Amazon Sellers Affected by CoronaVirus2020; Amazon Strikes Back at Bogus IP Takedowns

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.

Have you found a solution for your
business? Talk about it with us in our Facebook group.

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:

  1. Have your brand conduct its own
    takedowns.  Remove yourself as an agent
    in Brand Registry, OR…
  2. Have your brand sign up with a non-seller
    brand protection service like eGrowth Partner’s Brand Enforcer™ (self-serving,
    but true), OR…
  3. 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.