Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

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.

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

Dear Seller,

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

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

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

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

Best regards,
Seller Performance

Is Amazon going crazy?

Click to tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[vc_custom_heading text="CATEGORY UNGATING STICKER SHOCK
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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eligible cases for GTIN exemption

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

Q. How Do I Get an Exemption?

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

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

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

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

Then you apply here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Will Amazon Grant Amnesty to Sellers?

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

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

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

Q. What if Amazon Suspends Me for My Bundles?

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

Last Word About UPC Codes…For Now

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

More About USED Items with Inauthentic Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. What About Collectibles Like Collectible Games and Toys?

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

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

Q. What About Refurbs?

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

Last Word on USED Media…For Now

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

Springtime in New York…

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Amazon says about Multi-Packs:

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

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

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

Basic Bundling Rules:

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

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

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

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

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

Clear as mud, right? What is going on?

Here’s what you need to know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Why is Amazon Picking on Us?

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

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

Q. What Bundles CAN I Sell?

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

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

Last Word on UPCs…For Today

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

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

Is Amazon Changing its Policies for USED Products?

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

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

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

What is Going On Here?

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

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

She’s a master at understatement.

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

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

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

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

Assess your situation. 

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

Determine your risk comfort level and act.

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

New Automate Repricing Tool by Amazon?

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

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

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

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

May Travels

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

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

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

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

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

Restricted Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restricted Brandsmichael kors

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

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

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

Restricted Products

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

Health Claimsbath salt

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

HazMat

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

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

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

ASIN Reinstatements

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

Get Clean Stay Clean Additions

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

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

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

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

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

May Flowers…Cynthia’s Travels in May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Are there any product review programs you recommend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Just how serious is Amazon about product reviews?

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

The final word on product reviews

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

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

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

Best Practices for Customer Service

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

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

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

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

Get Clean, Stay Clean with Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Excursions

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

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