As someone who was in Hong Kong in January – a couple of days before flights were stopped – the Coronavirus2020 seems scary, but for most Amazon sellers, it seems pretty far away…until you start thinking about the implications.
Amazon just announced to the community that if you will have shipment delays because of the virus, you should turn off your affected listings and/or storefront. In an unprecedented move, they even said that they would consider the Coronavirus as a mitigating reason for certain performance issues (like out of stock). Your metrics will still suffer if your listings are closed, of course.
Since we know Amazon is focused on the buyer, not us, you all know that’s not an act of compassion, but stark reality. To me, it says Amazon is suffering bigtime from the factory shutdowns in China. However, there is more to it than the economic impact from delayed shipments of goods – and you need to think hard about this if you import from China.
- The Coronavirus2020 is 20 times more deadly than the regular flu – which made 43 million people in the US sick during the last flu season and killed more than 65,000.
- Agencies within China are stating that the virus is viable up to 30 days outside the body. US agencies are saying 9 days, but they really don’t know. They are basing that on SARS.
- No one knows for sure how effective strong disinfectants like bleach are against the virus on surfaces.
- A person can be infectious for up to 2 weeks before getting symptoms.
- Fever is not always a telltale symptom. Some infected have stomach pains and other non-fever symptoms long before a fever, which causes them to be misdiagnosed and sent home or back to work. The virus is highly contagious and airborne as well as surface viable.
- The quarantines are designed to slow down, but may not be able to stop the disease
- Typical facemasks are ineffective unless they are very tight on the face and sealed. In other words, a firefighter’s mask, not a surgeon’s mask should be used.
- More people have died from this virus than SARS, and it’s just getting started.
- CoronaVirus infections have spread worldwide already.
- There is no cure or vaccine at this time, and probably won’t be for at least a year or more.
Therefore, for my clients who have containers of goods that have recently arrived in US ports from China, what are you going to do? Do you take the risk of infecting your workers, yourself and possible customers by receiving these goods? As far as I could find out so far, there is no hazmat protocol at the ports for dealing with shipments from China. Even if they doused your goods in chlorine (which would ruin your inventory most likely), is it enough? Do you have a place you can safely store goods for 20+ days without a human touching them?
If a buyer claimed they got Coronavirus from something you sold them, could you prove that it wasn’t your goods that made them sick? Will your insurance cover your losses if you destroy or delay the inventory? Can you safely handle it?
I don’t have answers for the community, but everyone who imports from China needs to be thinking hard about this. Are your manufacturers affected by the virus? If you can delay or cancel shipments, you should consider it. Amazon is thinking about it. Since most of their goods are manufactured in China, this will impact their brands a lot.
Because a lot of US goods are manufactured in China, we all have to think about it as consumers as well.
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Amazon Strikes Back at Bogus IP Takedowns
New language has recently appeared under “Seller Policies and Seller Code of Conduct” in SellerCentral that impacts how some brands protect their rights on the platform:
“Amazon understands that many brands may choose to have brand protection agencies or agents report intellectual property infringement on their behalf and accepts submissions from authorized agents. However, Amazon does not permit individuals with active selling accounts to file infringement notices as an agent of a brand when the filing of those notices could benefit their own selling account (through removing competing listings, for example). Any sellers filing notices as an agent to benefit their own status as a seller may have their selling account terminated.”
It’s about frickin’ time! This is one area where we’ve seen a ton of bad actor behavior, and I’m delighted that Amazon has taken a stand at last.
If you are a seller who has an exclusive relationship with a brand and is acting as its own IP agent on the platform, this means you cannot conduct takedowns on behalf of the brand if it benefits you as a seller – which it clearly would if sellers are being removed from the brand’s listings. If your brand/client has a legitimate IP complaint and you are their agent, what do you do now? You have some options:
- Have your brand conduct its own takedowns. Remove yourself as an agent in Brand Registry, OR…
- Have your brand sign up with a non-seller brand protection service like eGrowth Partner’s Brand Enforcer™ (self-serving, but true), OR…
- Conduct takedowns through other means besides Brand Registry like lawsuits, enforcing distributor contracts, etc.
This is new and we’ve not seen any suspensions for this yet, but I’m confident we will because there are a lot of bogus takedowns on the platform, either through ignorance or deliberate malice. Because this is a Seller Code of Conduct violation, I anticipate that a high percentage of sellers will not be able to recover from this suspension.
What if you are the brand AND a seller? That’s different. You aren’t an agent of the brand; you are the brand.
I can see this being a potential problem, however, for sellers where their storefront name and the brand name don’t match. While Amazon SHOULD know that storefront X is also Brand Y, that assumes that: 1) you set up Brand Registry properly; and 2) Amazon doesn’t mess things up when it first starts taking sellers down. Amazon always messes things up with new takedowns and then allows its machine learning to tweak things until it stops making mistakes.
This news also means that Amazon is placing greater scrutiny on IP takedowns in general. As a brand or non-seller agent, you want to make sure that your IP complaints are legitimate. You want to be able to show Amazon that you have a real claim and aren’t just trying to enforce MAP or fix a poor product distribution strategy.
That’s one of the benefits of eGP’s Brand Enforcer™ service. We provide documented proof that the brand has diligently tried to verify the source of the goods being sold on the platform under its name. Our service is one of the few that is allowed to send emails to sellers through the platform and request verification documents. Our process is one of the few that will not take down a seller who is buying from a legitimate source including retail arbitrage. Additionally, if a seller is removed, we will provide immediate retraction with proof of a legitimate purchase.
Lately, we’ve seen sellers who send in letters of authorization from their distributor or the brand. These always take longer because we have to call the distributor to verify or check the brand’s records before we can retract. I only mention this because we have also already seen sellers who send us bogus letters of authorization. Cut it out. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
For brand owners and sellers, this is good news. It may be inconvenient for seller-agents, but the fact is it will cut down on a lot of IP bad behavior on the platform. Brand Registry will be more the tool Amazon envisioned it to be for brands – a way to enforce their rights without hurting honest sellers.
Find out more about eGrowth Partners Brand Enforcer™ HERE.
Seller Lawsuits Question Amazon’s Judging of IP Claims
Sellers often talk about “the court of Amazon” because we have to appeal everything and hope the reader in India understands and agrees with what we are saying. Bloomberg’s recent article on IP claims notes that recent seller (vs. brands) lawsuits are highlighting just how bad a job Amazon does when it comes to IP.
The article rightly notes:
“Amazon, with its size, now substitutes for government in a lot of what it does…it is being asked to run a judicial system without the commitments to transparency and precedent of a real judicial system.”
“…many of its initial attempts to deal with bad actors on its site, while clearly done its good faith, assumed that the initial set of bad actors (counterfeiters) was the problem to be dealt with, and its response then created a new set of opportunities for new kinds of bad behavior.” (my emphasis)
I couldn’t agree more. We see it every day. This is the problem when you take a reactionary approach to a problem that requires a strategic, proactive approach. Amazon is still behind when it comes to dealing with IP issues on the platform.
Amazon believes that an algorithm and machine learning can do everything, and it’s wrong. Maybe one day when Skynet becomes self-aware, Amazon machines will be able to adjudicate IP disputes, but not today. Its Utility Patent Mediation program is a good step in the right direction. I’d like to see the same process applied to all IP disputes. Right now, honest sellers are being slaughtered by bogus infringement complaints, and there is no good resolution coming from Amazon.
[email protected] is a failure. They don’t read or make decisions. Situations that are obvious (like OUR client owns the trademark, not the complainer – see the USPTO for proof) are dragged out for weeks and sometimes never resolved. Amazon has completely folded when it comes to counterfeit complaints from publishers even when our client can prove they bought legitimate product. We rarely can resolve publisher issues. There’s no one at Amazon who will even look at it. Furthermore, publishing is only one example. There are tens of thousands of sellers who are out of business because Amazon will bring down the hammer, but they won’t review the cases.
So then, sellers are forced to litigate which is hugely expensive and slow…all the while not being able to sell on the platform. It would be one thing if it was just a listing or two that was suspended, but often it is a client’s entire account. One publisher, for example, filed nearly 300 separate complaints (1 per book) against my client. His account was suspended and – so far – we can’t get him back. He’s buying directly from the largest book distributor in the world. His books are new and authentic. The distributor even intervened on his behalf. Silence.
Why not extend the patent utility process to all IP disputes? It’s a good process. In fact, my only complaint is one easily fixed, which is that Amazon sends notifications by email. In one client’s case, they sent the email to one of the limited access users on the account instead of the primary. The lower level employee didn’t see it. The first notice my client got was the one telling him his listing was permanently banned because he did not respond within three weeks.
Even when we tracked where the notice was sent and pointed out that notification should have gone to the primary, Amazon refused to re-open the case and let my client dispute it. The complaint was bogus, and my client had proof of his own patent. My suggestion is that Amazon send a notice 1) to the primary on the account AND 2) send a notice by mail. After all, it has all the official addresses of every seller on the platform. Mistakes happen. Amazon should have owned up and fixed this one. It will happen again, and it’s not fair to make a ruling without proper notification.
Amazon Choice Badge Easily Manipulated by Bad Actors
I’ve talked about this in webinars, but it’s nice to see the word is getting out to the general public. This recent article in The Guardian talked about how meaningless the badge is. To get the “Amazon Choice” badge, your product needs to be added to buyers’ shopping carts without going through the listing page. In other words, it is given to products where buyers either: 1) ask Alexa to put the product in their shopping cart or; 2) bad actors place their products in various shopping carts fraudulently.
If the brand name of the product is unpronounceable, you can be pretty sure that the Amazon Choice badge is bogus and the result of bad actor behavior. There are – for lack of a better term – huge Amazon buyer account “farms” that are run by service providers. We are talking about shady companies that have 50,000+ fake buyer accounts under their control. With their accounts, they are able to place products directly into the shopping carts of hundreds to thousands of buyer carts (whatever is required to get the badge) without clicking on an Amazon page. These fake buyers don’t even have to actually buy anything, they just put the product in the fake accounts’ shopping carts.
Amazon’s algorithm says “oh! These must be very popular products because Alexa users are asking for them by name.” If they get enough of them, they win the Amazon Choice badge.
If “Tide” has the Amazon Choice badge, it probably earned it. If the unpronounceable foreign name has the badge? Be wary. A lot of times if you look closely at the reviews, you’ll see that most of them are fake, as well. Bad actors cheat on everything.
When is Amazon going to fix this problem? It has known about it for a long time. It is a common bad actor trick that popped up shortly after Alexa was launched a few years ago. Hopefully, stories like these will keep the pressure on Amazon to fix this glaring vulnerability in its algorithm.
Amazon Makes it Easier for Brands to Connect to Buyers Through Alexa
Because you really can’t make this stuff up, in the same week that the media is talking about how bogus the “Amazon Choice” badge is, Amazon announces more ways for brands to use Alexa to get the Amazon Choice badge. Well…sort of. What they are doing is helping brands use Alexa to make more sales.
Amazon’s newly expanded “Brand Voice” program is allowing brands to customize their “voice” on Alexa. Think, for example, if you wanted to buy Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes® and could interact with Tony the Tiger to do it (2 boxes? That’s GRRRReeeaaat!). If your brand already has a “voice” in its ads or on other platforms, Amazon will help you port it to Alexa. Otherwise, it will help you create that voice or persona so Alexa buyers can have a more personalized and enjoyable experience using Alexa to buy your stuff.
The “voice” you choose will do more than talk about your product, it can give listeners the weather or answer common Alexa questions. It’s an experience, just like choosing a voice for your Google Maps app. All Alexa interactions can be in that voice.
Don’t have a brand voice persona? You can choose a celebrity voice like Samuel L. Jackson, or have your ad/message in another language.
And all irony aside, this is an interesting opportunity for established and emerging brands on the platform. If you are marketing to consumers outside of Amazon, then this could be a useful tool for you to make more sales and to legitimately earn Amazon’s Choice badge.