A pastry chef from Paris has been in charge of his family's business for years. It has a loyal clientele and he believes that by maintaining the quality of the bread and the buns, everything will continue to prosper. But one fine day, another baker sets up shop on the same street and suddenly everything goes downhill for the original baker.
The dough left to prove overnight, fails to rise. The box of fruits for decorating becomes rotten from one day to the next. One day, some of his customers complain that after eating a croissant from his bakery, they suffered terrible stomach pains...
Meanwhile, the new shopkeeper manages to take over some of the dissatisfied customers of the first baker. Until it begins to dawn on him… might it be possible that he is a victim of sabotage?
This story, which seems to come straight out of a medieval setting, has become a daily routine for many sellers in the digital world. How can it be, that such dirty practices amongst competitors have resurfaced in the most populated sites on the Internet, spearheaded by the Amazon marketplace? What regulations are missing, and why are urgent measures not being taken to control a situation that could eventually unleash much worse scams for both businesses and users?
Welcome to the no man's land for the seller and distributor of products: Amazon Marketplace.
Table of contents
- Vendors & Barbarians: How fake product content affect sales and positioning
- Each world has its own rules: The holes in Amazon’s reviews policy
- We are not in a fair Amazon any more: Guide to survive the marketplace
- How can you avoid becoming a victim of Amazon sabotage?
To a greater or lesser extent, we have all become accustomed to not being able to distinguish reality from fiction on the Internet, although our ‘radar detector’ doesn’t work as well as we would like. We tend to distrust that which seems too good, and easily believe that which should cause suspicion. For that reason, many Amazon buyers frown on an overly positive review (is it purchased? - is it exaggerated?), and they doubt whether to buy something when the review is unfavourable (it could perhaps be fake, but what if the danger is real?)
Sometimes it is very easy to detect and report this type of lies in the reviews section, the biggest battlefield for Amazon sellers. Let's take the case of an imaginary user, @Kendrick121.
@Kendrick121 says of a particular blender that it was very poor quality and broke after the first use, while another model (link to the Amazon tab) has worked perfectly. A more or less savvy buyer can quickly suspect a statement like that; but it is much more difficult to prove this to Amazon and to resolve it for the seller affected.
As usually happens after the appearance of any new market, it didn’t take long for a black market to be formed around the data of users and sellers on Amazon, which even includes employees who accept bribes. This situation mainly affects Amazon Marketplace, the sales alternative for independent retailers who offer their products or distribute third-party products directly to users. Amazon Retail is the system by which brands sell their products to Amazon so that it can distribute them in its marketplace, thus becoming like an official retail partner of Amazon.
The black market of Amazon Marketplace immediately attracted sellers willing to get the highest volumes of sales on the marketplace at the expense of slowing down the economic activity of legitimate sellers and damaging the pocket of the buyer, who may himself fall victim to the well-known complaint on Amazon, "What I got is nothing like what I was expecting”.
These are the commonest types of 'scams' or black hat practices that a seller can suffer on Amazon:
One seller may harm another by hiring users to post a lot of 5-star reviews on one or more of their (own) products. Amazon can immediately detect this activity, considered to be both fraudulent and harmful to the other sellers, and can punish it via the search results and listings, or even by cancelling their account.
The totally opposite practice to the previous one. A seller can buy the product from competitors officially via Amazon and leave negative one-star reviews. Being a review derived from an official purchase, Amazon will be less prone to consider it false, and can even take the side of the false 'buyer' if the latter provides hypothetical proof against the safety of the product.
For example, some imposters posing as buyers go as far as setting fire to an electronic product, uploading the photos onto the review and claiming that it exploded during use. It is also known that users might be hired to buy products and then return them, reporting alleged deficiencies and irregularities to Amazon. In this way, negative keywords become associated with a product, such as "flammable", "dangerous", or "risk". The reality then becomes more chilling than fiction.
Some sellers or resellers who compete in the same listing with identical products, copy their competitors’ specifications, including images and even private brand logos. How can it be demonstrated to Amazon, whom is the official seller and whom the imposter? The problem can be solved, but it involves a long bureaucratic process and during the waiting period many other fraudulent imitators might have emerged.
The rules in the Amazon Marketplace are so lax and the administrative processes so slow that it is very tempting for some sellers to bring about the temporary suspension of competitors’ accounts. By filing complaints that lack good grounds (but which nevertheless must be put through the review process), or about intellectual property violations, a seller can ensure they have put a stop on other vendors’ activity for a while. The unjustly accused may be able to prove their innocence and return to the marketplace... but only in exchange for a large investment of time without sales and substantial costs in legal advisors’ fees.
Such dirty tactics extend beyond Amazon: some sellers have gone so far as to buy ads from Google Ads on behalf of another brand, but with links to erroneous Amazon product listings. The damage is twofold: potential buyers are frustrated and the image of the seller is harmed, while Amazon will identify that the conversion rate per click is very low and will penalise the seller... who never hired those ads in the first place.
Moles on Amazon
There are sellers with official Amazon accounts and editing permits, who are dedicated to altering the product descriptions of their competitors; putting in wrong data, poor quality images, titles that don’t identify the product, or even moving the product to another category that has nothing to do with the seller’s profile (a common tactic is to move toys to the category of sex toys, which do not appear in search results).
As a result, buyers of that product will receive items that do not correspond to the data or images on the listing, will report the product for not meeting expectations, and Amazon may suspend the seller's account.
One of the main goals of most brands and sellers on Amazon is to automate the process and disassociate themselves from constantly reviewing the content of their product listings, especially when their catalogue is extensive and there are many other channels to manage. However, the abusive practices of this type of vendor requires that the surveillance of listings has to be constant, in order to be able to report instantaneously any illegality and correct the changes that may have been made by these ‘hackers’.
Of course, there are so many sellers on Amazon that it is unlikely that your product listings would end up being targeted by this type of attack. However, the better your brand’s positioning in the marketplace, the more competitive a product listing happens to be, and the more relevant your products are in a given category, the greater the risk of having to deal with one of these horrible scenarios.
Reading a page of Amazon terms and conditions is simple, clear and fast. Confronting the small (or almost invisible) print later on is a rather different situation, that can easily occur.
It's no mystery that Amazon works in mysterious ways, and even former marketplace employees recognise that the way sellers and product listings are evaluated is based on an enigmatic algorithm that scans variable metrics such as reviews, complaints, returns, keywords in texts, and other factors only recorded by an automated system like this one.
Amazon's seller support teams receive a huge number of complaints and requests each day, and spend an average of 4 minutes on each case. How can it be possible to analyse the details if the seller receives the same attention as a glazed donut in an assembly line?
Many complaints against sellers are legitimate: Amazon believes prevention is better than cure and protects buyers by suspending all suspects, even if it means affecting those who are not at fault. This is partly due to how Amazon works: the marketplace leaves the reviewing and reporting of content in the hands of the community, instead of creating departments specifically dedicated to this surveillance task.
The Amazon review creation and acceptance guidelines mark the following points as mandatory:
- The user must have spent at least 50 euros or dollars using a valid credit or debit card, in the last 12 months (a useless measure when users can receive payments of hundreds of dollars from companies to buy and review products from the competition).
- The content of the review should be relevant and helpful to other buyers.
- The tone of the review should be respectful and not resort to defamation or insults.
- Personal data, promotions or advertisements, or sexual, violent or illegal content cannot be shared in the reviews.
- Impersonating another person or organisation is not allowed.
Amazon also encourages users to report those brands that offer promotions, discounts, gifts or payments to buyers in exchange for publishing or editing a review, but does not establish what measures will be taken to determine when a complaint is real or purchased.
So, what is the consequence for sellers who find themselves victims of false reviews and other illicit alterations of content? The penalty stated in Amazon Terms and Conditions: "The option to use Community features will be restricted, content will be removed, product listings will be erased, or your account will be suspended or deleted." If a seller reaches this point, he faces a tough fight ahead without any guaranteed victory.
Being a victim of an attack on Amazon can have very damaging consequences for the seller. For example, if Amazon should detect that there had been any purchased or manipulated reviews on one of your product listings, it will automatically unsubscribe both your profile as a seller and your product listings. Amazon does not even wait to hear your version of events: it is programmed to respond in a certain way to each problem, and those sellers who are hackers or cheaters know it.
To defend a case and get the account reactivated can take weeks of petitions, paperwork and waiting, and even seeking advice from the Amazon policy experts who are already emerging to help desperate sellers. Dishonest sellers play with the element of greatest value in online sales: time. Being absent from a platform means losing your audience (who will immediately feel suspicious at having seen your account disappear), your potential clientele, your sales growth curve, brand prestige and the positioning that is so difficult to build up in a saturated marketplace like Amazon.
The second element in favour of the cheats: the robotic and automated operation of Amazon. Getting oneself heard is very difficult as a salesperson, and organising a meeting in person is an impossible task; suspensions of sellers' accounts are processed through Seller Performance ... which can only be contacted via email. Of course, Jeff Benzos himself will never read your complaint email.
“It is vital for sellers to work internally within a variety of Amazon’s teams and let them know what’s going on. If the Product Safety team isn’t being responsive, try the Executive Seller Relations. Just because your first email fell on deaf ears doesn’t mean you should give up hope. It is important to be persistent with the world’s largest marketplace.” | Eli Coen, EliCommerce Chief Amazon Officer
For many, it ends up being that the only alternative is to acknowledge a crime they have not committed, such as the purchase of false reviews that were actually contracted by a competitor. It's easier for Amazon to forgive a seller for recognizing a fault, than for accusing another seller or an apparently fraudulent user (but note, however, that it will usually turn a blind eye on the one occasion, especially if it is not very serious; whereas a repetitive behaviour will definitely get you suspended from the marketplace).
This is due to the great difficulty involved in distinguishing which users on Amazon are authentic and which are not. Some people have taken up being hired by sellers as a part-time job, and if their range of reviews is wide (negative and positive, on different products, and at a normal purchase rate), it will be difficult to prove that this is a case of a buyer with shady intentions.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict whether as a seller you will suffer an attack of this type, and thus take appropriate preventive measures.
The best strategy seems to be, to become part of Amazon as an official retail partner, but this is only profitable if you sell in large quantities and you are an established business.
The smaller retailers will always be in danger of another competitor deciding to apply dishonest measures. Even as a brand that decides not to sell its products on Amazon, you cannot be 100 percent sure that this decision will be respected: many resellers include branded products in their listings even without official permission. Nike ended up having to sign up to Amazon after seeing how hundreds of distributors were selling its products; and curiously enough it has managed to reduce the sales of Nike products on Amazon, where its profit margin is lower than through other channels which are more interesting for the brand.
As a buyer on Amazon, it is relatively easy to distinguish who could be a fake seller:
- Lengthy estimated dispatch and delivery times, indicating that the seller might hide behind that condition to keep the money and not send anything.
- Listings with an excessive number of reviews (given that the percentage of clients that leave a review is minimal, most likely they are false or copied from abandoned listings).
- Sellers with little track record and suspicious product data. Clear warning signs include clumsy translations, a product description that does not correspond to the technical data, or an image gallery with photographs that appear to be of different products.
However, when a seller suffers the 'theft' of their private brand name by an imposter, it is more difficult for the user to identify the change. They will believe they are continuing to buy from the same seller as normal although in reality their money is going to a different one, usually to resellers from China, the country from which in recent years an increasing number of resellers on Amazon have originated.
Although Amazon usually considers the customer to be right in all such problematic cases, being confronted with a scam is always an unpleasant experience that harms the overall shopping experience and furthermore damages the confidence that the user will place in the marketplace, or even in a certain category of products, in future. Being alert and reporting this type of practice protects honest sellers as well as the future of e-commerce as a robust alternative within omnichannel sales.
However, this obvious mission is not at all simple. Even less so when Jeff Benzos does not seem to stand in favour of fair play either; and European organisations are initiating investigations into the illicit collection of user data by Amazon.
These are some basic practices that any seller can apply on Amazon:
- Immediately report suspicious 5 star reviews: It is much more tempting to report negative reviews loaded with bile, while overlooking those bright 5 stars that have appeared out of nowhere; but Amazon is more likely to penalise sellers with an unusual increase in positive reviews than those with a bad review.
- Keep an eye on your product description: It is easier to detect whether any of your product data has been altered if you possess a connector between the Amazon platform and a Product Information Management system, whereby you can check immediately if something doesn’t correspond with your original content.
- Hire more Amazon products: Yes, it does seem suspicious that Amazon is not able to control these problems and that the best solution is to pay for more services from that company. Yet becoming an exclusive Amazon brand, applying anti-counterfeit product labels and showing in more Amazon ads seems to promote a more secure and protected positioning in the marketplace.
- Become a watchman: It is not the most pleasant practice, but if Amazon places all the responsibility in the community, the sellers are also part of it. Already digital tools exist such as ReviewMeta or Fakespot, that track activity in product listings and enable suspicious activity to be detected, and sellers and products with false reviews to be identified, so as to be able to report them to Amazon in a well-argued way.
It seems preposterous that selling on Amazon brings to mind the ancient seas full of ships loaded with treasures and pirates ready to board them at any time, as if the storms and tempests were not enough to worry about. Moreover, the fight is fiercer now that, for many sellers, Amazon is the main or even exclusive sales platform, instead of a secondary component within their omnichannel strategy.
Don’t be discouraged from becoming a seller on Amazon as part of your e-commerce expansion plan, since the figures each year confirm that the majority of online searches either start at Amazon or get diverted towards the marketplace. Equipping yourself with your product management system and all possible preventive measures, you may manage both to get the attention of your audience... and to go unnoticed by the Amazon pirates.