Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention


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.

LONDON Sept 6-7. Year two for our UK Seller’s Conference! Cynthia and Peter will be hosting a get-together the night before the event starts at a local pub or restaurant.

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.

LONDONSept 6-7. Year two for our UK Seller’s Conference! We will be hosting a get-together the night before the event starts at a local pub or restaurant.

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.

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

grinchyWhat’s Up with Amazon Being Such a Grinch?

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

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

dontpanicThe Glitch

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

What can you do?

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

“Hello,

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

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

Thank you for your help.”

Safety Complaints

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

Need Help?

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

Hopefully you won’t ever need us.

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

WHY IS AMAZON SUDDENLY GATING CERTAIN BRANDS?

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

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

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

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

WHAT HAPPENED THIS WEEK?

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

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

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

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

IS AMAZON TARGETING RA/OA SELLERS WITH THIS MOVE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS THIS MOVE AIMED AT THE CHINESE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARE THERE MORE BRAND SHUT-DOWNS COMING?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WILL AMAZON DO WITH THE FEES?

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

IS AMAZON COMING OUT WITH AN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT?

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

International Events in China and UK

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

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

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

Lesley and Cynthia are co-hosting an Amazon seller conference in London on Oct. 26 with SellerLabs and MerchantWords. The conference will cover two tracks for both newer sellers and high volume sellers. Topics will cover compliance issues, avoiding suspension, private label, product giveaways/reviews done right and more. Early bird special is running now! Click here to sign up for the UK Seller Conference.

Let’s Meet!

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

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

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

Sign up for the meet-up here:

Lesley and Cynthia are co-hosting an Amazon seller conference in London on Oct. 26 with SellerLabs and MerchantWords. The conference will cover two tracks for both newer sellers and high volume sellers. Topics will cover compliance issues, avoiding suspension, private label, product giveaways/reviews done right and more. Early bird special is running now! Click here to sign up for the UK Seller Conference.

Let’s Meet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eligible cases for GTIN exemption

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

Q. How Do I Get an Exemption?

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

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

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

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

Then you apply here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Will Amazon Grant Amnesty to Sellers?

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

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

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

Q. What if Amazon Suspends Me for My Bundles?

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

Last Word About UPC Codes…For Now

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

More About USED Items with Inauthentic Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. What About Collectibles Like Collectible Games and Toys?

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

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

Q. What About Refurbs?

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

Last Word on USED Media…For Now

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

Springtime in New York…

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Amazon says about Multi-Packs:

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

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

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

Basic Bundling Rules:

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

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

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

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

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

Clear as mud, right? What is going on?

Here’s what you need to know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Why is Amazon Picking on Us?

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

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

Q. What Bundles CAN I Sell?

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

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

Last Word on UPCs…For Today

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

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

Is Amazon Changing its Policies for USED Products?

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

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

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

What is Going On Here?

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

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

She’s a master at understatement.

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

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

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

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

Assess your situation. 

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

Determine your risk comfort level and act.

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

New Automate Repricing Tool by Amazon?

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

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

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

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

May Travels

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

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

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

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