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UPDATE: Why You Need Amazon Brand Approval Now

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

WHY IS AMAZON SUDDENLY GATING CERTAIN BRANDS?

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

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

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

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

WHAT HAPPENED THIS WEEK?

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

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

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

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

IS AMAZON TARGETING RA/OA SELLERS WITH THIS MOVE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS THIS MOVE AIMED AT THE CHINESE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARE THERE MORE BRAND SHUT-DOWNS COMING?

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

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

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

Sellers will have greater control. Amazon is offering Brand Protection Services to its sellers as well as its vendors.  They want Amazon to be a platform that helps build brands and helps brands expand globally.

We heard about the exclusives program at the Women’s Conference earlier this month. That is one step in this process. I don’t know what other services will be offered at this time.

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

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

WHAT WILL AMAZON DO WITH THE FEES?

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

IS AMAZON COMING OUT WITH AN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT?

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

International Events in China and UK

Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, China

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

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

Sign up for the meet-up here: Hong Kong Private Label Sourcing and Amazon FBA Sellinglux_660x280_london_HousesofParliament

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

Let’s Meet!

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

  • SCOE Banner 2 (002)SeattleSCOE. Lesley is speaking on the latest suspensions from Amazon. Use code CYNTHIA for $175 off! Join Lesley for dinner at the exciting Crow restaurant downtown. RSVP required.
  • Nashville – CES IV. Cynthia is talking about risk management in your Amazon business. Join her and Lesley both for dinner at Flyte restaurant downtown on the strip! RSVP here. Space limited to 20.
  • Los Angeles – Feedvisor conference. Cynthia is talking about the latest challenges facing high-volume sellers with Amazon suspensions. Sign up here for a $75 discount! (First 20 signups only. Expires 8/28/16) Use CODE LAVFC75.
  • Las Vegas – Retail Global conference. Sign up for $100 discount with code: STINE100. We will be co-hosting a meet and greet happy hour and dinner Thursday night Sept. 22 with the ScannerMonkey group. Register here – it’s free!

retail global

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Amazon Seller News You Can Use – Is Arbitrage Changing?

Retail-ArbitrageThere’s a lot going on with Amazon right now. Amazon is getting closer and closer to shutting down retail arbitrage and online arbitrage on the platform. The customer dissatisfaction metrics are due to go live at long last in October. A new paid Seller Support program promises better support for those willing to pay. Sellers have discovered new tricks to manipulate seller reviews…and Amazon is catching them.

We are opening new markets in China and the UK to help sellers learn and implement best practices in their businesses including a conference on August 29 (ShenZhen, China) and on October 26 (London). We hope to meet our international clients!

Lesley will be speaking at SCOE. Cynthia will be speaking at ShenZhen (Seller Summit at the Sheraton) and Hong Kong, CES IV, the Feedvisor Conference in LA on September 12 and at the Retail Global event the next week in Las Vegas – please join us for dinner or drinks!

The End of Retail and Online Arbitrage?

Four reliable sources informed us that Seller Performance will no longer be accepting receipts as proof for anything. This has already happened in the groups that ungate categories and it has been slowly happening in practice at Seller Performance as they refuse more and more receipts from retailers (online and brick & mortar), even places like Disney.com or Coach or Nike outlet stores.

While we have seen this coming for a while, what surprised us was that the rumored planned date for implementation is “sometime in October.” If true, that’s awful news as it would be happening right before the holiday sales season. What’s yet to be seen is how Amazon plans to enforce this new policy. It could be disastrous as many sellers have already sent inventory to FBA for Q4 that they purchased from retail stores. This gives sellers very little time to shift gears to wholesale or private label.

Officially, Amazon stated that there are no “immediate term plans” to change how they accept receipts.  This is the difference between a casual conversation and what a public company will say out loud before they are ready.  My hope is this also means that we are looking at Q1 next year rather than Q4.  Regardless, it is my opinion, based on observation and working with the seller performance team that this change IS coming.

Why is Amazon moving in this direction? To protect the customer experience. Basically, they don’t consider items bought retail and resold to be ryan grant RA picNEW. They see them as used. They recognize that a disproportionate percentage of buyer complaints come from RA and OA because the products are imperfect, worn, dirty, dusty, missing pieces and returns. Many sellers do not protect their goods well enough to survive the rigors of travel from the seller to the buyer, which ultimately result in bad customer experiences.

By shutting down arbitrage, they will also have fewer complaints from rights holders and big brands. Goods will likely be in better condition as many will be shipped in pallets.

Regardless of WHEN it happens, here’s the implications for sellers as we see them today:

  • More buyers will go to eBay as they realize it is the only platform for USED, COLLECTIBLE, discontinued and hard-to-find/exclusive NEW goods normally only found in retail stores.
  • Long-tail sales items will disappear from the platform.
  • Sellers will be taking a high risk if they sell USED media on the platform. Used items will decline.
  • It will be harder for sellers to start an Amazon business because more capital will be required.
  • It will be even easier for evil sellers to take RA/OA sellers down. We expect there will be a lot of bad behavior for a while.
  • Brand restrictions will increase and become even more common. Sellers will need to be pre-approved for many, many brands and prove they are buying from authentic sources as a matter of course.
  • OA/RA sourcing and scanning tools won’t be needed. This will be a financial blow to the industry.

Our Recommendations:

This is based on what we know today. Things may change. It is possible that Amazon won’t actually start suspending on this new rule until next year (that would be so nice). In the past, they warn in Q4 and suspend in January. Let’s hope that is true.

  • Make sure all your inventory is perfect, pristine and packaged properly for rugged travel.
  • As long as you never get inauthentic or counterfeit claims, you should be OK.
  • If you get an inauthentic claim and it is your first claim, Amazon will likely forgive you even though they won’t accept your receipts. If you get a claim, you will need to remove your other RA/OA inventory at that time.
  • If you’ve gotten three or more inauthentic/counterfeit claims in the past year, you will want to consider moving your inventory through another channel like eBay once the changes take place. You may not have any chances left. You can still use Amazon to fulfill your off-platform sales.
  • Sell off your RA/OA inventory as quickly as possible or move it to another platform.
  • private-label-big-300x261Find new sources from wholesalers/distributors or directly from the manufacturer. Make sure all invoices are detailed and your sources are legit.
  • Understand that USED books, CDs, DVDs, etc. are susceptible to inauthentic claims same as NEW items. Most USED sellers don’t have good receipts let alone invoices.

What about the first sale doctrine?

The first sale doctrine says that you are allowed to resell items you bought in stores and other places and that brand owners can’t stop you from doing this since you paid retail when you bought the item. If you buy Coach bags from the outlet store and resell them, that’s arbitrage and is perfectly legal.

Just because it is legal, doesn’t mean Amazon has to allow you to do it on their platform. All it means is that the rights holders can’t stop you from re-selling goods you bought from these sources.  Coach can’t forbid you from reselling a Coach bag you bought at their store.

Amazon has the right to not accept receipts as proof of authentic. After all, they have no way of knowing for sure where the other stores got their merchandise.

What about you? Do you see other implications? Have questions? My mind is still processing all this. Ask your questions below and I’ll try to answer them.

Colleagues who attended the Women’s Conference in Seattle this week indicated that Amazon still seemed supportive of the RA/OA model.  I imagine this is true. What we’ve learned in our work with Amazon is that Seller Performance is different from the rest of the company.  It is quite possible for one group to not know what is happening with another.

Paid Seller Support Program

At the women’s conference this week, Amazon rolled out some interesting ideas. One of them was a paid Seller Support Plus program that will allow you to escalate your issues for $400 a month. Here’s what they said:

Seller Support Plus (SS+): A value-added service that gives you access to an experienced single point of contact (Seller Success Manager) to simplify your selling experience and allow you to focus on your business.

For a monthly subscription fee of $400, you will be able to escalate important issues to your Seller Success Manager for advanced troubleshooting and time-critical resolutions. By understanding you and your unique business, the Seller Success Manager will seek to remove persistent technical barriers and offer coaching opportunities during the course of your escalations. For more information, please send any questions to Seller-Support-Plus-Inquiries@amazon.com.

I was able to find out more today and basically, this is still Seller Support which means they can’t help you with Seller Performance issues like suspensions, listings take downs, policy violations, etc.  They will forward your email to seller performance and act as a “liaison.”  I have not seen that be particularly helpful in the past.  It is possible that these guys have a special queue with seller performance, but I wouldn’t bet my account on it.  They will help you get ungated and get a faster response from Seller Support.

In addition to the subscription service, they are offering basic training for new sellers for $100 to help them understand FBA, creating listings and stuff like that.  They have three different training modules (each $100). In listening to the description (we talked with one of their coaches), it is VERY basic. I think this will be helpful for new sellers but not anyone who has been selling for a few months unless you have a gap in your business like creating new listings.

Dissatisfaction Metrics To Go Live

Since last year Amazon has been tormenting sellers with the metrics of customer dissatisfaction rate and return dissatisfaction rate. At first they were going to go “live” in January, then February and then May and now…October. We’ll see if they really mean it. I’m glad they waited because a lot of my clients were failing the two metrics for lack of enough responses to make a statistically valid ratio of negatives to positives.

Assuming this intel is correct, what does it mean to you? If you are a MF seller it means that you need to really be on top of these metrics. If your metrics are poor now, think about how you can bring them up by October. In other words, how can you get happy, happy customer responses?

We’ve been helping some of our MF clients to create customer service templates that encourage buyers to leave positive responses or at least not to leave negative ones if they are unhappy.  You can contact us at customerservice@onlinesalesstepbystep.com to learn more. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

Product Review Manipulation Still Rising

We continue to see sellers suspended for using product review companies that violate Amazon policy – even when the reviews are off the Amazonamazonreviews platform. Amazon is very serious about cracking down on paid reviews of any kind, fake reviews, overly enthusiastic reviews, those that are written before the buyer gets the product and reviews that don’t use the disclaimer. As an example of what Amazon is suspending for, in the past few weeks we’ve seen sellers who hired writers to create hundreds of fake Amazon buyer accounts and write fake reviews.

This kind of behavior led directly to Amazon’s new rules about reviewers in that they CANNOT leave a review unless they have bought at least one full-price product on the platform for more than $5.00. One client had literally thousands of reviews from people who opened an account JUST to leave a hyped-up review for their product.

While those examples may seem obvious, sellers need to know that ANYTHING that smacks of gaming the system is suspect. AMZ Tracker has been directly named in numerous suspensions but that hasn’t changed their business practices. This is a letter they sent their sellers recently. See if you can spot the problems:

Hey,

I know that all the analytics in the world won’t help if you don’t have any sales or reviews for your product. That’s why we set out to create the ultimate review network for you. We knew that AMZ Tracker wasn’t enough. We knew we had to help our users kick start their sales and reviews, so they could start climbing the ranks and begin making money with their products on Amazon.

We’ve created an ethical review network for paid subscribers called Amazon Review Trader where you can offer heavily discounted and free products in exchange for reviews.

This is the perfect way to get reviews when you’re just starting out. We literally have thousands of potential reviewers just waiting to review your product. These reviewers have the freedom to leave any type of review they want, but 99% of them will always leave 4 and 5 star reviews.

We monitor our reviewers’ profiles, and boot them out if they leave too many negative reviews. We only want reviewers who are eager and upbeat about trying new products.

If you don’t have at least 15 reviews (or more for more competitive niches) with an average of a 4 star rating or higher, you could be suffering as a result.

Check out Amazon Review Trader now in your AMZ Tracker paid account, so those analytics start showing GROWTH in sales!

To your Amazon success,

AMZ Tracker Team

Our postal address: 20th Floor, Central Tower,, 28 Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong

Several things to note: 1) they seem to be moving away from AMZ Tracker to a new service that seems to be the same; 2) they kick out reviewers who leave negative reviews; and 3) they guarantee 4- and 5-star reviews. All of these are against Amazon’s terms of service. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing suspensions shortly from this new entity. Because they are located in Hong Kong, it is hard for Amazon to go after THEM, but they are certainly able to go after the sellers who use them. Beware.  Amazon has recently started suing sellers as well as service providers.

What everyone needs to understand about product reviews is that Amazon can see EVERYTHING. The data they have is breathtaking. It is pointless to lie or try to fool them about your reviews. When they ask for your non-compliant reviews, they already know the answer – they just want to see if you will be honest about it.

There are other reviewer groups that have the same rules as AMZ Tracker and we’ve had clients suspended for using private Facebook groups to giveaway product. While the client’s post may have been compliant, the instructions to the reviewers in the group by the administrator was not.

Be very careful who you work with. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that they are compliant. Instead, compare their programs and reviewer messages to Amazon’s terms of service. Ask questions. Find out what they are telling their reviewers. Be suspicious of anyone who offers you “guaranteed page one” and other rosy promises. To get you there probably involves gaming the system or manipulation of the platform as Amazon calls it.

People ask us constantly who we recommend.  There is enough gray language in Amazon’s TOS about reviews that I can’t declare that any company is 100% compliant and so I don’t name names or make guarantees.  However, there are plenty of companies who are clearly NOT compliant.  We see their customers suspended over and over again.

If you plan to use a service, be sure you see everything that they say to their reviewers and that their process meets Amazon TOS for giveaways and discounted products. Remember that paid blogs are not acceptable to Amazon and they are tracking them.  Next, if reviewers are coerced or “encouraged” to contact the seller first before leaving a negative review, get away from that service as fast as you can.

In case you missed them, here’s links to my previous blog posts on product review services. The second one has a comparison chart:  Safe Product Review Program and More About Product Review Programs.

New Product Review Audit Service for PL Sellers

Because we’ve had so many suspended sellers for product reviews, we’ve created a proprietary software solution and approach to help identify which reviews are non-compliant in our clients’ accounts. This is especially helpful for our clients who are suspended because we can give Amazon a detailed list of non-compliant reviews and tell them WHY they are non-compliant. It goes a long way to getting our clients reinstated.

For clients who are not suspended but are concerned that their reviewers may not be following policy, we have an on-going audit service where we check their reviews each week for compliance. It is part of our Get Clean Stay Clean services.

If you are interested, send an email to: productreview@onlinesalesstepbystep.com. We don’t have official sign up forms yet but will get back to you. Pricing is based on the number of orders you’ve had over the past 3 months.

International Events in China and UK

Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, China

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

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

Sign up for the meet-up here: Hong Kong Private Label Sourcing and Amazon FBA Sellinglux_660x280_london_HousesofParliament

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

Let’s Meet!

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

  • SCOE Banner 2 (002)Seattle – SCOE. Lesley is speaking on the latest suspensions from Amazon. Use code CYNTHIA for $175 off! Join Lesley for dinner at the exciting Crow restaurant downtown. RSVP required.
  • Nashville – CES IV. Cynthia is talking about risk management in your Amazon business. Join her and Lesley both for dinner at Flyte restaurant downtown on the strip! RSVP here. Space limited to 20.
  • Los Angeles – Feedvisor conference. Cynthia is talking about the latest challenges facing high-volume sellers with Amazon suspensions. Sign up here for a $75 discount! (First 20 signups only. Expires 8/28/16) Use CODE LAVFC75.
  • Las Vegas – Retail Global conference. Sign up for $100 discount with code: STINE100. We will be co-hosting a meet and greet happy hour and dinner Thursday night Sept. 22 with the ScannerMonkey group. Register here – it’s free!

retail global

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

What Amazon says about Multi-Packs:

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

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

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

Basic Bundling Rules:

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

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

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

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

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

Clear as mud, right? What is going on?

Here’s what you need to know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Why is Amazon Picking on Us?

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

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

Q. What Bundles CAN I Sell?

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

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

Last Word on UPCs…For Today

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

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

Is Amazon Changing its Policies for USED Products?

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

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

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

What is Going On Here?

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

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

She’s a master at understatement.

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

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

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

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

Assess your situation. 

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

Determine your risk comfort level and act.

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

New Automate Repricing Tool by Amazon?

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

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

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

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

May Travels

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

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

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

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

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Avoid Restricted Listings on Amazon

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

Restricted Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restricted Brandsmichael kors

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

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

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

Restricted Products

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

Health Claimsbath salt

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

HazMat

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

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

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

ASIN Reinstatements

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

Get Clean Stay Clean Additions

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

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

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

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

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

May Flowers…Cynthia’s Travels in May

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

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

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

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

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

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More on Product Review Programs for Amazon Sellers…

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

Q. Are there any product review programs you recommend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Just how serious is Amazon about product reviews?

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

The final word on product reviews

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

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

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

Best Practices for Customer Service

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

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

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

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

Get Clean, Stay Clean with Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Excursions

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

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

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