Amazon Account Reinstatement and Suspension Prevention

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The recent move to restrict Amazon sellers in Topicals is another step in the long process that began last year to insure the authenticity – and now safety – of goods on the platform.  As an unintended consequence, it also made arbitrage, liquidator and drop-ship sellers’ much more difficult.  While Amazon will never say you can’t use these models to source inventory, they make it very hard to do so.  This week’s post looks at Amazon’s new Topicals approval process and how it might affect you.

The purpose for Topicals restriction is straight forward.  Anything that a customer puts on or in their bodies adds risk and liability to Amazon.  Poorly tested products with harmful ingredients could cause serious problems. Amazon’s answer has been sequential.  First, they gated health and beauty.  Then they started to gate individual brands.  Now they have gated anything put on the body AND they also have brand-level approvals. Very soon we expect that brand-level approval will be less relevant as sellers will be required to get approved on an ASIN basis as well as Topicals.

For those of us who buy arbitrage, liquidation or drop-sell, this is a nightmare of paperwork.  It means that a lot of products we source won’t be sellable on Amazon.  Even private label sellers will find that they have a lot more work ahead of them.

WHAT DOES AMAZON WANT FOR TOPICALS APPROVAL?

Getting approved for Topicals, or ungating, is fairly simple if you are a wholesaler.  Amazon asks for invoices, pictures of the product that show ALL sides of the packaging and valid (i.e. “active”) FDA registration.

The pictures are important because Amazon is checking to see if the manufacturer has properly labeled the product with all relevant elements including ingredients, certifications, etc.

A manufacturer’s FDA registration number is required for ALL companies producing, distributing or selling goods in the United States.  This means that if your manufacturer does not have one they are in violation of the law.  Now Amazon is using it as a tool to weed out serious sellers from casual ones.

The FDA regulates food, drugs, medical devices, radiation-emitting products, vaccines and biologics, cosmetics, animal and vet products and tobacco.  Assuming the product you want to sell is covered by one of those categories, then you should be able to find their FDA registration. “Drugs” covers a wide range of ingredients and additives that you might find in common household items like shampoo and lotions as well as supplements and other edibles.

FDA registration can be provided by the manufacturer or be found online:  FDA Databases. In the Registration and List system you will see that manufacturers are broken down by category.  Once you find the correct category (i.e. cosmetics) you can search by company name, owner name or product code.

The FDA site is confusing and byzantine. If a product falls into multiple categories you may need to search multiple databases to find the registration. There are outside services like Registrar Corp that will provide the information for you if you have enough information to help locate the registration.

You will need a screenshot that shows the registration is active.  This means Amazon could require this information every year.  We’ve not heard that is the case, but it is a logical next step.

ARBITRAGE, DROP-SHIP AND LIQUIDATION SELLERS

Topical approval is all new.  So far, we’ve not gotten a seller approved with receipts, only invoices, but I suspect this may be a function of the status of the seller’s account in Amazon’s eyes.  Receipts might work for some sellers, just as some Nike sellers were able to submit receipts from the Nike Outlet and get approved where others could not.

We are willing to try receipts for a client, but recognize that a fair number of sellers will not be approved in Topicals because of where they are sourcing their product.  Even if you get approval, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to sell every product you find in Topicals.  You may still need to get ASIN level approval depending on the brand and product.  This makes it very hard for an arbitrage, liquidation or drop-ship seller to source inventory.  It goes against the very model of having a few units of thousands of products vs. thousands of units of a few products.  It means constantly seeking approval every time you buy something in Topicals.

This will discourage a lot of sellers from selling in Topicals which is what Amazon wants.  They want serious sellers in Topicals.  The liability for them is too high.

PRIVATE LABEL SELLERS

If you are a private label seller, then you have more options for approval.  In addition to FDA Registration, you can alternatively provide:

A Good Manufacturing Practices certificate:

  1. Include registration number, certification date and its validity
  2. Expiration date must not be in the past
  3. Must contain name and address of the manufacturer
  4. Must be issued by a third-party inspection service
  5. Must contain reference to appropriate US or international standard

 

A Certificate of Analysis (COA):

  1. Contain name of the manufacturer
  2. Dated on or after May 20, 2017 (8 months)
  3. Include signature from the supplier
  4. Must contain lot number and manufacture date

Please note that if you wish to use a COA and can’t get one from the manufacturer, we can refer you to independent sources for testing.  As is YOUR product, then you should already have a COA. Testing is the responsibility of the manufacturer (you) and should be done regularly.  Those of you with your own line of topicals must get in the habit of testing now or you will be in violation of the law.  If your manufacturer is doing it for you, make sure you get certificates regularly and that the lab they use is an independent third-party that Amazon will accept.

While I’m sure there are legitimate third-party labs in China, the fact is many are corrupt.  You will want to do your own testing with a US or European lab to verify the results.

Here’s why:  One of my clients was using a US manufacturer for his topicals.  He sent his products in for routine testing and discovered illegal and tainted ingredients in once batch of his products because his US manufacturer had bought some of their ingredients from China.  He was able to catch it before products were sent to Amazon and get reimbursed by the manufacturer (which was horrified), but these stories often don’t have a happy ending.

Even if you are approved in Topicals automatically or get approved using a FDA certification, we can’t stress strongly enough the need for regular testing of your products and that you have your own COAs.  Amazon will hold YOU responsible for the safety of your products, not the manufacturer.  If, God forbid, a customer had an allergic or serious reaction to your products, it would be YOUR fault and you could be sued.

…or 510K Premarket Notification:

  1. Must be a screenshot from the FDA website (510(k) Premarket Database)
  2. Must contain name and address of the manufacturer.
  3. Product must be approved for sale

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Some sellers have found that when they go to get approved in Topicals, they are automatically approved.  This has to do with the status of their account.  My seller account, for example, was automatically approved to sell Topicals (I use our own Get Clean Stay Clean services to keep my account very clean).

However, when I go to pick a particular product to sell, I still need to get approval for that ASIN.  I tried this with a number of brands and ASINs.  For this approval, I needed invoices or a letter of authorization from the brand.

With Topicals, I believe we are glimpsing the future of selling on Amazon.  It won’t be long before Ingestibles (food, supplements, vitamins, medications, etc.) are also gated.  In Baby and Apparel, I suspect we will also see stricter safety requirements and the necessity of providing not just invoices but proof that the product was safely manufactured and packaged with no harmful chemicals or lead.

What does this mean for sellers?  If you are a wholesale seller it means getting FDA registrations up front.  It means a much more thorough vetting process of not only where your products are coming from, but also if they are being manufactured and labeled properly.  It also means meticulous record keeping so you can always provide Amazon what they need in the case of a safety or inauthentic complaint.

While wholesale sellers are not legally responsible for manufacturer defects, you can still get stuck with thousands of units you can’t sell on Amazon or anywhere else if Amazon determines the products are dangerous.  It is in your best interest to be diligent and prepared.

Private Label sellers have an even higher standard because you are responsible for the packaging and safety of your products.  We’ve seen too many heartbreaking stories in our offices of sellers ruined because they were not diligent. And I’m not just talking ingestibles and topicals here:  blankets, baby items, toys, electronics, household goods, sporting equipment and jewelry are just a few of the categories where sellers have lost their inventory and sometimes their entire businesses to safety complaints or other compliance issues.

Compliance with regulatory bodies is time consuming and can be expensive but it is what all good companies do to keep their customers safe.  This is why Amazon doesn’t support PL sellers who merely slap a label on someone else’s product.  They are not looking for these “white label” sellers.  They want serious brands and companies.  They want brand owners who are committed to their products for the long term.

As time goes by and Amazon continues to enforce, more and more white label sellers will leave the platform which is what Amazon wants. They are focused on unique brands with trademarked and tested products.

TOPICAL APPROVAL SERVICES WITH EGROWTH PARTNERS

Most sellers can get themselves approved in Topicals.  If, however, you are having problems getting approved in Topicals, we offer a document review and advice service for $250.  You can sign up here. http://egrowthpartners.com/amazon-topical-approval/  We will help you get the documentation you need and make sure it meets Amazon’s requirements.  If you need testing, we can refer you to independent companies that meet Amazon’s approval.

EGROWTH PARTNERS IN THE NEWS

The Wall Street Journal : Amazon Has a Luxury Problem

Seller Labs Cyber Five : https://www.sellerlabs.com/offers/cyber-weekend/

 

 

Everything You Wanted to Know About eGrowth Partners but Were Afraid to Ask…

Normally I talk Amazon suspension and reinstatement issues in my blog, but this week I thought I’d address some of the most common questions we get from clients about us.

Q: Who will handle my reinstatement?

A: You will work with a US-based consultant that has been personally hired and trained by me. My team members have many years – some have decades – of experience in business, compliance, crisis and consulting. Brad Tucker comes to us with years of experience in compliance working on fraud detection cases for multiple credit cards. He specializes in infringement cases.  Veronica Thomison and Roy Miller each have decades of experience as business consultants and crisis work. They handle inauthentic, safety, product quality, performance and other issues for our clients.   These are just three members of our six-person consulting team.

I act as trouble-shooter when we get a particularly thorny issue or if Amazon is not reading our appeals and my team needs to brainstorm a different approach.  I often make suggestions and edit appeals even though I’m not working with the client directly.  I also still write appeals, of course, for expedites and really difficult cases. I also write most of our company’s “indignant” letters when Amazon is breaking its own rules and policies.

I’m very proud of our track record of successes for our clients. Ninety-seven percent of our clients are successfully reinstated. We are very persistent and have developed our approaches from the trenches.  We see what works and what doesn’t.  We adapt when Amazon changes the rules.

Because we see so many suspensions, we have a huge internal database of knowledge to draw on for our clients, as well as consulting with each other.

Q: What does your team in the Philippines do?

A: Mostly admin work and reports.  When you sign up with us, one of them will get you set up and pull down and organize reports we need to conduct your assessment.  For our ongoing Get Clean Stay Clean© clients, they analyze our clients’ accounts every week, remove negative feedback, conduct reconciliations, ask for reimbursements, etc. They gather account data so we can write appeals. Our receptionist and two of my assistants are in the Philippines as well as our marketing team.

Because they are less expensive resources, we are able to keep costs down for our services on these time-consuming tasks.  They are all college graduates and some have Ph.D’s. They are not, however, consultants. Amazon policy questions asked of our GCSC team by our clients are directed to a consultant to be answered even if it is the analyst that responds to the client.

Q: Do you use templates?

A: No. Our appeals are custom written to the clients’ situation.  This is because a winning appeal for one client may fail for another.  Certainly, we have processes and approaches that we know are successful and we apply these where appropriate, but the reason a client is suspended varies widely.  Amazon wants to know that our client understands what happened and has fixed it not only for the current situation but for future situations.  In addition, Amazon is constantly changing.  Something that worked last week might not work next week.  We find ourselves adapting frequently.

Q: How much does it cost to work with you?

A: Be sure to check our website (https://egrowthpartners.com) for the latest prices.  Reinstatements start at $2500 although we are offering a $500 off code in September.  Ask after you sign up.  If your case is related to a trademark, copyright, patent infringement or counterfeit, there may be an additional charge if we need to bring in our partner Jeffrey Breloski of ATLawIP.  He’s an amazing IP attorney who has helped many of our clients negotiate with rights holders. We have exclusive flat fee packages with him that save our clients’ money.

Q: Did you used to work for Amazon?

A: No. I’m a seller like you.  I learned what I know by doing and learning.  I meet as many Amazonians as possible to learn more about Amazon and how to decrease seller pain points.  Because I have a 25+ year background as a business consultant, crisis communications specialist and turnaround advisor, I understand how businesses get into trouble – and how they get out.  This puts me – and my team – in a position to help clients make the fundamental business operations changes many of them need to make in order to stay compliant with Amazon’s standards and policies.

Q: Do you have insider contacts at Amazon?

A: I have contacts who help me understand Amazon better, but none of my contacts will flip a switch for a client and reinstate them for us. We also have lists of high-level contacts to whom we can appeal on behalf of our clients.  They do have the power to flip the switch but they don’t know who we are as all our appeals come from our clients, not from us.

Sometimes we’ve gotten to work with our clients’ strategic account managers or with a loan officer which has helped us gain access to more information about their accounts and suspensions, but we start from the same place as our clients: The dreaded suspension notice.  The difference is we’ve seen a lot more reinstatements and we have a good understanding of how Amazon works and what they are looking for from their sellers.  We know what to look for inside our clients’ accounts and we have a shared database of previous successful reinstatements to help us think through issues and solutions with our clients.

When you hear people brag about their contacts inside of Amazon, take it with a grain of salt. If it is true, then those contacts are placing their careers in jeopardy to help a friend. In many cases I’ve found it is not true.  They’ve found a good name and title to send appeals to, but there is no relationship and they are not actually able to get account annotations. This means they’ve researched, which we have too.  Ultimately, we are not reliant on the goodwill of people inside the company…people who could get in trouble for talking to us.  We are successful without that.

Q: How is eGrowth Partners different from other consulting companies?

A: We are the most experienced team in the industry having handled thousands of suspensions.  We don’t rely on ever-changing contacts at Amazon.  We rely on what we know about Amazon and what has worked for our other clients.  Our team has an extensive business and consulting background which helps us guide our clients to changes they might need to make in their businesses.  We’ve developed a list of internal emails over time which we use to escalate appeals for our clients.  Most importantly, we have a track record of success.  There are many “pop-up” reinstatement businesses right now – many with fraudulent claims on their websites.  They are taking people’s money and not getting them reinstated.  We find this very frustrating.  By the time they come to us, some of our clients have spent thousands of dollars needlessly.

Three times I’ve had pop-up competitors steal my blog posts and other intellectual property in an effort to trick sellers. This is despicable.  There are a lot of shysters out there with slick websites.  One clue to look out for – they use the Amazon logo, colors, name and branding to market their site.  If they are violating Amazon’s trademarks and copyrights on their own website, do you want them talking to Amazon about your infringement issues?

A lot of them will claim five or 10 years’ experience in the business.  That’s simply not true. When I started this business in 2014 there were two other providers of reinstatement services.  I keep a close eye on my competitors and I’m well aware of when there’s a new kid in town.

We take on the hard cases and fight for our clients.  We are so successful with this that several of our competitors refer their cases to us when they can’t get them reinstated. Last week a competitor sent a client to talk to me at Retail Global https://www.retailglobal.com because they were stuck. This happens fairly regularly.  Another competitor refers all their linked account issues to us.  These are both good companies.  They care more about their clients’ welfare than their egos.

Lastly, we are mission based.  As a seller myself, I’m passionate about getting sellers reinstated.  My entire team is motivated by injustice and getting our clients back from the brink.  We fight dirty seller tricks, file complaints on our clients’ behalf, and work to get Amazon to understand seller pain points.  This mission is why I speak at so many conferences and webinars for free and why I wrote my book Suspension Prevention:  Get Reinstated and Protect Your Amazon Seller Account https://onlinesalesstep-by-step.leadpages.co/suspension-prevention-ebook/ We want to help make things better for all sellers, not just our clients.

 

CHECK OUT OUR EXPANDED INFRINGEMENT/IP SERVICES!

We are happy to have joined with Jeffrey Breloski of ATLawIP to help our clients resolve their infringement problems on Amazon, eBay, their own websites and other platforms. Sometimes you need a lawyer to get rights owners to take your calls and retract their complaints.  Jeffrey has years of experience helping sellers and brands navigate the world of intellectual property rights.  In addition to reinstatements, we are able to offer trademark filings, lawsuit filings and more for our clients at a reduced rate:  http://egrowthpartners.com/other-services/

COME SAY HELLO!

Here’s a list of upcoming events and conferences where I will be. Please come and introduce yourself if you will be there!

CES V – September 21st-23rd    2017

https://jimcockrumevents.com/

eCom Chicago – October 19th-21st

http://www.ecomchicago.com/

Amazon has started suspending sellers for price gouging during Hurricane Harvey and we can expect the same for Irma and any other natural disaster. Please be aware that price gouging during times of emergency is a CRIME, not just distasteful. Thirty-four states – including Florida and Texas – and the District of Columbia have laws against profiteering. This is not about having the hot new toy. This is about people’s lives.

If you are selling food, water, medical supplies (from band-aids to bug spray), diapers, supplements, tools or anything else that might be considered a necessity by people who’ve lost everything, then you could be subject to price gouging scrutiny by Amazon (and the government).

If you use an automated repricing tool for your inventory, make sure that your high end range on your product is reasonable. Amazon looks at the average pricing for that item over the past year and if yours is higher, you are price gouging.

If you are not sure your item qualifies, don’t risk it. M&M’s a necessity? Gatorade? Maybe. Luxury watches? Coach bags, you’re fine. The distinction Amazon is making is unusual price hikes after a natural disaster.

How long are you at risk for price gouging in affected regions? Probably until the state of emergency is no longer in effect. Selling $20 Oreos? If they’ve always been $20, you should be OK. If they jump to $20 from a normal of $15 you are gouging.

There are a lot of sellers who don’t know how to use their repricers properly. Be sure you are not one of them.

In summary, profiteering is a crime and will be prosecuted by these states. Don’t risk it. Check your repricer now.

DON’T SELL RECALLED ITEMS

If an item has been recalled by the FDA or the manufacturer. Don’t sell it. Seems simple but it is easy for an arbitrage seller to run afoul of this issue. The recent situation with soy nut “peanut butter” with e coli is a case in point. The item had been recalled but was still being sold by 3P sellers on Amazon. This is literally life or death and you need to know that the SELLER is responsible, not Amazon. Usually when an item is recalled, Amazon takes it down and sends out notices. In the recent situation I saw, a seller was selling the soy nut “butter” long after the recall and Amazon didn’t catch it right away.

There are free websites and alert services you can use to make sure you are getting recall notices from manufacturers and the FDA. If you sell ingestibles (food, supplements, cough syrup) or topicals (shampoo, lotions, soaps, bug repellent, eclipse glasses, laundry detergent), you need to stay on top of your recalls. Don’t rely on Amazon to do your job for you. This is especially true if you are buying liquidation or items from stores.

If you are buying from an authorized source, you can get your money back for the tainted goods from the manufacturer/grower. Even if you bought from a grocery store, many of them will accept the items back within a reasonable time frame. They then get their money back from the manufacturer/grower. If you’re buying liquidation…sorry Charlie. Throw it away.

FAKE REVIEWS BACK IN THE NEWS

The ingenuity of sellers never ceases to amaze me. When Amazon slams the door shut on product reviews, sellers find a loophole and exploit it until they get caught. I call this job security. In all seriousness, we expect a wave of product review shut downs after the recent article in Forbes. If you are not sure if your review program is compliant, we can look it over for you and let you know. Just call or email us ( hello@egrowthpartners.com).

AMAZON TOUGH ON BABIES

Oops. I mean Amazon is hard on sellers of baby goods lately. They are taking down listings for false claims, miscategorized products and safety issues primarily. This is in part because of tough federal regulations on items sold to babies, but also Amazon is cleaning up listings on the platform and you know the drill – comply or be suspended:

We are writing to let you know that the following detail pages have been removed from our catalog: ASIN: XXXXXXXX

Based on information Amazon has received from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), your product is inappropriately described as a pillow or sleep aid for babies.

In order to reinstate your ASIN(s), you must:

1) Update your product title and description to remove any reference to baby sleeping activities including, without limitation, the following words: pillow, sleep, nap, crib, cradle, and bassinet.

2) Remove all product images which show a baby using the product as a pillow or other baby sleeping images.

Once you have completed these actions, please contact Seller Support to have your ASIN(s) reinstated.

This item was a stuffed animal and blanket bundle…for babies. So the seller will need to do a new photo shoot and show the baby playing with the stuffed animal on the blanket or something like that. But not sleeping. Why? Because doctors agree that babies should sleep in cribs with NOTHING. No blanket, no toys, no top sheet. This is to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It is a health and safety issue you can’t win.

If you sell in this category, review all your listings with safety in mind.

UPDATE TO DON’T CHANGE YOUR BANK ACCOUNT!

It is safe to change your bank account information on Amazon again. With mandatory two-step verification, Amazon has eased up on the fraud alerts. I still caution people not to change too many things on their account all at once because that could look either like you’ve sold your Amazon business (against terms of service) or something fraudulent might be going on in your account. Change things in stages if you must.

product reviewsThis week I’m talking about product review programs. I’m also traveling to Orlando and Philadelphia in March and hope to meet with YOU!

Recently in Salt Lake City I sat in on a presentation by several companies that help third-party Amazon sellers garner reviews for their (mostly) private label and exclusive product offerings. It was a packed room and what struck me was how much they disagreed on Amazon’s new policies regarding third-party reviews. The reason? Amazon is deliberately vague. This is causing consternation for sellers and vendors alike. It was obvious at the conference that these vendors, at least, are diligently trying to comply with Amazon’s rules.

We work with clients every week who have had their accounts suspended for paid product reviews and/or manipulation of the platform for the purpose of moving in the rankings. Amazon takes these offenses very seriously. Rather than parse Amazon’s vague ruling line by line, I thought I would focus instead on what constitutes a “safe” review so you can apply Amazon-think to any reviews program that you see or set up in the future.

SAFEST

  1. Customer buys product for full price.
  2. Keeps product.
  3. Amazon sends reminder email to leave a review.
  4. Buyer leaves review.

OR

Amazon Vine — Seller has a giveaway through the Amazon Vine program. It costs $2,500 (last I heard) and you also have to give the Vineproduct away for free. Because this review program is run by Amazon, it is fully compliant. On every review left by a Vine reviewer, it specifically says that they got the product in advance for an honest review. These are Amazon’s top reviewers who are invited into the program because their reviews are determined to be honest and helpful to other buyers.

That’s it. The end.

Just kidding! The first option is the default review program and it works fine for people who sell non-exclusive goods (i.e. retail arbitrage, online arbitrage) and who don’t have a lot of inventory to support. Obviously those with private label products, unique bundles and exclusive arrangements will want to put more effort into a product review program so they can stimulate sales.

SAFER

Social media marketing – If this is your product or your exclusive, you are free to promote it however you like on social media and Amazon doesn’t care. All those links from Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc., only add to your social proof and make your product more potentially desirable to buyers.

Outside review programs – If a blogger or journalist writes about your stuff and posts a link to Amazon where people can buy it, Amazon doesn’t have a problem with that.   If you are on webinars, radio shows, podcasts, etc., talking about your product and the link goes to Amazon, that is OK by them. You can put out press releases, market to your private email group and sell the product on your own website. All of that is fine.

SAFE

I’ve not yet talked about the potential landmines of discounts and giveaways. This is where Amazon becomes both stern and vague at the same time.:

Actual customers. Aim your campaign at people who would naturally buy the product. If you are selling dog toys, target your giveaways to dog lovers. Have a Facebook ad going? You can pick the exact audience who would normally buy your stuff. DON’T target it to people who like giveaways or who write reviews for money or free product. They are not a typical buyer of your product.

Giveaways vs. Coupons. You can use Amazon coupons to offer discounted product as a way to generate sales. This is acceptable. If, however, you are also asking these people to leave a review, that’s where you can find yourself in trouble. Amazon prefers that you use free giveaways to generate product reviews.  If you are using a discount, don’t do it through the platform.  Have the potential reviewers pay you for the product and you ship it to them directly.

Advertise. Facebook ads, Amazon sponsored ads, Google Adwords, etc., are all acceptable ways to generate sales. If you plan to use Facebook to run your giveaway campaign from your product fan page, that’s fine, too, as long as it is not excessive and as long as you are telling those getting the review product that you want an HONEST review.

Product first. You must give them the free product FIRST before asking for a review. It is NOT an exchange. They have the right to not leave a review at all if they don’t want to.

Ship directly. As long as you are shipping the free product directly to your reviewers, that’s fine. People get in trouble when they try to manipulate Amazon’s platform and have people buy product off of Amazon for a deep discount and leave a review.

pintrestReview on multiple platforms. Naturally you are interested in stimulating your sales on Amazon, but a real buyer would leave reviews everywhere. Make it just as easy for them to post a review on Facebook or Pintrest as it is to leave a review on Amazon.

Honest reviews. If you are getting some negatives in the mix and the ratio of negative to positive is the same as you get from your “natural reviews” (see “safest”), then your reviewers are leaving honest reviews which is what Amazon wants to see. If it is all 4s and 5s but your natural reviews are 2s and 3s…Amazon will shut down your review program.

RISKY BUSINESS

These are the practices that are getting sellers in trouble:

  • SuperURLs. These are a clear manipulation of the Amazon platform. A superURL manipulates the platform by enforcing your keywords. It uses the same URL that Amazon 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. Amazon’s policies clearly 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 you are manipulating the platform.
  • Highly targeted buyers. This is where many review programs and systems fail Amazon’s smell test because the people taking the freebie or the coupon are not typical customers for that product. They are professional (or amateur) reviewers. They are different by the very fact that they like to review products and they like getting free stuff. Amazon does not like to see the same people reviewing your entire product suite. They want your reviewers to be as representative as possible of a typical customer for your product.
  • Bought through the platform. Amazon prefers free giveaways to coupons or deep discounts and absolutely NO purchases with gift cards. They see coupons and deep discounts as manipulation of the platform. They already do not allow these kinds of purchases to be considered verified. If the reviewers don’t disclose that they got the product for free or at a deep discount, Amazon can (and does) remove them…at best. They suspend the seller at worst. Your best bet is to give sample product away for free directly to the potential reviewer. When you ask them to leave a review, be sure to tell them they need to disclose that they got it for free. This is a FTC regulation, not just Amazon policy.
  • Offering incentive for writing a review. Most people know by now that offering money for reviews is forbidden. The sticking RiskyBusinesspoint here is “incentive.” Giving away free product is a legitimate and recognized form of marketing by Amazon – one that leads to real sales on the platform. This is especially true if the distribution of free product is fairly random. Think about all those samples at a grocery store on Saturday morning. Anybody who shows up during sample time gets a freebie if they want one.  An incentive, however, is vague. Some reviews programs only allow their reviewers to continue to get free product if they write reviews. Does that constitute an incentive to write a review? Personally, I think yes, but Amazon has not clarified. The good programs will allow reviewers to stay in them even if they don’t write reviews every time.
  • Compensating reviewers after the review is written.  This is expressly forbidden by Amazon.
  • Reusing your list over and over again. One client shut down for manipulating the platform was using the same list over and over again. Every new product that came out, they went back to the list of people who had reviewed their previous products to see if they would review it again. While that does happen naturally (if a buyer is a fan of John Grisham, for example, he’ll read many of his books and possibly write reviews), this was not natural and the reviews were not reflecting the buying experience of typical customers. These were superfans who were approached many times for reviews.  How did they get caught? Amazon didn’t say.  Beware.
  • Improperly approaching Amazon’s top reviewers. A clever client had collected the names and contact information of the top 500 or so reviewers on Amazon.com by total number of reviews. Talk about super-reviewers! This is frowned on not only for the reason listed above, but also because Amazon charges money to approach their super reviewers.
  • Not acknowledging product was free. This one causes my clients concern because they wonder, “how can I enforce this rule?” How indeed? That’s why it is so important that every free product go with a cheerful notice that tells them that they must disclose that they received free product in order to review it. In addition, if you’ve mailed out free product, someone at your company should be keeping an eye on your reviews to see what is written. If you see someone you know from your list who hasn’t disclosed, then you can contact them by email and simply ask them to please update their review to include that information. Remind them it is an FTC requirement.
  • Sending free product to current customers in exchange for a review. Another smart client got reviews from current real customers by sending them free product after they bought from him. On the face of it, this is a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, it is against Amazon policy because freebies must be given in advance. In addition, he had put pressure on the receiver to write a review (they now felt obligated even though they never asked for free product) and it was a manipulation of the platform because the reviewers didn’t disclose they got it for free. They were verified buyers from their previous purchases, yes, but they weren’t motivated to write the review from their experience with the product, they were motivated because they got surprise product.
  • Excessive giveaways. Amazon is completely vague on what is considered “excessive,” and yet they shut sellers down for it.
  • Friends and family writing reviews. This is expressly forbidden and written in the rules which means while you might be able to claim you didn’t understand “excessive,” you can’t claim you didn’t know it was wrong to have your friends and family writing reviews.  They catch people every day.

REVIEW SERVICES

I have looked at quite a few review services and there are several that seem OK based on my interpretation of what Amazon stated when it updated its seller agreement. If you plan to use a reviews service, you need to be very careful and check them out carefully. The folks at Snagshout (the same team who created Feedback Genius), have their new customers get permission from Amazon first before starting.

While there is no guarantee that Amazon won’t change its rules down the road, this is a smart approach because you can show Amazon that you were proactive in trying to comply with their vague and confusing rules around reviews. In addition to the risky business above, these are issues I see particularly with review programs:

  • Can’t do excessive giveaways. What the heck does Amazon mean by excessive? We don’t know. If all your reviews are freebie giveaway reviews – and you’ve actually sold product – then there is a problem for Amazon. Our speculation is that it has something to do with the ratio of paid reviews to organic reviews appearing for the product. If you are giving out more free review product than your product category usually sells in a day, for example, that would be excessive. You may want to consider using a service to jump-start sales on a new product you are offering and then wean yourself off or significantly drop the freebies as organic reviews start to come in.
  • Can’t dictate reviewers. Some review companies let you select your reviewers by their past performance (top reviewers, mostly leave 5-star reviews, etc.). This is potentially risky because you are dictating your reviewers behavior rather than selecting them by their interests (love dogs).

I strongly urge all sellers to talk to their vendor of choice and examine their solutions closely for themselves and make a thoughtful decision. Everyone wants certainty and there isn’t any in this case.

horse mouthWHAT DOES AMAZON SAY?

Straight from the horse’s mouth as it were. All highlights are mine:

Misuse of ratings, feedback, or reviews: Any attempt to manipulate ratings, feedback, or reviews is prohibited.

  • Ratings and feedback: The rating and feedback features allow buyers to evaluate the overall performance of a seller, helping sellers to develop a reputation within the Amazon Marketplace. You may not post abusive or inappropriate feedback or include personal information about a transaction partner. This also includes posting ratings or feedback to your own account. You may request feedback from a buyer, however you may not pay or offer any incentive to a buyer for either providing or removing feedback.
  • Reviews: Reviews are important to the Amazon Marketplace, providing a forum for feedback about product and service details and reviewers’ experiences with products and services—positive or negative. You may not write reviews for products or services that you have a financial interest in, including reviews for products or services that you or your competitors sell. Additionally, you may not provide compensation for a review other than a free or discounted copy of the product. If you offer a free or discounted product, it must be clear that you are soliciting an unbiased review. The free or discounted product must be provided in advance. No refunds are permitted after the review is written. You may not intentionally manipulate your products’ rankings, including by offering an excessive number of free or discounted products, in exchange for a review. Review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to remove negative reviews.

Misuse of sales rank: The best seller rank feature allows buyers to evaluate the popularity of a product. You may not solicit or knowingly accept fake or fraudulent orders. This includes placing orders for your own products. You may not provide compensation to buyers for purchasing your products or provide claim codes to buyers for the purpose of inflating sales rank. In addition, you may not make claims regarding a product’s best seller rank in the product detail page information, including the title and description.

Here’s a Q&A Amazon put together to help us (too bad they buried it Seller Central Help):

Can I offer a voucher or a free gift?

We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including any of the following:

  • Payment (whether in the form of money or gift cards)
  • Bonus content
  • Entry to a prize drawing or competition
  • Discounts on future purchases
  • Extra product
  • Other gifts.

The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front for the purpose of a review. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. The reviewer must also indicate in the review that they were received the product in order to provide a product review.

Can I write a product review about items I sell?

No. Reviews written for financial gain violate our guidelines and will be removed.

Can I respond to a review?

You can add a comment to a review by clicking the Comment button below the review.

Will Amazon delete reviews after a certain time?

No. As long as a product is listed in the catalog, its reviews will continue to show for the product. We do, however, remove reviews that violate our guidelines. Buyers can also remove their own reviews.

Will reviews be deleted when an upgraded product comes out such as a new model, fixed issues, or software upgrades?

No. Any information provided could be helpful to other buyers.

Why do reviews disappear all of a sudden?

Reviews are removed from the Amazon website for three reasons only:

  1. The review conflicted with our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. This includes reviews that were posted as promotional material.
  2. The review was removed at the request of the buyer who submitted the review.
  3. We discovered that multiple products were incorrectly listed as the same product. Reviews that were posted for those products were removed when the products were separated into individual product pages.

What can I do against an unjustified negative review, which might even be a fake review?

If you see reviews that you think are inappropriate or fake, use the Report abuse button next to the review to report it.

Can you remove a review that is comparing my product with a competitor’s product and makes my product look bad?

No. We encourage our buyers to give their honest opinions on our products. As long as the review is within our guidelines, we will not remove it.

Can I block buyers that leave bad reviews on my products?

No. You cannot block a buyer from writing reviews on your products. If you think a review violates our guidelines, use the Report abuse button next to the review to report it.

Can Amazon edit a review for me?

No. We check reviews for violations of our guidelines, but we don’t edit reviews. Buyers can edit any review they’ve submitted.

Can a buyer change their review after an issue with a product is resolved?

Yes. Buyers can change their reviews at any time.

Do buyers have to remove a bad review after an issue with a product is resolved?

No. That is entirely up to the buyer to decide. You are not allowed to pressure buyers to remove reviews.

Can you give me the email address of reviewers so I can contact them directly?

No. Amazon never shares private buyer information. If you wish to respond to a review, you can post a comment on it.

LAST THOUGHTS ON AMAZON PRODUCT REVIEWS

If anything comes along that seems particularly clever or that promises huge review returns, be cautious. Anything that seems too good to be true probably is. Look carefully at your review provider and/or internal review program. Naturally we all want positive reviews to support our products that we’ve spent so much time developing. However, if you find yourself trying to find ways to give yourself an advantage over your competitors that involves gaming the Amazon platform…it is probably a violation.

We’ve seen Amazon shut down a lot of sellers for improperly getting product reviews. Only you can assess your risk tolerance level. My advice is to use product review programs sparingly. You may want to launch a new program with a bunch of giveaways and non-verified reviews, but then back off on those once sales pick up and organic reviews start coming in. Look at them as a spark to get things going.

Finally, reviews are meaningless without conversions.  In the end, Amazon only cares about sales – as you do.  Reviews are the social proof that you have a good product but they are not the only indicator that Amazon uses to determine ranking.  If you don’t have a good product, it will come out.  Focus on driving sales more than reviews.  Once you have 10-20 reviews that is more than the typical buyer is going to read to help make their decision.

Lastly, if I had a dollar for every time a seller told me – in so many words – “So-and-so is doing this. How come they are getting away with it? – I could fully fund my retirement portfolio. I can’t tell you why competitor X is able to get away with breaking the rules, but I can tell you that Amazon eventually catches up with everyone. If you don’t believe in Divine Justice, root for Karma. Don’t be a lemming.

ben franklinMERRY MARCH TRAVELS – JOIN ME!

In March I will be in Orlando to speak during Scan Power’s conference March 20-22. I’m arriving early and have arranged a brunch to kick off the networking early. Please RSVP if you will be there Sunday at 11:30 or if you live in the area and want to join a bunch of sellers drinking Mimosas and talking about Amazon!

Immediately after Orlando, I’m flying up to Philadelphia March 23-25 to speak during SCOE. I’m planning a client appreciation Happy Hour from 5:30-7 on the 24th. There’s no conflicting conference event for that night. If you are going to SCOE or live in the Philadelphia area, please join us! The venue is super nice, looks out over the River and is in the picturesque Old Town part of the city. It is attached to a well-reviewed Italian restaurant for dinner.

SUSPENSION PREVENTION STARTS WITH YOUSP cover_001

As my long-time readers have probably noticed, I’m writing a lot about issues that get sellers suspended as compared to the more “how to get started selling” topics that marked my first few years. This reflects my concern that so many sellers are not aware of the potential pitfalls and that the rules have changed so much since I first started selling in 2010. Forewarned is forearmed! While I’m enjoying building my consulting firm, my goal is to help sellers be proactive so they don’t need us as much. If you’ve not read my book yet, check it out here: http://suspensionprevention.com.

illustration-flasher-bells-whistlesWhen ScanPower came out in 2010, it was like a thunderbolt from the heavens it was so transformative. It turned hundreds of online book sellers into Amazon FBA sellers in multiple categories and made it much easier for a small fry to run a big online business. Since that time there have been so many changes and upgrades, ScanPower is light years beyond its beginnings. It was aimed at people like me who couldn’t afford the big customized solutions. It gave us a huge competitive advantage over other sellers because we could see FBA offers separate from the MF offers and have the fees calculated for us. We take stuff like that for granted today because ScanPower led the way.

In today’s blog post I review some of the coolest and most interesting bells and whistles (in my humble opinion) of ScanPower for FBA sellers. If you are a ScanPower customer, make sure you are getting the most out of your subscription! Many long-time customers don’t realize the new features hiding beneath the tabs they see every day.

If you are not a ScanPower customer, be aware of what’s out there and make sure you are making your business as efficient as possible. Check and see if your current vendor (whether it is Amazon or InventoryLab or someone else) has these desirable features as well. Also, these programs are all available as individual products as well as bundles from ScanPower. If you use InventoryLab for listing and reporting, for example, but want Webscout for online arbitrage, you can do that. There’s no obligation to buy the whole package.

Some businesses find that other providers a better fit for their businesses. ScanPower focuses on Amazon FBA. If your business is multi-platform or a combo of online/bricks and mortar, and/or a heavy mix of MF and some FBA, you may need a different solution for your listing and inventory management, but may still find ScanPower Mobile helpful when you are out scouting or Evaluate for online research of wholesale opportunities, or Webscout for tracking product historical data, for example.

In building your business, you need to find the tools that work best for you. Even though this post is about ScanPower and I’m sharing what I’ve learned, I don’t care what you use. I’m not paid if you use ScanPower, there are no ScanPower affiliate links in this post. This is my opinion as someone who has used the product pretty much since it was invented. You need tools that fit your business and how you like to work.

Take a moment to think about how you run your business – could it be easier, faster, more efficient? Where do you like to spend your time? If you are like me, you DON’T like to spend your time processing and managing inventory. Hours of research with your eyeballs glued to a screen can also be a drag. To demonstrate what’s popping at ScanPower, I’m going to follow the life cycle of inventory found through retail or online arbitrage, and talk about what is possible:

Mobile Scouting

For retail arbitrage, ScanPower is the best tool out there bar none. I’ve used all the others including Amazon’s Seller App and Consumer App. When I teach live RA classes, my students use a wide range of products from free to expensive and many of them switch after the class to ScanPower. This is not because I push it, but because they see it in action. It makes scouting MUCH faster. I can scan and make a decision on an item in a couple of seconds and then move on. The interface makes it easy for me to see the “no.”

When I see a “maybe,” the easy “Hotlist” links to super historical tools CamelCamelCamel and Keepa mean I can dive down and research the item’s rank, selling price over time and how often Amazon runs out quickly before buying. I can also check eBay’s completed auctions and google if I need more input.

In addition, I can quickly click a hyperlink to view ALL the FBA offers, not just the most competitive ones. I can see the product on Amazon’s site if I want to read the description (very helpful for food where the fact that it is a multipack often is hidden in the description). Like other scanning tools, I can put in the cost, my desired selling price and see the exact profit I’ll make after Amazon’s fees. There’s a lot I can do from the scanning screen on my phone. I only dive down, however, when it looks like a good deal. The rest of the time I’m flying through the shelves getting past the “no’s” to the good stuff.

People often tell me they can’t find inventory in stores. When I ask them how many items they are scanning per hour and/or check their scanning receipthistory, I see what is going on immediately. I can scan several hundred items in a 2-3 hour session. Many of my students are lucky if they make it through 50. Why is that? Because the tool they are using requires that they key in the price for every item they scan in order to figure out the profit! They are conducting in-depth research on everything. No wonder they don’t find much in the stores!

Because ScanPower shows me the profit for all the available FBA offers (and then New MF and then Used MF if there are no FBA offers), I can quickly see the potential and decide if I want to conduct more research or move on. The net for all the offers – whether FBA or MF – is with all the FBA fees removed which means that any offer that looks interesting I can look at the net and it is FBA.  I don’t have to figure out the difference between FBA and MF.

Conversely, if you sell a lot of MF merchandise, ScanPower Mobile won’t be useful to you.  You will want to look at ASellerTool’s FBA Scan or other products on the market that give you MF as well as FBA numbers. If I want to type in my cost and my desired selling price I can, but I rarely do – at least not when I’m sorting between no and maybe.

Once I decide to buy an item, I click on the “Buy” button, put in my cost and the number of units I’m buying. When I get home, this data is already available to my listing program. I only need to add notes and print labels. This integration between the scouting program and the listing program is a key reason why I choose ScanPower. I only have to type in the data once – when I’m buying and actually remember the details. No more hunting for prices down a long, long, receipt.

As you can see in the picture below, I can even customize the kind of data I want to collect and set up my own fields.  Several of the capabilities of ScanPower Webscout are incorporated into ScanPower List like Tracking (see more on this later).

I also like the interface on ScanPower better. I use a competing product, FBA Scan, for book sales. I can download the book database to my phone and my look ups are much faster than the live look up from ScanPower (even with 4G). It works in library basements with poor cell reception. It also gives me an audio tone when I scan a book that meets my criteria which means I can scan with a quick glance and only stop when I want to investigate further. Even though I could use it for retail arbitrage, however, I don’t. It is an ugly interface, hard to get what I need at a glance and requires programming for each category. That’s my opinion. I also can’t set up tracking on the fly or integrate with Webscout (see below).

scanpower mobile image

  1. The basic information you need for every product you scan:  Is Amazon selling it? What’s the rank? Department?
  2. If you look at the box in the middle, you will see where you can key in costs and your price to get an accurate net payout.  I only use that feature when I’m pretty sure I want to buy.  I normally can make my decision on the fly simply looking at the Net Payout below.  Even if I think I can sell my product for higher, this gives me a good idea of what to expect.  All I need is to be able to make a No decision. If it is a “Maybe” then I’ll use other tools on this screen.
  3. See the “Buy,” “Hotlist” and “Track” buttons? Buy allows you to key in the quantity and cost for each item and to have that information waiting for you on ScanPower List when you get back to the office.
  4. Hotlist is where you will find direct links (with the ASINs already filled in) to CamelCamelCamel, Keepa, eBay complete, etc.
  5. Track allows you to add that product to your tracking list on the fly.

Online Scouting

For online arbitrage, ScanPower Webscout is a robust program designed specifically to help sellers find deals online the way Chris Green teaches in his course Online Arbitrage (click to read my review). I admit I don’t use it to its full capacity myself (yet). When I find an item online of interest whether from a retailer or a wholesaler, I can cut and paste in the UPC code (if available) or type in the name of the product. Webscout brings up all my options and keeps them ready for me so I can easily go back and forth to decide which is the best offer. With grocery, for example, there can sometimes be 10 listings for the same product just in different weights, packages, bundles and groups. Being able to see all of them at once and go back and forth without re-doing the search each time is especially helpful when looking at grocery or health and beauty items which are often sold in multi-packs. I use this basic functionality when I’m reviewing offers from my wholesalers, for example.

Jack__s_Lament_by_xpedr0If you are like me, you probably see great deals all the time online except the price is too high for you to make a profit – right? “If only it were $10 cheaper!” I lament. With Webscout alerts, I can find that cheaper deal with very little effort on my part. In fact, Webscout eliminates the need for me to use any other alert system out there and it brings all my alerts together for me in one place.

Webscout’s alerts are targeted exclusively for sellers (as compared to consumers), are real-time (no delay) and actionable right from the screen and/or email. When you get the alert, you get the link to the source (Walmart, Amazon, etc.), margin, profit, ROI, the Webscout link (no need to re-type the ASIN into Webscout) and more. This seller-specific data lets me see at a glance whether or not I’m interested in the new price or not.

If I decide to buy, Webscout and ScanPower List are integrated so I can print labels and process my inventory quickly without re-keying. Because some online arbitrage deals are sent to an inventory processor instead of sent to me, the ability to create shipments and PDF the labels to the processor by email is a real boon. I’ve done this a few times and it was easy and efficient.

Other alerts you can set up include when a product is in and out of stock. For example, some popular products sell out frequently. If you’ve found a great price on a toy at Walmart.com, for example, but it sold out before you could buy, set up an alert so the minute it is back in stock you can acquire your units and then re-sell them on Amazon.com.

Have a great product in your inventory you love to sell again but can’t find it anywhere? You can have Webscout track some or all of your current hot sellers and help you find new sources for that inventory.

In addition to alerts, Webscout lets you access tracking information and create charts.  You set up your profile first and then when you add a product to the tracking feature either in Webscout or ScanPower Mobile, it tracks the data for you over time. You can access tracking data on this product by pasting in the ASIN or by simply clicking on the Tracking tab and looking through all the products you are tracking.

With Keepa, CamelCamelCamel and Webscout, you can quickly see how often Amazon sells out of a product, the actual price of the product over time, how low Amazon will go on a sale, what other third-party sellers get for that product when Amazon is out of stock and much more. You can be confident in your buying decisions because the wealth of data you have for each product. You can compare prices of different online retailers and Amazon over time and see things like “wow, Best Buy consistently sells this for $12.99 when it is in stock, but Amazon’s prices have climbed steadily to $49.99!”

This “set it and forget it” automation feature takes a lot of the headache out of online arbitrage.

Webscout main screen

ScanPower has a 1-hour video you’ll want to check out because it is a good primer on how to scout online by Chris Green, not just on how Webscout works. It shows him using Webscout to find deals live and on the fly – nothing pre-planned. I found it moved fast for me and I needed to see parts of it more than once to understand everything. It is a bit dazzling and overwhelming at first to see all the capabilities of Webscout (Ahhhh!! Data everywhere!!!!) but worth the overload. My virtual assistant uses Webscout to help me source and she “got it” right away (young whippersnapper). If you’ve not read Online Arbitrage yet, you might find the video and the program overwhelming at first.

Just a quick overview of the picture above:

  1. That Search Results tab is what you click to see ALL the offers that ScanPower found for your search.
  2. See those offer prices? BB means “Buy Box”
  3. The Payout automatically includes Amazon’s fees. You’ll need to figure out your shipping to Amazon, packing and other expenses.
  4. Add your cost for the item and the aforementioned packing and shipping costs and put them in the “cost” box. All the net payouts will change to reflect your actual out-of-pocket costs.
  5. Want to see tracking data for this particular product? Click the tracking tab near the arrow.
  6. This view is the Product Search page. The Tracking page is where you would see all the products you are tracking.
  7. If you want to compare your results to eBay completed sales, pull up CamelCamelCamel or Keepa, you can do it from this screen with these tiny icon buttons.
  8. Another cool feature about Webscout is that you can search by key word, ASIN, UPC, ISBN to find what you want.  Selling a particular candy? Just type in the name and EVERY offer will come up in every variation of size, multipack, bundle, you name it. Then you can easily see which sizes/offers are the most popular and, sometimes, identify a missing offer that would probably sell well.

Evaluate

This is a popular stand-alone service for sellers who source from wholesalers and online sites.   You can either pay per-use or a monthly fee. What ScanPower Evaluate does is let you take a huge spreadsheet of UPC codes that you might get from your wholesaler, a liquidator, dealer or some other quantity source, upload it to ScanPower Evaluate and a short time later get a fully populated spreadsheet that shows you exactly which items match your “buy”criteria. You feed in the name, UPC code/ISBN/ASIN, the out-of-pocket cost (usually provided by your supplier) and Evaluate gives you the rest – rank, net payout, etc., fast! You can dictate some customized fields if you want. You’ll be able to very quickly see which items are worth buying and which ones aren’t.

Small lists of 50 UPC codes or less are free. This is a great way to test the service out. Bigger lists are very reasonable. If you have 15,000-50,000 items to evaluate, for example, that is only $25. What a deal! For sellers who regularly upload a lot of big lists, there is also an unlimited monthly plan.

After you decide which items you want to sell, you can easily create your listings in ScanPower List.

Evaluate is easy to use.  ScanPower has instructions on the Evaluate page (scroll down to the bottom) and a helpful video. Once you have all the data, you can sort your spreadsheet by any column you like. I normally like to look at rank first and then ROI.  The promising offers I examine more closely. Sometimes there is a lowballer on a product and I want to check his supply (I make a pretend purchase from him).  I can also use Keepa or CamelCamelCamel to see if that low price is the norm or an exception.

Some of my colleagues prefer to look at return/ROI first because they are thinking that if they advertise they may be able to increase sales and get the rank down that way.  There is no right or wrong way to look at the data as long as you consider everything before you actually buy.  That’s the great thing about ScanPower Evaluate, you have the data to work with…and really fast.

Listing

Once you’ve bought your inventory, it is time to list it on Amazon.com. When ScanPower first came out, the process through Amazon was excruciating and time consuming. It was OK if you only wanted to sell a few products, horrible if you wanted to sell thousands of MSKUs as I do. Amazon is better and easier to use now, but still not as efficient or robust as ScanPower. For some businesses which sell around or under 100 MSKUs, it may make more sense to stick to Amazon. For everyone else, ScanPower List is faster than Amazon.

I like ScanPower List because it integrates with my other ScanPower programs, but is also great by itself. I sell a lot of pre-1972 books and often have to do my research again online when I get home because I was either using FBA Scout which doesn’t integrate with ScanPower, and/or because I originally had to use the Amazon seller app (and its “Flow” capability) to look up the book since it had no ISBN#. ScanPower List gives me the exact same data and capabilities of ScanPower Mobile and easily creates the listing for me.

Because I sell a lot of books and other-condition items (Used, Collectible, Open-Box, Refurbished, etc.), I have a collection of notes for each category of goods. For collectible games, for example, I may have notes that say things like “Box has worn corners and creases on the cover.” For a collectible book I may have a note that says “Dust jacket is missing.” You get the idea. ScanPower lets me keep my notes and swap out depending on what I’m listing. It is very fast and easy to quickly grab the right note and add it to my item. For something unusual, I can quickly write up a custom note as well. With ScanPower, I can create a custom listing as fast as those guys who all use the same stupid listing (may have this, may have that, could be a library book…hope you don’t care what the book is really like, blah, blah…) which sets my offer apart.

SP List.jpg

Critically important for me is that when I’m listing, I’m capturing vital data at the same time. I type in where I got the product (great for replenishing and data analysis later), what I paid, what I’m selling it for, and the high/low price that Amazon now demands. If it is a grocery or health/beauty item, I not only capture the expiration date, I can set up an auto-reminder well in advance of the expiration date.

Because Amazon wants merchandise pulled 50 days before expiration, I set all my auto-reminders 80 days in advance. This gives me 30 days to drop prices and sell any lingering inventory. I used to create and maintain spreadsheets for this – now I don’t have to. Also, if you sell the same product but with different expiration dates, you can add a new alert every time you send in your inventory. I have some candy I sell year-round but the expiration dates vary depending on when I bought it from the wholesaler. Every time I’m listing a batch with a new expiration date, I can put in the new reminder. This is really an awesome feature. Since Amazon has a “first in, first out” policy this means my old inventory is used up before my new stuff which is what I want.

All this data is instantly available to my other ScanPower tools – Reports and the Repricer.

Another time-saver is sticky notes and sticky conditions. These two features mean if I have a bunch of inventory that is the same note “Book is sealed in plastic to protect it from dust in the warehouse” or condition “Used-Very Good, Used Very Good, Used Very Good…” ScanPower will simply keep putting that information in the listing until I tell it to stop. It is 100% customizable. You will find these features under “Settings” + “List.”

There are other helpful features like whenever I list something, all the labels print at once for that item AND the warehouse is printed on the label for easier packing later. If I have 30 dog collars going to four warehouses, the labels all print at once for quick stickering and I can instantly see “4 to ABE, 3 to PHX…” It is nice. Back in the old days, kids, I used to make a lot more mistakes sending in inventory. You don’t know how easy you have it! (Imagine me shaking my cane at you here).

Except during Q4 when things really heat up, my preference is to send out one large shipment a week. It is cheaper per pound and easier on my packer. Having clearly marked labels is VERY helpful when it comes time to box, weigh and ship. I use a Dymo printer that allows me to label items as I go which is more efficient than trying to match labels to merchandise later.  We also sort as we go. It is not uncommon for a week’s worth of merchandise to go to four or five warehouses – a real nightmare if it wasn’t organized.

Once my shipments are ready in ScanPower, they are closed out and sent to Amazon’s Shipping Queue for final preparation. At the time I send my shipment over to Amazon, ScanPower tells me exactly how much that order is going to net me (assuming I sell at my desired prices) and the average rank which gives me that warm glow inside from a job well done.

rank price payout

Repricing

Of course, you don’t always get what you want in the world of online selling and sometimes price adjustments are required. ScanPower Repricer is a fairly intuitive and easy-to-use repricer that lets you reprice in several ways. First of all, it is rules based. You will be setting up your criteria for your main categories. You will probably reprice your books differently than your food, for example. The first thing you do is set up your main categories and rules.

ScanPower makes it easy to select customized rules for your inventory. All the options are drag and drop. You can set percentages, dollar amounts, by ranks – just about anything you can think of. Have some sellers you hate? You can exclude them from the repricing. They won’t feel the snub, but you’ll know.  OK, just kidding on that.  This is a great feature for eliminating persistent lowballers with whom you don’t want to reprice against. If there is anything confusing or bewildering about the Repricer it is the fact that there are so many options. You will need to experiment a bit until you are happy with your results. This is easiest to do with a manual reprice.

Once your rules are ready to be tested, you can pull up your active inventory based on that category (Toys, Books, Grocery, etc.) and apply the rules. ScanPower Reprice will pull up all your items and reprice them according to your rules on the screen in front of you. You can scan down the pages, see the changes, approve them and have them sent to Amazon for immediate changes. If you scan down the page and everything looks great, you click the “send” button and every price change on that page is sent to Amazon immediately. Then you click to the next page. It can be very fast.

SP repricer

If you see any prices that look off – too much of a drop, a big price increase that doesn’t make sense, etc., you can pull it up and look at it closely with the same tools you have in List including CamelCamelCamel, Keepa and the rest. You have all the data you already had about the product in ScanPower List including what you paid for the item which helps me a LOT when I’m repricing. For the items that look “off,” you can reprice them yourself and then click a button to have that price instantly updated on Amazon.com.

I have my settings in such a way that certain outliers will go to “audit.” This means that if I choose to reprice regularly without looking at the offers, my audits won’t be repriced. They will be waiting for me to look at them manually (usually in the page-by-page view) and reprice.

Sometimes ScanPower gets fooled by a seller who has a really high price for an item, for example. They’re not really offering it for that price, it is just that their repricer hasn’t kicked in yet or they had a big typo. You can see that easily when you look at the current data on the product. I prefer to do my repricing for used items this way when I have the time because I can have more oversight and catch when the robots get it wrong.

For other times when I don’t have the time and when I feel OK overall with my rules, I can order Repricer to reprice all the inventory in that category and send it to Amazon. This takes a very short amount of time. Some sellers I know do this every day. For these kinds of repricing activities, I will exclude my high priced items and focus on my more commodity items. Most of my books, for example, sell from $7-$12. I’m OK with the robots and rules handling the repricing for me for these books. My rules put questionable changes into “audit.”

The books and other collectible items that sell for higher I want to review before I upload the prices to Amazon. They may be long-tail sales, for example, where I want to keep the price high and where I know it may take months to a year to sell. I also don’t want my price on a textbook to drop, necessarily, because one low-ball jerk joined the party.  (I might even go buy his book and re-sell it)

When I’m repricing a whole category and not doing it page-by-page, ScanPower creates a spreadsheet for me and then I upload that spreadsheet to Amazon when I’m ready.  ScanPower Repricer allows for all kinds of great sorting opportunities both on the screen and in the spreadsheet.  I can sort, for example, by how long something has been up at the warehouse. I may choose to be more aggressive with my older merchandise.  I can sort by the expensive inventory and simply exclude it from the upload.  I can sort by number of units I have in the warehouse.  That lets me decide if I want to be more aggressive with merchandise that has a lot of units I’m trying to unload. For all my single items, I’m usually more willing to wait if the payout is high.

There are other cool features about Repricer that make it very robust like being able to exclude sellers with poor feedback ratings or newbies or thathead scratch low-ball seller you hate that shows up everywhere but only has 1 or two units. Other rules-based repricers on the marketplace offer many of the same features. What makes ScanPower Repricer special is that it: 1) is free with List – a huge savings over stand-alone solutions – and 2) is fully integrated with your Mobile and List programs which means once you enter your units and cost and price in Mobile, you never have to do it again. No re-entry of data.  Just like the other ScanPower products, it is all about the data. You will get a lot of data from ScanPower to help you make good decisions.

Some of you are scratching your heads remembering my blog about Feedvisor as my preferred repricer. It absolutely is my favorite. However, it only reprices New items where a seller can get the Buy Box. This means I have to use a rules-based repricer for my books, used and collectible items. For them I have ScanPower. The day Feedvisor offers to reprice my used items….I will be so happy.

Reports

Amazon offers the most amazing inventory and order reports you’ve ever seen. As a partner, Amazon is amazing in terms of the data it gives sellers about their inventory. I love their reports. However, what is missing is MY data. Amazon doesn’t keep track of how much I paid for an item, where I bought it, when it is going to expire, etc. That’s where ScanPower Reports comes in. It bridges the gap between Amazon and me.

Just like List and the Repricer, ScanPower Reports integrates fully with Amazon and can pull data from my account. By marrying that data with my information that I’ve keyed into ScanPower, Reports can give me a comprehensive look at my inventory and profitability by product, category and overall.

ScanPower Reports lets me see which are my most profitable products, whether or not I’m actually making a profit – both by product and overall – and a wealth of historical data. I can see how products have performed over time for me, which ones give me the best margins, which ones are selling faster and a whole lot more. The more data I contribute in terms of expenses, shipping costs, overhead, etc., the better picture I get from ScanPower Reports as to whether or not I’m actually making money in my business.

This is a fairly new program for ScanPower and much appreciated. It takes a little bit of work to get things set up. You need to input certain expenses yourself from accounting program to get a clear picture of actual profit. Once you are set up, you can see the data in a nice graphical format.

current inventory report

This is just one of the reports.  Like rank, this one is a snapshot in time.  It shows where I am today in terms of categories, the value of my inventory, the average age of my inventory, etc.  Because I’m familiar with my past numbers, I can see where I’m making progress and which categories are growing/shrinking over time. Books looks small in this chart but they make up the bulk of my inventory SKU-wise. [Disclaimer: this picture in no way implies what is “right,” “normal,” or “typical” for an Amazon FBA seller. Don’t waste time comparing your charts to mine.  What’s important is that you see what kind of data Reports gives you.]

Besides profits, ScanPower Reports show me which of my categories are the most profitable and which ones have the most sales (not always the same thing). In this Q1 report I can see at a glance, for example, that grocery was my biggest category Q1 2015 and exceeds sales in any other category even though I have thousands of books for sale (my #2).  Time to get more aggressive about my book repricing!

Q1 categories

Because I went back and entered the source for all my inventory from the past six months (It is part of my MSKU as well so it was easy to do), I can also see which stores/wholesalers yield the most inventory for me.

I can also gain insight into which categories cost me the most in terms of expenses. Food, for example, is very profitable for me with high turnover. It is also costly in terms of packaging. There are polybags, extra labels, bubble wrap and other expenses that I don’t necessarily have for pets. That gives me a picture and helps me decide, “is food still worth it?” (yes!)

When you first start with Reports, you will need to import data from Amazon and from whatever spreadsheets and accounting system you are using now. It takes a bit of set up. To its credit, ScanPower has created some very nice wizards and quick processes to help speed it along. I probably spent about two hours getting set up the first time and now I don’t have to do anything. I didn’t need to spend all that time, but I wanted to go back and add historical data.

ScanPower Reports does NOT replace a bookkeeping program like Quickbooks or Outright.com. Your CPA needs you to keep your books (sorry, Charlie), BUT it gives you in-depth insight into your inventory. The intelligence you gain lets you decide where you should spend your time and your inventory dollars. You can better detect which activities are least productive and spend time and money investing in your winners.

When people say things like “Do I HAVE to use ScanPower?” or “Can’t I just do it through Amazon?” they are worried about the cost of the product. They are still not sure about their own success selling on Amazon and don’t want to lose a bunch of money on an activity where they are afraid they will fail. I get that and I tell them, “no you don’t – but some day you will want to.”

That’s the bottom line. As a successful seller – which you will be one day if you are not already, right? – you need an efficient and integrated system. You need as much information as possible to make smart decisions and you need to get a clear picture of your business from a SELLER point of view rather than the IRS’ (for example).

online arbitrageIf I had to describe ScanPower in two words, they would be “data driven.” That’s what the company is all about – giving you the best possible data to make informed business decisions. CEO Chris Green is a mentor of mine (full disclosure). He is always thinking about five steps ahead to the next great thing. Talking with him is drinking out of an idea firehose – fast, furious and futuristic. His Online Arbitrage book is an example of his intuitive brilliance about arbitrage and being on the cutting edge of selling on Amazon.com. Just about the time everyone starts to catch on to OA, he’ll be doing something else.

For that and many other reasons, I’m a huge fan of ScanPower. It has been a bumpy ride sometimes, but I have confidence that whatever the next big thing is – ScanPower will be leading the charge rather than following the pack. If I have a complaint about ScanPower it is that they are not always clear communicators of just how cool their stuff is and what you can do with it. There are some dots that don’t get connected right away. Videos and tutorials tend to move quickly and sometimes assume things that are not clear to the viewer. The Webscout and Reports launches were examples of this. Great products but there was a big learning curve.

If you had not read Chris’s OA book, for example, then a lot of Webscout’s features and capabilities were overwhelming or confusing (even if you had, frankly, it takes a while for some ideas to really sink in). My advice to you is to call on their tech support until your questions are answered. The current ScanPower customer support team is very helpful and responsive. They are also quick learners and good listeners. Once they get a question or feedback a few times, they start to make changes, create new processes and post helpful Q&As and videos.

If you are a relative newbie to all these concepts and processes, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Don’t ever feel like you are the only one who doesn’t get it. Ask questions, get help. Join the ScanPower FB group and learn about FBA. Why? Because it is worth it. When I started, (only 5 years ago!) just the idea that I could sell anything outside of books was revolutionary. Chris Green and ScanPower helped me to become an Amazon seller and not just an online book seller. I was on the front edge of scanning with a smartphone and Bluetooth scanner thanks to Chris. When ScanPower introduced me to CamelCamelCamel and Keepa, I just about passed out from the staggering ramifications. I bought Online Arbitrage when it first came out last year because I knew it was going to change things for me and the industry.

Chris told me years ago, “you should write a book helping people get started selling on Amazon.com” and he was right. He told me, “your blog posts are too long,” and he was wrong. That’s life my friends.

Now there are all kinds of great ways to make money on Amazon. Private Label, bundling, wholesaling, ungated categories, going overseas…it is so dazzling and exciting that it is sometimes hard to focus. I’m a kid in a candy shop that wants to eat it all. And in all of this, I see Chris Green at the front of the pack disrupting things and coming up with seemingly impossible ideas and making them work. I’ve studied other products out there and many of them are very good. My appreciation of ScanPower doesn’t mean I can’t see how smart his competitors are and how well they serve their customers. InventoryLab had great reports long before ScanPower and, in fact, forced ScanPower to re-think their product offerings. But I couldn’t tell you the names of their CEOs. I couldn’t tell you what they have contributed to the industry and I couldn’t tell you with certainty that whatever the next big thing is they will be there making it happen.

I’m a fan, but not a blind follower. If I wasn’t making more money because of ScanPower, I would be using something else. If you are using something else and are happy, don’t switch. It is hard to learn new tools all the time! Join one of the active FBA seller groups on Facebook. Learn where the next big thing is coming from when it comes down the pike. Make sure you are ready for the future. Position yourself with all the industry leaders.

A friend once said to me, “all I do is try to put myself in the right environment for success. My first $20 million had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time rather than any special skill set on my part. Luck is a huge part of success and I’d rather be lucky than smart.” And then he wanted to write a book about the “fun element” in life and work.  Unlike some of my other wealthy friends who were trying to teach me financial concepts I had trouble grasping (leveraged buy outs, etc.), I took two valuable things away from this conversation:

1) It was OK to let him keep paying for lunch and

2) Success is a LOT about positioning yourself.

He was worth about $50 million at his death and most of his wealth came not from buying/selling businesses and commercial buildings per se, but from putting himself in place for possible success. He operated as part of a two-person team and was a humble man despite his wealth. At one point a year or so before the big $20 million deal that changed his life, he and his family were living out of a van because of mistakes he had made and he never forgot that. He was intensely loyal to people he considered his true friends. He never felt he was particularly rich or successful compared to his super-wealthy friends, but he really understood the numbers and how to create value in a business. His employees liked him even in the toughest, crappiest business he ran and sold (a collections agency). He was also probably one of the biggest Simpson’s fans ever and explained a lot of seriously funny things to me. I miss him and I am grateful to him.

I mention this because my friend is right. Being in the right place at the right time is crucial. YOU are already ahead of a lot of people because you are part of one of the most exciting and growing opportunities on earth – selling on Amazon. Now you have to decide where you want to be and how you want to get there. Wholesale? Private Label? Online arbitrage? Retail arbitrage? International? There are many lucrative paths. When you can afford them, you’ll want the best tools possible to maximize your very limited time. Be sure to continue to evaluate your tools and your strategies as you grow.

Free month of ScanPower!

I normally offer a free month of ScanPower List & Mobile as one of the bonuses for buying my e-book ($59.95 value) from me. For the next week or so (through May 29), any new ScanPower customer who signs up through this link will get a free month of ScanPower List and ScanPower Mobile to try it out. This is only for NEW ScanPower customers and only until May 29, 2015.

For my international readers, ScanPower has a UK version as well. Follow the link and directions above, BUT when it comes time to register, go HERE.  My code will work for you to get a free month.

Anyone reading this after the expiration date can either buy the Kindle version of my book Make Thousands on Amazon in 10 Hours a Week! and get a free month, or go to http://www.scanpower.com/store/ to get whatever deal they are currently offering – usually free two weeks, but it changes sometimes.

Please note, this is a special deal I’ve worked out with ScanPower for my customers. It is not an affiliate relationship. I get paid nothing.

greetings-kentuckyButter my butt and call me a biscuit – I’m coming to Kentucky!

I’m going to be in Lexington, Kentucky in early June soaking up some culture (with aforementioned biscuit) and have arranged to teach a live, hands-on retail arbitrage class on Thursday evening, June 11th. I haven’t picked an exact location yet because I’m hoping to get some insight from the locals. Maybe Kmart? I haven’t seen one in years. Anyway, if you are within a few hours drive of Lexington, come join me. I love to meet my readers in person! Sign up now, my classes are small and sometimes I have to turn people away.

Catch me talking about account suspensions on ScannerMonkey!scannermonkey

Thursday night, May 21, 2015, I will be talking with the fun folks at ScannerMonkey about a serious topic – Amazon suspensions and how to keep from getting suspended in the first place. I suspect there will be a lot of questions from the chat room. I normally charge $250 an hour for my time so here’s your chance to ask me questions for free. Join us! https://zoom.us/j/324131802 Use zoom.us and meeting id: 324131802 OR CALL in at: 415-762-9988.

tokkenMaybe it is because I’ve been working with so many distressed Amazon FBA Sellers lately, but my perception is that the online business world has gotten harder and meaner lately. It is disheartening. Blood is in the water and it is stirring up ugly things in the collective unconscious of the seller community. Sellers are playing dirty tricks against me again (new tactic, same evil) which is disheartening to me personally. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger flowing through so many things related to selling on Amazon that I thought it might help to talk for a few minutes about compassion and kindness.

Wha?!? You don’t think those two words have much to do with business? You would be surprised. In fact, those two words are critical to long-term business and personal health success. To act with kindness not only helps the world around you, it helps you. The greatest thing about kindness is that it is the secret to a happy life. If you don’t believe me, ask Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed to name just a few historical leaders who lived this truth and taught it. Because our businesses are an extension of us as people, when there is conflict between how the business is run and what kind of person you want to be, the result is chaos and failure on one side or the other…or both.

More mistakes are made in distress than in joy. More failures come from arrogance, lack of empathy, dishonesty, carelessness, pride, impatience, loneliness, greed, fear and anger than the virtues. Think back to your last three mistakes this week and see if you can trace what happened back to one of these human frailties. What? No mistakes so far this week? Umm, start with self-dishonesty. Seriously. I’m not talking about giant business-ending mistakes here, just the everyday stuff – the stuff that’s easy to fix or work around. Where did these mistakes come from – joy? Probably not.

In fact, how many business decisions do you make every day from a place of fear or anger? Oh, you might call it uncertainty, nervousness, doubt, frustration…but those are just smoothing words for bigger, scarier feelings. Because business IS a risk, there will always be some of that lurking around. It’s natural and human. So how do you reduce those feelings and negative influences and increase the positive? Kindness and compassion. While the words are often used interchangeably, they are different.

Kindness – the state or quality of being kind, a kind act, kind behavior.

Compassion – a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

As you can see, compassion the feeling often leads to kindness, the act. What surprises some people is that being kind can also lead to greater compassion and caring for one’s fellow man. It can be a virtuous cycle.

So what does this have to do with selling stuff on Amazon? Everything! Selling is about PEOPLE even with a technology aided platform like Amazon. Many sellers who get in trouble with Amazon do so because they forgot about their customer – something Amazon is RABID about. They are slow to respond, they are curt and rude in their responses, they sell shoddy product, they deliver late, they lie in their listings, they try to sell products that promote cruelty to animals (!), they let their edible items expire and then they wonder why their customers are so upset and Amazon has suspended them.

Even if you have never gotten in trouble with Amazon before, you might in the future because 1) Amazon is cracking down like Zeus’ lightning bolt on even minor infractions and 2) your business ultimately reflects your mindset. It is inevitable. The good news is that virtue also shows up in your business. A kind heart moved by compassion will ultimately be more satisfied in business and life. Kindness and financial wealth are NOT mutually exclusive, but sometimes people think they are. Values such as profit and efficiency sometimes take on greater importance at the expense of human warmth and genuine presence.

I think this trend is a mistake. Here is a look at the benefits of kindness and how they might benefit your business:

Honesty

To be honest is to live a transparent life unburdened by secrets and shame. It makes is easier for you because you don’t have to remember the lies you’ve told and it helps build trust with others. With no lies muddying the waters, you can see clearly into a situation or person. It is also a very hard way to live. It means being vulnerable. Honesty is often embarrassing. The truth can be sharp and uncomfortable. If you are admitting mistakes and other frailties, you are open to attack by the less compassionate. You may be afraid of what others think of you if you tell the truth. In business you may feel you have to lie in order to make the sale and it is important to sell, right? Maybe the person you are lying to is yourself when you say stuff like “that doesn’t really matter,” and “everyone else does it,” “Amazon will never know…” Here’s the thing with honesty, it matters to YOU. It is your soul we are talking about here. Whether you can justify an action or not is irrelevant in the long run because your heart knows the difference. Lie detectors work because they detect the STRESS we undergo every time we lie! Lying hurts us physically, emotionally, socially and financially. Every time we say “yes” when we really want to say “no,” hurts us. Every time we pull something over on someone else we are hurting ourselves. What a bitch.

Keep that stress in mind when you are conditioning your inventory, considering whether or not to buy from a shady source, repackaging returns or playing nasty tricks on other sellers (I’ve seen so much of that lately – it turns my stomach. WTF people, WTF).

Honesty isn’t just about the difficult, unpleasant aspects of life. Many people also hide their tenderness, goodwill, original thoughts and capacity for NO crying in baseballbeing moved. While part of this may be reserve (there’s no crying in baseball!), it is mostly a protective action. We feel vulnerable and weak. It is easier to be cynical and hard. In that way, however, we separate from the most spiritual and beautiful part of ourselves—and prevent others from seeing it and feeling it when they may desperately need it. The band plays on while the Titanic sinks.

To think that there’s no place for feelings at work is absurd. There are few things more personal than business when you are the owner. Everything you have is involved – your passions, desires, hopes, creativity, resources, relationships, sense of accomplishment, money…work is where we spend most of our time and yet we try to suppress the best of ourselves? It is very stressful and bad for business. If we aren’t congruent across every aspect of our lives we get sick and sometimes die. Really. It’s that important.

A few weeks ago I had a client going through a very rough business situation involving layoffs and a possible business shut-down. I know exactly how that feels and I sympathized. I comforted them by being present. I made it safe for them to grieve with me because I knew that was what they were doing – grieving a painful kind of death. I was honest about their chances. They needed 100% honesty in this time of crisis to do anything less would have been unkind.

I was brought in near the end of an ongoing situation with them. In all their time of stress they hadn’t told anyone outside the family (as it were). This “professional reserve” nearly sunk them. Once I knew what was going on, I brought in a financial expert to help them get back on their feet. Would they have told me about their problem if they didn’t trust me? No. Honesty builds trust. I also got them reinstated which helped, but did not fix all their problems. During their recovery, they will have to bare their financial and operational souls to a lot of people. It will be hard, but it will help them in the long run. I am very hopeful for them.

Unless you are a sociopath, dishonesty affects YOU terribly. Bring your life back into congruence here and you will sleep better at night which means you will work better during the day. This is not woo-woo here. It is human behavior. Peace is the side effect of honesty.

While you may think it is unkind to be honest sometimes, it is a greater kindness to tell someone the truth. Tact helps of course and can be a kindness, too, as long as it doesn’t obscure the honest message being conveyed.

Forgiveness

forgiveness-4This is terribly important for all of us imperfect human beings. Whether you believe in God or not, I’m confident you have benefitted from forgiveness both that you received and that you gave to another person. No matter how wronged you are or, perhaps how much you have wronged someone else, there is a chance for peace, healing and relief from suffering. To seek to earn forgiveness is important to our very souls when we have wronged someone else. That’s why it is so important in business to try and make it right for a customer. Not because Amazon says so, but because it makes us feel better to fix our mistakes!

What about when someone has wronged us? We desperately need to forgive them – not for them, but for ourselves. Holding on to anger, grief and feelings of betrayal destroys human beings. It corrodes us like battery acid (or Coca-Cola on teeth). As a business person, it is critical that we be able to let go and move on to the next thing whatever that is – a new opportunity, a new platform, a new relationship, whatever. Rage and grief will keep you stuck and churning inside your head instead of building something new and exciting. I know. I’ve lived it. I’ve had these feelings poison my soul and nearly destroy me physically, emotionally and in business. For those of you who believe in prayer, praying earnestly for those who have wronged you works if you are willing to do it for a long, long time. Of course, you probably already know that, but practicing is harder than knowing sometimes.

There is no forgiveness without compassion and kindness. Compassion says “I have hurt people too. I have made mistakes too. I know they are suffering. I know what it feels like to hurt someone else and I don’t like it. I want to help them.” Kindness says, “This person needs another chance. They are human like me. I can forgive and I will.”

Amazon believes in forgiveness. If you read the lengthy contract you signed with Amazon in the beginning, you may notice that Amazon can shut down your account for any reason at any time and that they don’t need to tell you why. You agreed to it and it is a pretty harsh and final thing to read in a contract. I imagine it will stand up quite nicely in court. And yet…Amazon forgives its sellers every day for large transgressions. They don’t have to but they do.

A cynical person might point out that if they kicked everyone off the platform it would hurt them financially. They need their third-party sellers so they have to work with us. This is true, but I have seen them forgive some really heinous behaviors from newbie sellers, for example, that weren’t even a tiny drop in their financial bucket. Maybe they do it because it is good business to forgive! They now have a chastened and eager partner who will be extra diligent, yes. AND they are living their principles of being the most customer-centric company on earth. In this case, we are the customer and we benefit.

Lastly when it comes to forgiveness by Amazon for suspended or banned accounts, it very much matters WHO you get on the other end of that appeal email and HOW you write your appeal. If you are looking for forgiveness and admit your mistakes, you are much more likely to get reinstated. If you ask them to be kind, they are more likely to be kind. How do I know that? I see it every day in my reinstatement practice. Asking for forgiveness is tough because, like honesty, it makes you vulnerable. You are admitting your mistakes and that you are in the wrong. Business people have it drilled into their heads by lawyers to never admit wrongdoing or you might get sued. And yet so much in life and business can be resolved by a heartfelt apology!

To be clear, forgiveness is not condoning, nor is it an act of self-righteousness in which we affirm our moral superiority and pat ourselves on the backforgive_attribute-strong-PS for how noble and generous we are. Forgiveness is uplifting. It lets us live in the present moment instead of the burning past. All the energy poured into blame, hatred, prejudice and revenge is now freed up to feed new, positive projects.

Some things are harder to forgive than others. It may take you a long time to release your feelings. Just remember that it is about you and for you and your peace…and keep working it. As a person who has been in analysis since 1997, I can tell you that forgiveness is worth it, that it doesn’t happen overnight, and that it is all about you and your heart, not them.

Sense of Belonging/Community

In business, partnerships and unified groups are important to get a lot of things accomplished from lobbying for new laws, to making your Amazon FBA business work. Business is a chain of goods and services that relies on other businesses to get done. Sounds pretty straightforward and machine-like. There’s a reason business uses so many gears as an icon – the interconnectedness of life, relationships and business are all reflected in that simple image – but a gear is also soul-less, implacable, relentless.

Kindness comes into play when we do more than work with each other. Think about some of those groups on Facebook that you go to again and again. Why are you there? Some will say to get help with their business questions, to learn from other sellers and to get new ideas. I submit that these are all side benefits of the real reason you are there – for a sense of belonging and community. Here are people who get you and your crazy business friendsmodel. They laugh at your funny pictures of shopping carts full of condoms and who will stand with you and call Kohl’s short-sighted because they won’t let you scan there anymore. They will freely give you great advice and ideas. They cheer you up when you are having a frustrating day and encourage you when you feel down. For some inexplicable reason they are invested in your success – as you are in theirs. Is this good business? You bet your life! It is through community and a sense of belonging that we not only discover things about ourselves, but we also find real friends and strong business partners.

Together we are more than the sum of our parts. By giving to the community, we are enriched. By sharing with others, we also learn things that help us in business and life. Kindness is the difference between warm community and hostile competitors. If I see you as different and I view you with suspicion, or at the best with cold neutrality, it is unlikely that I will feel kindly disposed toward you. If instead I look at you knowing we both belong to the human race, both have a similar nature, different experiences but the same roots and a common destiny (Amazon FBA), then it is probable I will feel openness, solidarity, empathy toward you. In other words…kindness.

Trust

There is no trust without kindness and compassion, and business runs on trust. Despite all the contracts that lawyers draw up every year, the reality is that contracts only work because of the goodwill and trust of the people behind them. People don’t honor contracts because they are afraid of being sued (well, hardly ever); they honor contracts because they are already honorable. Over the past 25 years I’ve gone to court several times and even though I won every single time, I learned that most companies who don’t have assets to be seized will simply walk away and not pay – with no consequences. I’ve learned that either you are dealing with someone honorable or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you’re screwed, might as well save your money. Most honorable businesses will never make you go to court because they have compassion for your situation and enough self-honesty to see that they are wrong in the first place or at least share the blame. They may try to settle or set up a payment plan because they believe in paying their debts. It is part of who they are as people and as an organization. I’ve experienced both.

One of my greatest business mentors and friends won my heart and my trust because he was honest about his situation and paid me when he could have weaseled out of it. He has passed away and I miss him so much. I reached out to him for all kinds of business issues and he was an excellent sounding board, and thoughtful guide. Why? What was in it for him to help me? I don’t know exactly but he had my unswerving loyalty and attention every time he was my client. I adored him. How many people can you say that about in your life, let alone your business life?

So, how do you build trust? Through relationship and the courage to risk having your heart broken. You could be betrayed. It is the thread behind every blood oath, promise, contract, pinky swear, marriage vow and handshake deal. But it is just this vulnerability that gives trust its power. It is because we put ourselves on the line that trust is so warm and precious. Trust creates intimacy. But here’s the catch, you have to give it to get it and there’s no certainty to the outcome. You either are willing to take the chance or you aren’t. You have to surrender a little bit of yourself which is really hard for the control freaks among us (business owner = control freak in case you were wondering).

Being able to trust is correlated to long life. Wow! That makes trust super important to us as humans. Then why are we so hard on trusting people in general? Because we are afraid of appearing naïve and of being vulnerable. Most of us believe that highly trusting people are idiots and naïve (at best! Sometimes people think even worse). Recent studies have shown, however, that high-trusters are not naïve, but rather have an intelligence that permits them to distinguish between the trustworthy and the untrustworthy. The low trusters do not trust others because they do not have this TRUSTcapacity, and play it safe by saying no to everyone. Their social life is poorer, their businesses less successful, their relationships more fragile. I’m not talking about healthy skepticism and due diligence here, I’m talking about when an inability to trust is part of a person’s and a company’s character. Then it becomes a hindrance.

Trust and kindness go hand in hand. Kindness is trusting and ready to risk; it brings us closer to others. To trust is to be kind to others. How do you feel, for example, when someone has more faith in you than you have in yourself sometimes? Uplifted! Strong! Brave! What about when they do not have faith in you? Shattered. Angry. Betrayed. Trust is the soul of a successful relationship whether it be your spouse, your friend or your business colleague. To give trust is kindness and joyful when given to the right kind of partner.

Empathy

Empathy is one of the greatest skills we possess as humans. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel their suffering (or joy!) not only helps when we are comforting or celebrating with a loved one, but also when we are creating new products and solutions to problems, picking out items to sell and tapping into an emotional response among our buyers. Since birth we have been able to resonate with human beings (unless we are sociopaths) and yet sometimes we lose it as we get older and life gets harder. If we begin to see people more as objects – “them” instead of “us” – then we will manipulate and violate them. We become monsters.

While monsters are sometimes celebrated in our society as great business people; that celebration usually is short-lived. Bernie Madoff is a well-known example, but there are thousands of less well-known monsters out there who are almost all eventually caught and forced into ruin, jail or running away. I thought the Freakonomics guys asked the right question when they asked “If drug dealing is so profitable, why are so many drug dealers still living with their Moms?” Apparently for every Miami Vice high roller drug dealer there are thousands of minions that are barely getting by. Many of them would be better off getting a job at Starbucks or Target with a much lower chance of getting shot or going to jail. Most of them aren’t very good business people (gasp!), nor do they work well with people (shock!).

I digress. If we see our customers, business partners and competitors as “them” instead of “us,” then we will stop caring about them and it will show up in our business in the form of complaints and poor metrics. We will lose the partners we need to be successful and we will become obsessed with our competitors to the detriment of our businesses.

While it is very important to be able to see our partners as people, what is miraculous about empathy is its power to heal. Suffering individuals do not need diagnosis, advice, interpretations or manipulations most of the time. They need genuine and total empathy. When at last they feel that someone identifies with their experience, in that moment they are able to let go of their suffering and are healed. I’ve experienced it and witnessed it both personally and professionally. It is life changing.

Empathy sounds awesome! What’s the catch? Our own suffering is the grounds for empathy. Ouch. Pain is, in varying doses, a companion for life. When confronted honestly, pain can bear fruits of great importance. It digs down deep inside and opens us. We grow more mature, discover emotions and resources we were not aware of, and become more sensitive, humble and wise. Pain is a harsh reminder of what is essential and it can connect us to others. Suffering can make us kinder. When we see another’s suffering, we recognize it and want to help them. This helps us in business because we become more connected and we WANT to help each other.

An expression of empathy is one of the kindest things we can do for another human being – and one of the most helpful. An early boss taught me this lesson well. Our clients were usually paying us $5K-$15K a month for our services so an unhappy customer was a BIG deal. We would go in to the conference room with them quivering with rage sometimes. Marianne would sit and listen to them (she’d already told me to shut up and not be defensive). She’d sympathize with their situation, how their boss was breathing down their necks, and she’d give them a genuine apology and pledge to make it better. In her world, they were perfectly justified in being furious and she accepted responsibility. She was a partner with them in making the big boss happy. When they were done telling their story, poof! All the fire went out of the room. Now they were ready to move on to solve the problem or whatever needed to be done. It was like magic. As desperately as my young 20-something-self wanted to explain, protest and defend myself; it was irrelevant. Marianne got us to where we needed to be – working together again. Usually at some point in the meeting she’d get our side told, but it was done casually and not defensively. It was more like “how can we do this better next time?” She was brilliant, inspiring and kind. I learned so much from her.

Conclusion – Pay it Forward

This blog post is not nearly done because there is much more I could talk about in terms of how kindness is crucial to business. Humility, generosity, loyalty, respect, joy and more are affected by kindness and require kindness. If I wasn’t so darn tired, I’d keep writing. Maybe another week. These virtues impact our personal and professional lives. I hope this blog post has encouraged you. If you are feeling discouraged, angry, afraid or sad about your Amazon business, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to 1) be kind to yourself and 2) be kind to others.

Forgive yourself and others for mistakes made in distress. Allow yourself to express your innate compassion and kindness and you will be amazed how quickly things change for you. Reach out to others you trust and let them uplift you. Ask for help and don’t hide your human frailties or strengths – someone else will benefit from them. Share your story and feel the relief that telling it brings. Find someone who is suffering and be present for them. I promise you your life and your business will change.

Kindness is before our eyes. The opportunity to put things right or to help someone presents itself almost every moment, and if we respond accordingly, we affirm the truest feelings and highest values life can give.

Each person is kind in his or her own way. The ways of being kind are infinite. Find your own way. You may not realize it, but being kind is taking a stand. By itself, it might not help: Maybe our kindness will be ineffective. Our donation not enough to feed the world, the neighbor we help stand up after a fall doesn’t change the fact that she will fall again. The blood we give can’t meet the overwhelming need. Never mind. We have affirmed a principle, a way of being. We have affirmed that kindness matters. That doing something is better than nothing.

Zen and most major religions affirm that microcosm is macrocosm. Each person is the whole world. This means that each individual in some subtle and mysterious way embodies all people. If we can bring some relief and well-being to just one person’s life, this is already a victory, a silent, humble response to the suffering and pain of the planet. This is the starting point.

While perhaps selling zit cream or dog costumes is not addressing the pain of the world, the fact that we help bring products to the world is important because they fulfill a need. Business is bigger than sales charts, competition and whose bank account is fatter; it is about the kind of world we want to create. It may seem paradoxical, but the most sensible way to further our own interests, to find our own freedom, and to glimpse our own happiness is often not to pursue our goals directly, but to look after other people’s interests, to help other people be freer from fear and pain, to contribute to their happiness. Ultimately, it is very simple. There is NO choice between being kind to others and being kind to ourselves. It is the same thing.

Pay it Forward Meme_thumbOn international “Pay it Forward Day,” April 30th, I encourage you to consciously make an act of kindness and see if your day isn’t somehow more cheerful, productive or uplifting because of it. The ScannerMonkey team has arranged for free consulting for its members with some of the top Amazon FBA consultants in the world which is pretty damn inspiring. They only ask that the people who get the free consulting find a way to pay it forward to someone else in a way that works for them. I can’t wait to read the heartwarming stories and to see the results in the months to come. Kindness is a big rock in a pond. The ripples go on and on.

Still skeptical about the power of kindness? Consider this true story from my family:  When my Grandfather Stine was growing up he lived in a house in rural Michigan with a dirt floor and no plumbing. His parents had little schooling and no religious affiliation.  The town mail carrier, Clare Wolfe took an interest in him and invited him to attend a Christian camp where he committed his life to Christ and to a Christian ministry. My grandfather graduated from high school during the depression with no means to pay for college, but Clark Wolfe offered to pay his way if he would work summers to earn what he could. All he asked in return was that my Grandfather help others get an education when he had an opportunity.

My Grandfather got his degree from Asbury in Kentucky. In 1950 he and my Grandmother went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as missionaries, and immediately began to pay back Clare Wolfe by helping young Africans get an education, some with finishing 8th grade, some with high school, and even the first Rhodesian from the Methodist Church to attend college in South Africa. Later when the best options for Africans for college were in Europe or the United States, Grandfather contacted some wealthy individuals to get their support for students. The first African Methodist Bishop, Abel Muzorewa, who also became the first Prime Minister at the time of independence, was one of these. The first Secretary of Parliament, who later became first Chancellor of the Africa University, was another. (His name is John Kurewa, Asbury class of 64, with my Dad.) And when in the early 1960s the Methodist Church in the United States took on a program to send hundreds of young Africans abroad for college, Dad was the one to head up the program in Rhodesia. A number of these he sent to Asbury. At the time of independence in the mid-60’s, these well-trained people formed the core of leadership not only in the Methodist Church but also in government and in business throughout the country.

Rhodesia was admired throughout Africa because it had the ONLY bloodless colonial independence and transfer of power in Africa. Unintentionally, my Grandfather’s acts of paying it forward transformed the leadership of Rhodesia. The country took a different path than so many other countries because the sons of the chiefs had been educated. They had a perspective not shared by many others on the continent. Some had lived in the UK or the US which shaped their idea of politics and governance.

After retiring in Southern Illinois, my Grandfather continued to encourage young people to attend Asbury. He didn’t talk about what he did, but when he died my Grandmother received lengthy heart-felt letters from all over the world – particularly Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) – from men who were grateful for their educations and who told her how they had themselves paid it forward in their communities. I still cry thinking of these astonishing, surprising and unexpected letters.

My Dad said, “Some people have trouble believing in the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. But when my family thinks of how God took the gift of small-town mail carrier Clare Wolfe and multiplied it thousands of miles away and decades later, feeding 5,000 seems child’s play as miracles go. We are not asked often to do great things; we are asked to give what we have and let God be the one to use it and multiply it. We cannot know how our actions will affect others or even change the world which is the humbling, amazing and beautiful power of service to our fellow man.”

My Dad’s middle name is Clare which was not only in honor of Clare Wolfe, but also an unspoken obligation to live up to that name – which he has many times over.  My Dad continued to give it forward by becoming one of the world’s most renowned linguists and helping translate and distribute the word of God all over the world in different languages. His work for the United Bible Societies would have made Clare Wolfe so happy. To name just one accomplishment, Dad set up the world’s largest printing press in China. It prints Bibles 24/7 for distribution in China at cost. My Grandfather and Dad’s lives of service would not have happened without Clare Wolfe.

Infinite are the ways of being kind.

If you are interested in reading more about the power of kindness, I recommend one of my favorite books: “The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life” by Piero Ferrucci. Talk about a life-changing book. Every time I read it, I find something new to inspire me and nourish my soul. You’ll want to take notes and, hopefully, act.

If you click on the links above to join ScannerMonkey or to buy the book, I make a modest affiliate fee which is how I monetize the time I spend writing my blog. If you prefer not to use the affiliate link, you can go to Amazon.com or ScannerMonkey.com directly.

Toppling booksJust a quick blog this weekend about books and my progress with Frank Florence’s coaching.

Books

Yep. Not nearly as sexy as some of the other topics out there but a steady-eddie money maker. With Frank Florence’s ScoutBotPro (see below) I can now find high-value books on Amazon for a low price that I turn around and resell on Amazon for a higher price. I was skeptical at first but I’ve gotten some pretty cool deals. So far I don’t see this replacing my book business or books being a fully automated solution for me (there aren’t enough of these deals every day), but I appreciate it as a supplement. It brings me opportunities I wouldn’t have found by myself. I control the rank and the profit I want to make and the little robots send me deals that match.

It is fun to have a new way to find books, but the bread and butter of my book business are still book sales, thrift stores, discount book stores and a few happy surprises (my car wash was giving away boxes of books yesterday day for free – weird! Wonderful!).

I went to a book sale yesterday where I was the only scanner. In two hours my worker and I cleaned the place out. I will easily make $1,000 from this haul and I spent $113 plus two hours of my helper’s time. Everything was well below 1M in rank, most were below 500K.

Experiences like this are why books are so cool and why I highly recommend books as a starting point for new sellers who may not have a lot of budget to spend on inventory. Even when you do have money to buy new inventory, you may want to consider books because of their high returns, their ubiquity and low cost to purchase. I sell books on Amazon every single day.

I teach a class on book sales twice a year in the Dallas area. I have one coming up next week. If you are serious about books, you should consider this class. Besides the training, we work the sale hands-on together. Since I am right there to see you scan, I can help you figure out what might be causing “inventory blindness” and fix it on the spot. I only offer these classes twice a year because when I’m with you, I’m not scouting for myself. The classes are small so I can give everyone personal attention and answer everyone’s questions.

In case you missed them the first time around, here are some of my most popular blogs about books and how to work a book sale:

How to Work a Book Sale

My Interview with Amazon Bookseller Nathan Holmquist

Coaching

I promised to write about my experience automating my business with Frank Florence’s coaching. Having declared my desire to be automated by the end of the year to over 4500 of my readers, I’m highly motivated to succeed! I gave myself more than six months simply because I am actually running three businesses and I knew that they would slow my progress somewhat.

Boy, was I right about that! My reinstatement and other consulting services have taken off like a rocket and I’m busier than I ever anticipated helping other sellers get reinstated. Interestingly enough (for me anyway), that has actually forced me to automate and delegate a lot faster than I thought.

Here’s what I’ve done to date:rosie the robot

  • Signed up for ScoutBotPro and trained my assistant to find and acquire deals for me. I give her a budget and tell her when she can’t buy. This is necessary because I now have access to more inventory than I can possibly buy with my current resources. SBP looks for deals on Amazon that can be flipped in books, beauty, toys and more. I’m using my 30 day free trial to test all the categories.
  • Consulted with Frank Florence. In the beginning he looked at my inventory and gave me suggestions for upgrading my inventory. Now I send questions to him by email and he answers. It is very helpful to have someone to talk to (email to) who has already done this. I’ve more than gotten my $197 worth from the coaching program already. If you missed it, check out my blog about his program.
  • CyberMonkey-lgSigned up for CyberMonkeyDeals from ScannerMonkey. This program is the BOMB! It looks on retail sites for deals and sends you a certain number a day. The deals are distributed randomly so that there are fewer sellers looking at the same deal. I am at the $40 a month level (I get a discount because I’m a ScannerMonkey member) and it more than paid for itself the first week. What makes this program so cool is that analysis tools are integrated into the program for thorough research and decision making. In addition, it is set up for people like me who have assistants. Shem reviews all the opportunities and then clicks the best ones as “favorites.” When I log in, I only need to look at the favorites. As I look at them, I “un-favorite” them so she knows what I’ve seen. It is an excellent system that has led to some purchases I would not have found on my own.
  • Automated my bookkeeping. I gave Shem limited access to all the various reports and statements my bookkeepers need. She uploads them to a private FTP site, the bookkeepers do the work. I use Quickbooks Online so it was easy to give them secure access. This service is costing me $65 a month which is much cheaper than my CPA.
  • Automated Sales Tax – I was already automated but I thought I’d share what I do. I’m in 10+ states. Shem helped me get set up originally and then I went in added all my banking info to each state’s online portal once we were set up. Every month, she uses TaxJar to file my sales tax and record what she paid. The money comes out of my bank account and then she sends me confirmation that the task is done. I can go into Taxjar and look as well. It is all online and very convenient for me now that it is set up.
  • Hired a Lister – Again, I had done this before but I’m mentioning it here. If you can hire someone to process your inventory it is a tremendous time saver. While I’m on the phone and computer helping sellers get reinstated, my Lister is busily processing hundreds of inventory items every week. He works 3 days a week currently. I have a regular UPS pick up on Friday.
  • Focus on Replens/Identified new wholesalers – I look at retail arbitrage as a way to identify items that might be good wholesale replenishments (replens). I gave Shem a list of items I wanted to source, she found them and I made orders. Many, many places have dropped their minimum orders to $300 and some are even less at $100. This makes it easy for me. I’m mostly working with local wholesale sources. For an order of at least $300 they will deliver for free which is doubly awesome. With others the prices are so low that even with shipping I’m doing better than if I bought the item in a retail store. I like local suppliers because I can check them out, go to their showrooms and generally feel confident they are not selling me counterfeits.
  • Trained/training Shem – Not only have I trained her personally to manage most of my Amazon admin stuff and reports, but I hired Brad DeGraw’s team in the Philippines to train her on how they automate Brad’s business and research deals for him. I figured there are things that we don’t do yet that we could – I simply haven’t thought about it yet. Rather than wait for inspiration, I thought I’d learn from an expert. I’ve been training her on how to use my tools (ScanPower’s Webscout in particular which totally rocks online arbitrage – we use it every day) to determine a good deal for me and I’d like to see what else she can learn from Brad’s team. She’ll be in training next week. Brad has a free report on how to train a VA that was very helpful to me in the beginning.

My business is not yet fully automated. It still relies on me for a lot of the purchases. However, I’m making noticeable progress. Because I’m still training my Lister and Shem, it requires more of my time than it will in the future.

I’m in a mastermind group where we are focusing on developing wildly creative bundles and private label items. I have not been able to participate as much as my colleagues (who are kicking ass!) but I have some plans. Now that I have a Lister to actually process the items, it is a matter of sourcing and pulling it all together. This kind of product takes more time than jumping on an OA deal, but I see it as the long-term solution for my business – products that have little competition and that I can sell over and over again.

Stay tuned for another update in a month or so!

Cheers,

Cynthia

Quotation-Alfred-Tennyson-world-right-poetry-Meetville-Quotes-24411Amazon has been beheading sellers’ worlds like the sword of wrath lately shearing sellers from its ranks that it suspects may be selling counterfeit goods from China. Instead of steel, the sword takes the form of banishment letters and it is tough to come back. I’m working a particularly difficult case right now involving suspected counterfeit. We’ve made a good case and I’m waiting impatiently (as is my client). One of the questions that come up naturally in a case like this was “how do I know if something is counterfeit?” My client was surprised/upset/angry – you name it – to get this notice after selling for only a few weeks. He thought he’d done his due diligence, but it wasn’t enough.

For those of you considering ordering brand name and/or licensed merchandise from a Chinese company through Alibaba, AliExpress, Taobao, Tmall or some other platform, you need to do your due diligence before buying the merchandise. Once it is selling at Amazon…it could be bad. Alibaba took down 90 million (yes, million) fake product listings ahead of its IPO last year. That should tell you something. Sure, they’re cracking down, but you can bet a lot of those bad operators are back in business again under another name.

Also, there’s a lot of talk about Chinese sites like AliExpress, but a huge number of these counterfeit goods are sold on eBay. More complaints come from eBay customers than any other platform. If you do a fair amount of eBay arbitrage, do your homework or you might be bringing counterfeit goods into your Amazon portfolio unintentionally.

One way to stay out of trouble is to not sell brand merchandise or luxury goods as those are the most frequent offenders. If it seems too good to bethe-craziest-chinese-counterfeit-goods-u1 true, it probably is. That being said, I’ve seen some pretty crazy counterfeit things that you wouldn’t expect. In addition, there is a whole world of legitimate merchandise out there that should sell on Amazon perfectly fine without any problems. So how do you protect yourself from counterfeit goods?

Research

Before working with any distributor/manufacturer – not just Chinese – you should check them out. In the U.S. it is easy to research a company online. Be sure to check particularly with Dun & Bradstreet and the Better Business Bureau. If you can’t find out much about a particular company, that’s a red flag.

  1. For a Chinese company, check their company registration with the local Industrial and Commercial Administration Bureau (I have a list in my FBA Library for you by Province with URLs)
  2. Request a scan/copy of their business license
  3. Confirm their legal address and their operating address (often two different locations)
  4. Read their payment and shipment terms
  5. Hire a service to create a report for you
  6. Ask for U.S. references
  7. Check the authenticity of branded products

If you don’t speak Chinese, it is tough to maneuver your way through their online sites which is why I have them listed separately from this blog. Most of you won’t be using them yourselves. You likely will not be able to understand what you are viewing when they get the business license – but getting one is an important indication of a likely honest company. If you call their legal address and operating address and don’t reach them, that’s a big red red-flagsflag. Scammers never accept Letters of Credit as their payment terms. They prefer Western Union, PayPal, etc. Also, they deliver their samples by express mail like Fedex to avoid examinations by Chinese customs houses. I’m sure there are honest companies that will accept PayPal, Xoom, etc., but they should also be OK with a Letter of Credit.

What is confusing to a lot of sellers is that scammers also use fraudulent paperwork. If you get a certificate from a Chinese company saying that they have the right to produce a branded item, that doesn’t mean they have the authority to resell those items. You have to read carefully for fudge-y, vague and misleading language.

One of the quickest, easiest ways to check out a Chinese company is through a third-party service like China Checkup, JitVerify or GloBis. For a reasonable fee (around $130-$150) they will give you a report on the company you are interested in including their business license, company registration and more. If you need it, these companies (and others like them) can also conduct a site visit, interview employees, inspect inventory for quality and much more. These three have U.S. offices with English speaking employees who can translate the originals for you if you need more than the report. If you are manufacturing a private label product with significant investment, you will definitely want to hire a service like this to act as your agent. Even if you decide to fly to China yourself to meet with potential manufacturing partners, hiring an agent to go with you can be invaluable. They know what to ask and what to look for. They have agents on the ground.

Other countries offer similar services. Start with local consulates in your local state or country. Texas, for example, has 96 international consular offices. Considering that Texas has an economy and geography approximately the size of France, it is perhaps not so surprising. Google search “international consular” and your state to see who is local. Tell them you are a business looking to connect with a business in their country and ask for advice on a translator, an agent, etc. They are happy to help facilitate business and should have some good resources for you.

Recently I checked out a free eBook from Import Dojo called The Import Bible. The author, Manuel Becvar has been ordering products from Asia forImport Dojo more than 10 years for such companies as Wal-Mart, Sears, Home Depot, Amazon and a few other little companies you might have heard of. His job was to make sure these goods were of the highest quality. He knows a lot about avoiding counterfeit. His beginners guide and blog are the real deal and full of information. There’s good advice in there about how to find reputable partners, types of products to sell, how to negotiate and much more. This is a good place to start if you are serious about sourcing from China. He currently runs his own consumer electronics company.

When working with an unfamiliar company, do not rely on online reviews or local references they give. It is a common practice in China to pay someone to be a reference. If possible get a U.S. customer that you can speak with. One counterfeiter had over 100 positive reviews on AliExpress and a nearly 5-star rating – the catch was none of them were for this particular product. They were all for other things. Did he fake his ratings? Maybe. He’s no longer selling DVDs on AliExpress, I notice.

I ran some simple Google searches with the company name + counterfeit and +scam and +authentic…you get the idea. Nothing specific came up. My client told me later that he’d noticed that the URL for the company had changed since he bought from them. BIG RED FLAG! Of course, he couldn’t have known that last Fall.

crookThe piece of advice you read everywhere is to use reputable suppliers except…how do you know who is a reputable supplier? It is not as if the scammers are going to say “buy from us, we’re crooks!” One of the biggest wholesale directories on the internet is GetThatWholesale.com. A couple of things I like about them is they list company details like addresses and phone numbers, and they have a huge wholesale tradeshow database. This is useful because most scammers don’t pay for exhibit space at tradeshows. They tend to be fly-by-night. Also, if you go to a show, you will be given detailed information about each wholesaler so you can check out the ones you want to do business with ahead of time – or at least before you hand over your money. GetThatWholesale has a “Source with Confidence” program for companies that have been verified as a safer buying source (look for the green checkmarks).

As part of your due diligence, watch out for wholesalers who charge a fee just to work with them or fake drop-shippers who actually turnaround and order from a real drop-shipper every time you place an order. The best way to root out someone like that is to ask questions, learn more about their warehouse and operations. If you can’t find a warehouse, for example, that’s a real problem. If you don’t like the answers, move on.

Another way to check up on suppliers and to find reputable partners is to ask your peers. Skip McGrath* wrote an eBook called Top Ninety-Nine Wholesale Sources that is only $4.99. He also has a program called Buy Wholesale for eBay & Amazon – The Wholesale Buying System for $47 (it includes the book as well). I trust Skip because he’s been doing this a long time first on eBay and now on Amazon. These are sources he has checked out and not some random list off the internet. That means a lot to me. There are also some buyer communities that focus on wholesale and share reviews, experiences, etc., like SaleHoo. GetThatWholesale.com also has an internet radio show. I’m sure that there are groups on facebook, etc., as well, once you start looking (feel free to post them in the comments below).

Review

Never send a product to Amazon without reviewing a sample first. If you are uncertain about a product being counterfeit, don’t order it. It is not worth it to lose your account. Also, research the name of the product in Google “Brand name + counterfeit” and you may get lists from the company itself as to who is a known counterfeiter and how to tell real from fake. Several brands provide very clear videos and pictures of how to tell their legitimate product from a fake.

You can send inventory directly to Amazon, but you should plan on occasional spot-checks – especially if you get any complaints about quality. You can always send yourself a unit from Amazon for 50 cents.

The Counterfeit Report is a good place to start your review as they keep track of counterfeits and how to tell them apart from legitimate products. They also tell you what you should be spending for legitimate products so that if you see a deal that is too good to be true…be concerned.

Wikihow has excellent tutorials on spotting fake DVDs and how to tell a fake in generalLoin King

This blogger had a very thorough examination of fake Frozen dolls – right down to their naked girl parts. OK, that part was a little creepy. The hair is hysterical.

Some fakes are pretty easy to tell. Some are hard. There are some very high quality DVD covers out there but the product inside is inferior. You need to open the DVD, examine the disc and play it before selling it to the masses. With toys it can be pretty obvious with knock-offs if you are familiar with the genuine product to begin with.

React

By the time Amazon is telling you that you have counterfeit products, you are already in big trouble. You are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. I suggest a “two strikes and you’re out!” policy. If one customer complains about counterfeit or quality, take it seriously. Have the product returned and take a good look at it and make sure this is the product you sent in (there are dishonest buyers as well as sellers). If a second customer complains, shut it all down immediately and start preparing your defense. Close/suspend your listings and decide what you want to do. If you are confident that your product is legit, then pull your invoices together and get ready to defend them. If you’ve been diligent up front, this should be easy to do. If you are not sure and want to avoid trouble before it gets on Amazon’s radar, remove your inventory and demand a refund from the manufacturer/supplier (don’t hold your breath on this – dishonest players don’t refund).

Send emails to your customers asking them why they think it is counterfeit and make sure you get their copies back to examine for yourself. Of course you are going to refund their money and pay for the return shipping. Because this issue is so serious, I would call your customer if you can’t reach them by email. Be friendly, helpful and curious.

One client had received several complaints about a particular product not being new. He was bewildered by this because he was buying from an authorized distributor. He found out just in time that the manufacturer had suspended that distributor for packing up returns and selling them as new. He was reinstated.

Another client lost her privileges because she had several counterfeit complaints one right after the other in a short time period. She didn’t respond quickly enough and was banned. We are still working on her case.

Report

01-14-counterfeit-UNODCOne way to reduce counterfeiting and to shut down the bad guys is to report them. If you’ve detected counterfeit goods from either your own supplier or on the Amazon website, you should report it to someone. If you’ve ordered goods from Amazon and they are counterfeit – tell them immediately in your seller feedback and even report a policy violation. Amazon will act swiftly. If you’ve ordered goods from a third-party seller that are counterfeit, you may feel a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, they are a seller like you and may have made an honest mistake. If you report them to Amazon, they will be shut down and could lose their ability to sell. How do you handle this? You may wish to approach the seller first (through Amazon’s email system) and see how they respond to you. If they spring into action to refund you, de-list the item, etc., then the problem is solved and they live to sell another day having learned something. If they seem unresponsive, then Amazon will get their attention. Of course, you may not want to deal with the hassle and just report them.

Knowing how quick Amazon is to suspend and ban sellers, I am willing to move a little slower and give another seller a chance first, but I firmly believe I should act. Counterfeiting isn’t just about shoddy products, it is theft and sometimes real people get hurt in the process.

If you are out and about and spot some fake goods, you can use the uFaker app to report it and earn rewards from grateful manufacturers. If you run into a dishonest supplier and want to report them, you have several places to do it in addition to telling Amazon (who keeps a list I’m pretty sure): STOPfakes.gov, The Counterfeit report listed above, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition and more. In addition, there are private sector anti-piracy and anti-counterfeit resources that are committed to reducing counterfeits where you can report.

Conclusion

There are potential bad actors everywhere. For those of us who mostly buy retail arbitrage from reputable stores, we can generally rely on Target and Wal-mart to do our fact-checking for us. When you start buying from companies online that you don’t know as well, you need to watch out for yourself.

A final thought on counterfeit: as a consumer and a seller, I’m glad that Amazon takes this seriously. They are cracking heads and stamping out red flag bullproblems loudly and quickly to discourage counterfeit on their platform. eBay, Alibaba and AliExpress have a long way to go before their platform is as credible as Amazon’s. As sellers, we benefit from Amazon’s incredible reputation for customer service and legitimate products.

We also bear responsibility to get it right. Amazon doesn’t care that we are small, inexperienced and still learning. They don’t care that our carriers or drop-shippers have let us down. I’ve suggested this before but it bears repeating – read ALL of Amazon’s relevant policies (some are category-specific) and review them from time to time. The link is right there on the Help page in SellerCentral. Also, if you are new to selling on Amazon, using Amazon’s FBA program will save you a lot of Order Defect and performance problems. It is worth finding FBA-ready products and not fulfilling yourself until you are more experienced (unless you are a company with its own fulfillment operation already, naturally). I have clients who were banned after selling for two months for fulfillment issues because they had an eBay approach in an Amazon world. I don’t mean anything critical of eBay by this.  Amazon is much more exacting when it comes to fulfillment and eBay sellers can make the mistake sometimes of not realizing that and adjusting.

If an Amazonian is reading this post, I’d like to request that there be some way that suspended/banned sellers could make their cases to a human being. Many of my clients are confused by the form letters they get from Amazon and don’t know how to answer them properly. They are shocked and upset that they bought counterfeit and stop immediately. Based on the form letters they receive back, they are convinced that no one is reading the plan of actions they are creating. A few minutes on the phone with a live person in Seller Performance could go a long way on both sides in determining the truth of a situation and helping a seller feel like they were given a chance to explain properly. Most sellers who are suspended or banned have made a mistake they deeply regret and want to fix. They are not trying to break the rules or get away with anything. A rehabilitated seller is much more likely to follow all the rules – they understand the stakes.

If you have been recently suspended or banned for selling on Amazon, it may not be over yet. It is harder to recover from being banned but not impossible. Check out my reinstatement services if you want to know more.

*I am an affiliate of Skip McGrath and make a small commission if you order using these links. It helps compensate me for the time I spend creating detailed blog posts like this one. Plus, I trust him and use his products myself. You can also go directly to his site: www.skipmcgrath.com if you don’t want to use the affiliate link. None of the other links in this post are affiliates.