Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

Suspension Prevention

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.

Last week in Part 1 of this topic, we covered gurus, coaches and service providers particularly in relation to a recent consumer protection act lawsuit. In Part 2, we look at criminals on the prowl for Amazon sellers.

Amazon Thieves, Russians and Embezzlers

In addition to gurus and consultants who might take advantage of you, there are other bad actors out for your money. Over the past year, there have been a lot of phishing schemes designed to get seller’s logins, names, money and more through email.

There are several ways to sniff them out:

  • They provide a link and want you to take action. Never use that link. If the email from Amazon is real, you can log in to Seller Central yourself and see it in your performance notifications or case log. Amazon will never give you a link to sign in to your account.
  • The “from” email address is not legit. It may say “amazon.com” or “amazon.co.uk” but when you look at the full address it has some extra letters at the end.

It is scams like these that caused a lot of sellers to be hacked last summer and have their disbursements transferred to someone else’s bank account – where it was swiftly sent out again.

Another way to protect yourself is to enable two-step verification on your account AND USE IT. I strongly recommend NOT designating any of your devices as “safe” and exempt from verification codes. Once scammers have your login info they will also have your unique internet address for that device. They can now spoof it and log in to your account. Always have an authenticator as one of your code options.

Use a VPN to log in to your seller central. While this is critical when you are on the road to provide security for your emails and internet browsing, I suggest you use a VPN every time because then your IP address is hidden from everyone.

If you get any suspicious emails, report it! Forward the email to abuse@amazon.com and tell them you suspect a phishing scheme. They’ll act, believe me – They won’t tell you what they do, but they’ll take action.

Another scam to watch out for occurs when someone from Amazon contacts you by email and tells you they can get you reinstated for $200 (or whatever) and that they work at Amazon Seller Performance. What you need to know about this one is:

  1. This scam is about taking your money.
  2. We already reported one version of this scam and Amazon tracked the person down.
  3. Most of these rogue Amazon agents can only help with particular types of suspensions like performance issues (the “honest” ones will actually tell you that).
  4. They use fake names. Mine was a famous Bollywood actor which I quickly found on google.

It is easy to freak out at some of these emails. They tell you your account is under review or that they need documents from you right away or you’ll be suspended. That’s scary stuff. Before springing into action, take a step back and really look at the email. Remember, anything Amazon wants you to respond to will be in your performance notifications or case log.

Lastly, embezzlers. This is the danger within. It is so heartbreaking to work with clients who have had a trusted employee or loved one steal from them. Most of them are in deep denial, which makes their situation worse because they don’t take the necessary precautions. Amazon will give you ONE chance to find and fix the situation when embezzlement is involved and then you are banned from the platform.

How do they know it’s embezzlement? Often by the IP address. They can see that the person who changed the email address and bank account was near you or connected to you in some way. It may have even been done from your computer. You need to do a lot more than change your password to get your account back. You must show how this will never happen again.

It is better and easier to be super security conscious all along. If you allow people access to your account, make sure they are limited access users who can’t view or change your account information. If someone trusted wants to get into your account to help you, set them up as a limited access user. Change your password often. Make it a difficult password with characters, symbols, numbers, and capital and lower-case letters. If you use a password filling program, make sure NO ONE can access it but you. Leave the password to your spouse in your will. Seriously. Always use two-step verification.

You only get one Amazon seller account. Amazon won’t give you another one if you screw up – or are screwed – so be alert, be security conscious and look for red flags. Weed the bad actors out from the good providers by testing their claims against Amazon’s terms of service. Verify everything.

Seller Alert! Ungating Services on the hot seat…Again

We have several recent cases of sellers being suspended for faking invoices. They were all working with ungating services who created the invoices for them. Omba Consulting and AMZgates are the two companies we’ve seen so far although we’ve heard of others.

From what we reviewed, they presumably are using real invoices from the companies in question (i.e. Apple) and then modifying the BILL TO and SHIP TO fields. Amazon launched a crackdown on ungating services not too long ago…looks like another one may be coming.

I want you to note an important phrase in what I just said, “sellers being suspended.” That’s you, my friend. The ungating services aren’t being punished (yet), but you could lose everything for trying to game the system. It’s not worth it.

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.

An 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. Obviously, 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.

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 is measuring its sellers against yet another yardstick…its Code of Conduct.  Never heard of it before?  You are not alone.  The Code is technically “published” but it sure as heck isn’t promoted to the seller community.  You have to search deep into Seller Central Help to find it.

We wouldn’t have gone looking ourselves except we suddenly got several clients who were suspended for Code of Conduct and we thought “what the….?”  Amazon did not even tell them what part of the code they violated, it was just a “Code of Conduct Violation.”

Let’s rip off the band-aid here and start by saying if you are suspended for Code of Conduct violation/abuse you are in serious trouble.

Our clients who are banned for Code of Conduct are believed by Amazon to have harmed other sellers by their actions.  As we’ve seen it play out so far, that means they filed malicious, fishy or outright fraudulent infringement cases against other sellers.  Or they may have filed a real case but not represented the actual brand owner.  According to Amazon’s code, these folks used infringement cases as a tactic to get rid of or harm the competition.

Some of them ran side businesses helping other sellers file infringement cases against other sellers.  If you currently help sellers file infringement cases and you are not an attorney, you should be very concerned right now.

As a seller who has seen how damaging, expensive and painful bogus infringement cases can be, I applaud Amazon for taking steps to remove bad actors from the platform.

We’ve seen bad actors extort money from our clients (“pay $X and we’ll let Amazon know we’ve resolved the issue”), refuse to talk to our clients, refuse to retract even when the case was resolved and much, much more.  I hope Amazon kicks those kind of bad actors off the platform forever.

As an advocate for my clients, however, I would urge Amazon to consider warning sellers before taking such final action.  We have one client that we believe to be innocent, for example.  They have the right to file the claims that they have filed and they worked with sellers to resolve the issues. Right now, it is unclear who is handling this inside of Amazon.  It does not seem to be seller performance which is not good for possible innocent fish caught in the Code of Conduct net.

Some of our clients received letters from high up Amazonians informing them of the violation and that there was no appeal.  Others had the appeal button.  We should know more in a week or so.

WHAT IS AMAZON’S SELLER CODE OF CONDUCT?

Straight from the source:

Amazon enables you to reach hundreds of millions of customers. We strive to ensure a fair and trustworthy buyer and seller experience. At Amazon, we expect you to adhere to the code of conduct principles outlined below. Violation of the code of conduct principles may result in the loss of your selling privileges and removal from Amazon Marketplace.

Seller Code of Conduct Principles:

  • Adhere to all applicable laws and abide by all Amazon policies.
  • Maintain current account information.
  • Never misrepresent yourself.
  • Always act in a manner that ensures a trustworthy experience for Amazon customers.
  • Never list products that may cause harm to Amazon customers.
  • Never engage in any misleading, inappropriate or offensive behavior. This applies to all your activities, including but not limited to:
  • Information provided on your account
  • Information provided in listings, content or images
  • Communication between you and Amazon or you and our customers
  • Act fairly at all times. Unfair behavior includes but is not limited to the following:
  • Behavior that could be deemed as manipulation or “gaming” of any part of the buying or selling experience
  • Actions that could be perceived as manipulating customer reviews, including by directly or indirectly contributing false, misleading or inauthentic content
  • Activities that could be perceived as attempting to manipulate Amazon’s search results or sales rankings
  • Actions that intentionally damage another seller, their listings or their ratings

I highlighted the ones that are causing sellers problems right now. Most of these show up as regular seller performance issues for review manipulation, buyer-seller platform manipulation, manipulation of sales rank, account verification, linked accounts…etc.

The last point is what we think has gotten our clients for Code of Conduct recently because they were all involved in filing infringement cases against other sellers.

Be aware that Amazon can hold on to your money and your inventory if you violate their code of conduct. Sellers who are selling counterfeit, perpetrating fraud on the platform, not addressing embezzlement, hiding behind someone else to sell…all these sellers forfeit their money and inventory when caught.

Yes, that’s a lot of reading but my clients get in trouble every day because they did not realize Amazon was holding them accountable for knowing all that information.

I’M AFRAID I MAY HAVE VIOLATED THE CODE OF CONDUCT – NOW WHAT?

  • Stop it.
  • Fix – If you’ve not been caught by Amazon yet, take the opportunity to clean up your act.  At least that way if Amazon comes to you later upset about something you did, you can show that it was in the past and that you realized the error of your ways.
  • Confess – Some issues require Amazon’s help to fix.  If you have multiple accounts, for example, or you used UPC codes inappropriately, you’re going to need Amazon to help you fix it.  Try to get Seller Support, the Catalog Team or the FBA Team to help you if possible.  Confess your mistake and tell Amazon how you plan to fix it with their help.  You don’t always have to confess to fix a problem, but if you have to be sure to also say you are sorry.
  • Repent – You ARE sorry, right?  Say so.  Sellers who make mistakes, fix them and apologize are the kind of partner Amazon wants.  You don’t have to grovel or wear a hair shirt, but be sincere and have a plan to make things better.  Think about how you would want a partner to treat YOU.  Do you want them to be defensive and hiding behind a lawyer or do you want them to be direct with you and focused on fixing the problem?
  • Repeat – Amazon’s capabilities and rules change often.  Try to keep on top of changes.  If you miss something or make a mistake, then follow the steps above to get back on track.  We are always aware when Amazon is focusing on an issue or has a new rule because our clients get suspended for it.  Learn from their mistakes so you don’t have to go through this.

GET HELP

If you get a Code of Conduct violation, they probably won’t tell you what you did, exactly. You will need to take a long hard look at your practices to find the cause. We can help assess your account and your practices before you get in trouble.  Just click HERE for more information.  It is $500 for an assessment and consultation.

WANT TO MEET IN PERSON?

 

We are traveling in the US, UK and possibly China and the Philippines this year.  We’d love to meet you on the road for a drink or dinner.  Please find us at an upcoming meet-up or conference!

ORLANDO – The Un-Conference (it has no name so…) by Kelly Loach and Elisabeth Thompson Feb 23-26.  Last call to join Cynthia for brunch at Hash-A-G0-Go on the 26th if you are in town!

NASHVILLECatalyst March 6-8. Cynthia will be attending. Come say hi during one of the conference happy hours!

LAS VEGAS – ASD and PROSPER March 18-24. Cynthia and Peter are hosting a special meet and greet for our clients, colleagues and friends on Monday the 20th at the W Resort bar:  The Living Room from 5:00-7:00 PM.  For those of you going to other parties, join us for your first drink of the night!

ATLANTAResonate May 2-3.  We will host a meet and greet before or after the conference.  Peter, Cynthia and Lissa will all be there. Check back!

FORT LAUDERDALEMay 18-20. Steve Chou’s private label conference Seller’s Summit.  Stay tuned for dinner plans while Cynthia is in town.

DENVERJune 2-3. Rocky Mountain Reseller Conference.  We had a big turnout last year so we’re meeting at a bigger, better place this year for dinner.  Cynthia and Peter will both be there. More to come!

CHICAGOJune 6-9 IRCE. Details TBD. Probably dinner downtown. Cynthia will be attending.

Cynthia Stine is the founder and partner of eGrowth Partners, the industry’s leading firm dedicated to helping Amazon sellers resolve problems with Amazon and grow on the platform.  She can be reached at:  http://egrowthpartners.com or hello@egrowthpartners.com or 972-432-6398.

 

Despite many warnings and policy changes by Amazon regarding product review programs, there seems to be a lot of confusion among sellers about what they are and aren’t allowed to do to get more product reviews.

To recap, we are not allowed to use any product review service except Amazon Vine.  This has caused sellers to turn towards sales driving products like Snagshout and others – which Amazon likes.  They like sales just fine.

However, we’ve seen sellers try to skirt Amazon’s review manipulation rules through follow up emails.  Lately several sellers have been taken down by Amazon for using sales generators in conjunction with improper emails.  This last part is key because sellers are getting suspended not only for review manipulation but ALSO for manipulation of the buyer/seller system.  This is important because it is a new capability of Amazon’s mighty algorithm and because if you don’t address this violation in your appeal you won’t get back.  Like so many things that have been against policy for a long time, Amazon did not have an automated way to enforce the rules.  Very few people ever got suspended for buyer/seller platform abuse.  We believe this is about to change.  Amazon is now looking.

What exactly is abuse of the buyer/seller message system?

This includes things like sending sales messages or communications with other sellers through the platform.  It includes spamming buyers with multiple emails.  It includes trying to sell or upsell a buyer through email.  It includes marketing messages and – most relevant for today’s blog – improperly asking for positive reviews, discouraging negative reviews or some combination of the two.  The latest suspensions we’ve seen for review manipulation ALL had inappropriate language in the emails the seller was sending out.  In some cases, this email copy had been given to the seller by their vendor. Anyone who uses one of the sales generating tools AND who has used email copy from them, needs to examine it very carefully.  Really, everyone should examine their buyer emails in light of these new developments.

Here’s what sellers need to know:

  • Don’t ask for a review if the product was purchased at a discount or with a coupon.
  • Don’t ask buyers for a positive review.
  • Don’t tell buyers what to write, give them examples or hound them to leave a review.
  • Don’t ask buyers who leave you positive seller reviews for a product review. (That’s called selecting your reviewer)
  • Don’t keep sending sellers emails when they’ve asked to be removed.
  • Don’t ask friends or family to leave you reviews (it is still happening!).
  • Don’t pay for bloggers or other off-platform reviewers (Amazon will suspend you).

 

In short, you can only ask buyers for a product review ONCE and you must be very careful how you ask.  If you are using a sales generating program/campaign, then you need to exclude all those sales from your email campaigns.

Feedback Genius has an advanced setting you can click to automatically exclude products bought at a discount from getting an email.  Be sure that setting is on.  In addition, you can add buyers who complain about spam or too many emails to a “black list” so they aren’t emailed again.   If you have a difficult buyer situation, be sure to remove them from future emails.  Simple acts like this can help reduce negative feedback and are compliant with Amazon policy.

Some of the violations we’ve seen these past few weeks have been outrageous.  Some sellers gave buyers a review script to follow!  Another client gave buyers one link for a positive review (to leave a review) and another if they weren’t happy (back to customer service).  This may seem like a smart strategy, but in fact they were discouraging negative reviews and encouraging positives.  It is no longer allowed.

So how can you safely ask for product reviews?

Assuming your email is being sent to a buyer who paid full price for your product, here are some ideas to comply with Amazon requirements.  I suggest putting the “Handling Problems” links in the email you send to the buyer the day the product is due to be delivered.  To be on the safe side, your feedback email should ONLY ask for feedback:

Handling Problems

  • If you have any questions about our product or if your experience with us was less than perfect in any way, please contact us immediately at [insert link] so we can make it right for you!
  • We hope you love your new [insert product name]! If you have any questions or if your experience was less than perfect in any way, please let us know so we can make it right [insert link].
  • Sometimes when a product is delivered by mail it gets damaged in shipping. Or maybe it’s not quite what you wanted. It may not fit right. You may have changed your mind. We understand and we are here to help!  Click [here] for easy returns with Amazon or click [here] if you have a question.  We want to make it right for you.

Asking for Feedback

  • Please take a moment and share your experience with others! [insert link]

We use customer feedback like yours to continuously improve our products.  Other customers on Amazon rely on reviews to make informed decisions.  Thanks for helping to make Amazon a better place to shop!

  • It has been a few days since your [insert product name] was delivered and we hope you are enjoying our product.  As a small business, feedback from our customers means the world to us.  We rely on people like you to let us know what we are doing right and where we could improve.  Would you mind sharing your experience with others? [insert link] Thank you!

 

These are just a few ideas, we would love to see what other sellers are using to drive product reviews without violating policy!

The bottom line?  If you send emails to your buyers, today would be a good day to check them for compliance. The rules have changed and you don’t want to be suspended for something that used to be OK but isn’t now.

 

Where is the eGrowth team now?

We love meeting with our clients and readers when we travel!  Like last year we will be hosting get-togethers when we are in town and hope that you can join us.  Here’s a few of our upcoming conferences and trade shows where we will be speaking/attending:

ORLANDO – The Un-Conference (it has no name so…) by Kelly Loach and Elisabeth Thompson Feb 23-26.  Please join Cynthia for brunch at Hash-A-G0-Go on the 26th if you are in town!

NASHVILLECatalyst March 6-8. Cynthia will be attending. Come say hi during one of the event happy hours!

PHILADELPHIA (CANCELLED) – The Seller’s Conference (formerly SCOE) March 7-10. Lesley Hensell will be speaking again.  Dinner will be at the Panorama Wine Bar again. Last year’s was THE BOMB and Lesley hopes to see many of you there!

LAS VEGAS – ASD and PROSPER March 18-24. Cynthia, Peter and Lesley are hosting a special meet and greet for our clients, colleagues and friends on Monday the 20th at the W Resort bar:  The Living Room from 5:00-7:00 PM.  For those of you going to other parties, join us for your first drink of the night!

FORT LAUDERDALEMay 18-20. Steve Chou’s private label conference Seller’s Summit.  Stay tuned for dinner plans while Cynthia is in town.

Cynthia Stine is the founder and partner of eGrowth Partners, the industry’s leading firm dedicated to helping Amazon sellers resolve problems with Amazon and grow on the platform.  She can be reached at:  http://egrowthpartners.com or hello@egrowthpartners.com or 972-432-6398.

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.

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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!