2020 is done!
What do bona fide, established Amazon experts have to say about the hurdles confronting third-party sellers in 2021?
This year, all Amazon businesses will face new challenges, as we see each January. But we’re optimistic sellers will continue to see higher than average sales growth, and maybe even improvements to Amazon’s processes to cope with competitor attack reports.
Unfortunately, we’re also pessimistic about Amazon’s increasing inability to communicate effectively enough with sellers to facilitate solutions. If anything, that could worsen with more automated, generic responses to reinstatement appeals.
I talked to Jason Boyce, James Thomson and Leah McHugh about the specific obstacles that brands first encountered in 2020, since they may become more common in 2021. Each expert provides valuable insights below, and I present my top handful of things to expect this year, too.
Cheating is not Going Away
Jason Boyce of Avenue 7 Media helps new and established brands make their mark on Amazon, and he has strong, specific opinions on the year ahead. Jason and I frequently hear stories about sellers who look to cut corners, or about brands getting attacked by competitors who know how to “game the system” (or manipulate Amazon teams) to knock off competitors in their category. I wanted to know what challenges he saw ahead for brands looking to compete the right way in a world where some sellers cheat?
Cheating is not going away and Amazon appears unwilling or unable to address this major, growing problem head on. In spite of this, I feel strongly that sellers, no matter what violations they see from their competitors, should continue to stay within Amazon Terms of Service (TOS). It can be incredibly tempting to go outside of TOS for a quick win, especially when competitors are blatantly using unlawful tactics, but it’s important to stay strong and do the right thing. I’m probably crazy to hold on to hope that at some point in the future Amazon will become more aggressive about taking down bad actors, but I do hold on to the dream. If and when they do, you’ll find solace as a seller knowing that you’ve always done the right thing.
Do brands think they’ll report bad behavior and Amazon will take action to help right away? Or do they fear having to scrape ranking and searchability back on their own? “Most complaints fall on deaf ears at Amazon and in most cases Amazon will not help you regain rank. You’re on your own.”
Do any of his clients expect Amazon to improve communications with sellers next year?
“No chance. Artificial Intelligence (AI) stinks and too many support tickets are being routed or handled by inexperienced staff. Amazon hired 400,000 employees over the last 10 months and they are the most understaffed company in America. Especially when it comes to Seller Support…while I hope this improves in 2021, I don’t believe that it will.”
I have many of my own ideas on this topic, but I wanted to ask an agency head like Jason. What do sellers try to do to help themselves when recovering from a brand attack?
“It’s important to have a strong SKU pipeline and a diverse line of products so that your business is not dependent on just one or two SKUs that could ruin you if you come under attack and lose valuable rank. My advice is to keep your nose clean, focus on your own business, grow your SKU count, and call a professional like Chris if you fall victim to nefarious listing or account attacks. “
We have seen numerous sellers come to us after wasting time, and effort, opening Seller Support cases in response to such an attack, not knowing the limited value of those teams.
Brands Need an Active Amazon Strategy
I also asked James Thomson of Buy Box Experts what seller pain points he sees ahead, given his decade and a half of experience helping Amazon sellers adapt and thrive.
He has very solid ideas about what will change this year, from last year, from the perspective of a successful brand management agency.
Expect Scrutiny of Your Product and Listing Compliance
According to Leah McHugh, our resident listing compliance and policy expert: “We’re seeing a lot more enforcement around Product Detail Page and packaging language. This is most likely due to extra scrutiny from the FDA, FTC, and USDA in 2020. I’m expecting to see more of that, and more requests for compliance documentation. So make sure any claims you make (health, organic, or otherwise) have full documentation to back them up.”
I asked her, who is handling these types of cases, are they just getting tossed and transferred around?
“Unfortunately with the increase in compliance, we’ve also seen an increase in cases being handled by teams other than Seller Performance. So, expect to have to submit your docs more than once, and even escalate. And don’t expect Account Health to have any visibility into restricted products, PCRP, or document requests.”
Nothing drives home the point about deleting wording in all caps, than using all caps!!
And here are my biggest Amazon seller Expectations, if not quite predictions, for 2021:
Survival of the fittest
Successful accounts who capitalized on covid sales will continue to outdistance their competition. We’ve heard two things in 2020, from most of our clients:
A) Sales are up anywhere from ten to 40%, and
B) competition is more fierce than ever.
Expect even more new entrants to the marketplace in 2021, since word is out on the ever-increasing ability for sellers to expand their sales on Amazon.
In the age of rapid online shopping growth, those already thriving on Amazon will double down. Those not yet on Amazon must jump aboard soon, or risk falling too far behind to catch up later.
The more resources you hand to your competitors without a plan to fight for those customers, the less cash you’ll have to reinvest in your business later on.
Tougher roads ahead for new businesses that lack prior online selling, or prior business experience
We expect new sellers to continue to ask Amazon for leniency when they encounter trouble right after they start selling, but as in prior years, we don’t expect Amazon to care how new or “inexperienced” a seller is.
Amazon wants sellers to read through all the policy pages (and understand them) prior to listing anything for sale, for one thing. For another, they want each seller to grasp all facets of Intellectual Property rights ownership, whether you’re a private label seller or a reseller. Each type of selling has its own infringement claim pitfalls on Amazon.
You don’t want to start Amazon off on the wrong foot, because I often hear from new sellers who started that way and stayed that way until we intervened. Having to play catch up early in the game makes you more likely to lose, or more likely to need reinstatement services.
Rising Abuse cases to report or escalate
Unfortunately, Amazon continues to push sellers to report abusive competitor attacks via Seller Central, to report violations and request assistance. If most of those cases resulted in real action by Amazon abuse prevention teams, and if sellers received meaningful responses regarding those attacks, I would not have so many sellers asking us for help.
Black hat sellers and the “consultants” they hire to execute anti-competitive services consistently damage the sales rank and revenue of legitimate businesses on Amazon. I expect this to continue in 2021.
Abuse prevention teams practice inconsistent, opaque methods that suffer from poor management or neglect. The scale of these attacks expands weekly. Amazon will try to play catch up in the new year. Regrettably, they have a lot of catching up to do, and sellers don’t trust Seller Central cases with Seller Support to result in anything other than a canned, copy and paste response.
More Automation, and less oversight tied to enforcement and appeals
Don’t expect improved messaging from Seller performance or policy enforcement teams in 2021, because we’ve seen the quality of their communication trend downward for each of the past several years. Performance notifications lack specific information for you to base an appeal on, and often miss basic details like ASINs, or the type of complaint that led to an ASIN or account suspension. More and more sellers depend on calls to Account Health Services just to find out what is going on, unless they skip that step and escalate things immediately to a more useful audience.
We continue to see less and less evidence of managerial oversight within Seller Performance from last year. And with each passing month, we’ve observed increases in messaging from Amazon that doesn’t fit the situation originally stated or it won’t match the original suspension notification. In 2021 we expect more of a “bot” feel from these teams than ever before, whether or not actual humans select the messaging sent to you. Whether it’s “copy and paste” type errors or simply generic, watered down messaging, sellers will need to understand all meaningful strategies to locate the right information for an appeal.
More calls to Account Health Services, and perhaps better or clearer answers
We can’t imagine Account health reps having access to less information than they did in 2020, so we’re hoping Amazon will understand that more information must be shared with sellers regarding suspensions. While we could just as easily predict that they will maintain the status quo, it’s becoming painfully obvious that current methods won’t cut it going forward. Account Health must explain better the reasons for appeal denials, and if they’re poorly trained on use of tools and where to find the right info, a manager must be present to intervene and assist. Otherwise, it’s just glorified support.
More regular requests for private label sellers to provide compliance documentation, testing and certifications that pass scrutiny
After years of questions around how liable Amazon actually is for unsafe and hazardous products sold through their site, in 2020 they finally began paying attention. Not only that, Amazon started requesting product compliance documents that either hadn’t been previously approved, or, had been approved, but with little scrutiny. Heading into 2021, we expect a lot more of this enforcement, if only to make sure they can avoid bad press, bad (and unhealthy, or risky) buyer experiences, or oversight by government agencies and consumer protection bureaus.
All eyes are on Amazon on two fronts nowadays. A) Can they truly prevent sales of counterfeit items, that destroy consumer faith in the marketplace and ruin legitimate businesses selling authentic goods? And B) can they make sure items sold on the site adhere to laws (and their own policies) for product safety and compliance? Amazon wins, along with the buying public and every other stakeholder, if they deliver on the promises to provide not just the best buyer experience, but a safe one!
More regular requests for resellers to produce invoices that are complete, and which can be easily verified by Amazon teams
The age of shaky supplier relationships or poor invoices (or no invoices at all) ended in 2019, and in 2020, Amazon only upped the ante. Whether you’re a reseller, or a private label seller, you must present acceptable supply chain documentation that will meet Amazon’s standards. In the past few months, Amazon has insisted even more so upon legible, complete, accurate and verifiable information about where you source product. They occasionally make calls to suppliers to make sure you haven’t fabricated any invoices.
Any sign that you’ve tried to fake out Amazon usually means an inability to sell that product in the future, and often, a loss of your selling privileges. Get it right the first time and be prepared for anything. It only takes one complaint from one buyer and Amazon starts asking questions you need to be able to answer.
As we often see surprises or last minute changes by Amazon, there’s certainly only so much that you can predict or guess in advance. We advise sellers to prepare for all outcomes.