put together a data analysis that proved definitively just how advantageous review programs were to brands. While this policy change by Amazon has been in the works for a while, we imagine its implementation was hastened by all the negative press.

When asked, I always state that the only “approved” product review program is Amazon’s Vine program. Now Amazon has made it mandatory. Sellers can ONLY use Vine for product giveaways in exchange for reviews. Currently only 1P sellers – those selling to Amazon directly – can use the Vine program. Within our company we have speculated that Amazon may be getting ready to allow 3P sellers access to the program. I hope so. They’ve cut off most other avenues.

As of Oct 3, Amazon released new rules about product review programs. In the Q&A it was very specific that no other program besides Vine will be allowed. Reviewers will no longer state that they received product in exchange for an honest review because that will no longer be allowed.

Here are the questions we are hoping to get definitively answered for the community:

  • What happens to the reviews we already have on the platform that came from review sites and programs?
  • Is there any kind of grace period? There are reviewers out there who just received product from us and will probably post a review in the next week or two.
  • Is it still OK to giveaway product as long as we don’t ask for a review?
    What if we ask for reviews on other platforms like facebook or through bloggers? Is that OK?
  • Is Amazon planning to offer Vine to 3P sellers in the future?
  • Can we still ask buyers for a product review through the buyer/seller email platform as long as we only ask once and as long as we are not specifically targeting buyers who got our product at a discount or free?
  • Will Amazon’s algorithm even the playing field such that new products and brands have a chance to compete with established brands with thousands of reviews?

We know that Amazon sellers are among the most creative business people on the planet so we expect there will still be loopholes to exploit. Try to resist the temptation.

I already see problems with question number three with a kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge that could happen among sellers and reviewers. “You are not obligated to leave an Amazon review” says one vendor after another but…everyone knows that’s what we want, right? Vendors can’t kick a reviewer out of their program for not leaving an Amazon review any more, but….will they find more subtle ways to encourage Amazon reviews? Probably.

Already Facebook is abuzz with sellers trying to get around the new rules. So far they’ve failed. Sellers have had THOUSANDS of reviews taken down from their listings overnight. I have clients in the UK who are still using review programs. Please hear me, this is coming your way very soon. Stop using product review programs NONE of them are compliant.

Amazon is playing whack-a-mole with its sellers. Every time someone comes up with a way to game the system, they whack the seller on the head. Don’t be that seller. Amazon owns the hammer.

We’ve had clients hire writers to create false accounts – by the hundreds – and go post reviews. Amazon closed that loophole by requiring all accounts to have purchased $50 worth of products before leaving their first review. They can match a reviewer to a purchase. They know when a reviewer posts a review before getting product, they know when the reviewer comes to them from a review company website.

So what is going to happen with all these product review vendors? Many of them will convert to velocity driver sites, offering deals to drive purchases. As long as the majority of your sales are not at a deep discount, this is probably fine. Amazon loves deals and sales. If nearly all your sales are at X price, however, they may conclude that X is the actual correct price for your product.

The biggest question we are getting this week is “What CAN I do?” See my previous blog post on safe reviews for that answer. While some of that post is now obsolete, traditional marketing tactics still work.

[vc_custom_heading text="CATEGORY UNGATING STICKER SHOCK
"]

Some sellers have found themselves needing to apply to the Beauty category again and are having sticker shock as Amazon is asking them to pay $3,000 if they are accepted. This is the price sellers will have to pay from now on for selling topicals on the platform, basically.

The reason for this is because the liability for Amazon is so much higher for products that are ingested or that are absorbed by the skin. Lotions, shampoos, soaps, mud masks…you get the idea. These products can cause real harm if not properly controlled. Private label sellers are under particular scrutiny.

September was an exciting whirlwind of conferences and meeting our clients, partners and friends of the company in China, Nashville, LA, Las Vegas and Dallas! October is just as exciting. We look forward this month to meeting our international clients in London and our Midwest sellers in Chicago – please join us!

eCom Chicago – Cynthia will be talking about the latest policy changes and suspensions at Amazon. You don’t want to be late to this conference! Chris Green, former Amazonian Peter Kearns, Cordelia Blake, John Lawson, Jason T. Smith, Eddie Levine and Nadene Shearstone and Jeff Cohen are among the all-star speakers at this year’s event.

[vc_custom_heading text="Your Turn."]

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Fresh and bold perspectives are appreciated.
– Cynthia Stine

uk

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.