Season 1, Episode 96

Extreme ASIN Merging

Question from an Amazon Seller: How should sellers approach the ‘extreme merging’ of a lot of ASINs together (which results in a single ASIN with a whole group of UPC’s)? Who is doing the merging? Why is it happening? Are these UPC’s/GTIN’s etc. all legitimate? Are they all in fact the same product? Is the listing tainted? In this episode Chris and Leah dissect the issue of merging product listings and best practices for Amazon Sellers.

Show Notes

Transcript

[00:00:07] Chris:Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Seller Performance Solutions. I’m Chris McCabe of ecommercechris, I’m here with Leah McHugh of ecommerceChris. Leah, how are you doing?

[00:00:16] Leah: Good, thanks. How are you, Chris?

[00:00:19] Chris: Good and today we are talking about an interesting question, series of questions we got through our website and a contact that mentioned that they wanted to talk about extreme merging of ASINs, I liked the extreme merging part, because as you know, this is a hot topic. The FTC has been scrutinizing, investigating and filing charges, filing lawsuits.

[00:00:44] Leah: Yeah.

[00:00:44] Chris: Filing charges and lawsuits around ASINs being improperly merged on Amazon and the confusing experience that is for consumers, of course, that’s what the FTC Federal Trade Commission is all about and there’s been lots of issues that they’ve investigated in the past about product reviews being fake and how that negatively impacts consumers, for example, in this particular instance and I think how we’ve heard this come up over the years is the improper merging of ASINs. There’s a variety of ways it was being accomplished, but the bottom line was if you went to page 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and looked at what the reviews were talking about, they were talking about a totally different product.

So clearly somebody had me merged those ASINs to harvest reviews and sales rank.

[00:01:27] Leah: Well, so that is one version. I mean, Amazon was actually proactively merging duplicate ASINs at one point, particularly when they started to tighten up their UPC policy. So if there were multiple listings with different UPCs, but it was all for the same product, the way in which to correct that would be to have Amazon merge them. So that is in that instance and also the instance that you mentioned, sometimes you’ll see one ASIN will have like 10 different UPCs associated with it. And that’s because those UPCs were all associated with different ASINs at one point, and were then merged into one ASIN and either by another seller or by Amazon, often by Amazon at the seller’s behest.

[00:02:08] Chris: Right. So let’s unpack some of the questions that we got from that particular seller and what makes sense or doesn’t make sense and what solutions Amazon has or doesn’t have. So some of his questions were, who’s doing the merging? Why is this happening? Right. Are the UPCs or GTINs legitimate and are they all in fact for the same product? Right. Let’s start with those.

[00:02:32] Leah: Well, yeah, so I mean, we sort of started to answer the who is doing it and why are they doing it?

[00:02:37] Chris: Are those the only reasons they would do it? Maybe we should start with the merging.

[00:02:40] Leah: Those are the main reasons. So whether it is somebody, like you said, taking a listing and they want to keep the reviews on an old listing, whether or not it is like a full, fully fledged form of abuse where they’re just taking an entirely different product and then trying to merge it with another ASIN in order to keep those reviews. Or it’s something where maybe it was a slight update to the product or maybe there was an error made at one point and the wrong UPC got associated with it, whatever the case may be, they then asked Amazon to merge them because they basically said these are the same product, they’re duplicates. These need to be merged and then the other scenario, like I just said, was cases prior to Amazon’s GTIN policy change where most often resellers would just kind of add their own UPC to a product.

[00:03:32] Chris: Resold UPCs, right?

[00:03:33] Leah: Well, not just resold UPCs, but you know, generally speaking a manufacturer isn’t assigning seven different UPCs to their own product. But what many resellers used to do was just assign their own UPC to a product and then list it. So rather than there being one listing for the product, you would end up with like 10 listings for the same product because anybody could just assign a UPC and create. So part of cleaning up the catalog, Amazon merged those together. So those are the main reasons why, and those are the main people that are doing it. Whether it’s black hat people trying to get reviews from an old product, people trying to keep reviews on a product that’s maybe slightly changed over the years or a UPC duplicate listing issue that Amazon’s tried to fix.

[00:04:12] Chris: And a couple of very interesting questions came up, through our interactions with this seller who came through our site. One question I thought of is, will Amazon devote teams and tools and time to finding all the improperly merged ASINs in the catalog, which is hundreds of thousands of listings, or millions of listings, I don’t even know.

[00:04:33] Leah: Yeah, I mean, I’m gonna be honest. I don’t know if they can. Also just answer the question about if all of the UPCs are legitimate, Sometimes. sometimes they are all GS1 issued UPCs, but more often than not, they aren’t. And, and that is again, why they were merged in the first place. Somebody assigned a resold UPC to create a duplicate listing. So usually you’ll find that one of the UPCs associated with it actually matches the GS1 database and then all of the other ones are not. But that isn’t always the case if they’re doing it for review reasons rather than cleaning up duplicate listings.

[00:05:05] Chris: Correct, and the second really interesting question that was posed in that form that was submitted was inauthentic complaints. Are you going to be flagged for inauthentic? Which we all know, those are kind of vague and confusing to begin with simply because the UPC is considered invalid or if you’re on a different listing for the same product with a different UPC, is one of them valid the other one isn’t? And is that the basis for an inauthentic complaint from a buyer or a brand? And then of course, that would lead us into the whole IP infringement conversation as well.

[00:05:38] Leah: Yeah, we certainly have had sellers, not so much recently, but we certainly have had sellers who jumped on the wrong version of a product and then they did have issues with inauthentic. Also listing policy violations where part of the appeal process, and again, this is mostly resellers because they’re the ones that are jumping on another listing. Part of the appeal process was putting into the plan of action that from now on that they were going to check there are UPCs against the GS1 database before they list against the ASIN to make sure that they are in fact listing on the correct product and the correct ASIN going forward. We haven’t really seen as much of that recently. At least from the Amazon enforcement side of things. I think partly because I don’t think Amazon knows what to do with this mess.

I mean, up until what, 2015 or 2016, Amazon was actively telling sellers to buy resold UPCs. So you now have millions and millions of ASINs that have improper UPC data associated with them. And one of the fixes for a long time was creating a new listing and then merging that old listing together. I’m interested to see, because there’s usually like a few month lag time between us seeing something publicly and Amazon reacting to it, I am interested to see in reaction to the recent case that the FDC filed against a supplement seller for creating incorrect variations in order to make it seem like they had more reviews than they actually did.

I will be interested to see what Amazon decides to do with this going forward because the number of ASINs that are associated with multiple UPCs and Amazon’s catalog is in the millions. And similarly, the number of ASINs that have resold UPCs associated with them from the prior to the policy change is also in the millions and I don’t think Amazon has figured out a plan yet of how they’re going to handle that. So I’ll be interested to see if we start seeing more enforcement around this, how far back they’re gonna go enforcing these things because again, I mean, we’re talking about stuff that’s been going on for nearly a decade at this point.

[00:07:42] Chris: It’s a monster of a project.

[00:07:43] Leah: And it is a massive problem, but if they’re getting flack from the FTC, they’re gonna have to do something to make it look like they’re doing something.

[00:07:51] Chris: I don’t know if they’re getting enough flack yet from the FTC to take on a monster project like this at a time where they’re shedding headcount, not adding it to design, to grab so many engineers, grab them and design new tools and train and create new teams to dig into. I mean, do they have enough pressure to do that? Wouldn’t they rather just be lax with the enforcement as they have for all these years and leave inaccurate info. I mean, there’s already plenty of listed info that’s not accurate.

[00:08:20] Leah: I don’t think it’s ever going to be totally cleaned up. I just don’t even think that’s possible at this point. But we see regularly when they get bad press or they get flack from a government agency they will loudly enforce on some sellers in order to show that they are doing something about it. We see that regularly, particularly with listing policy enforcement. We’ll have like hundreds of cases in a week and then we won’t see those sorts of cases for like six months. Like we do regularly see actions like that, and so I think we’ll probably see something similar where it’ll probably just be the lowest hanging fruit for them to enforce on, we’ll suddenly get a wave of enforcement around it maybe, and then we maybe won’t see it again. I will say, however, that like sellers are still merging listings and I think that this is the riskiest time to be doing things like that because there is public scrutiny on it right now, and again, even if you have a legitimate reason for it, what you think is a legitimate reason is not necessarily something that the FTC or Amazon thinks is a legitimate reason.

If you’re slightly changed your products over the years, that is not a legitimate reason to merge it with the old ASIN or even to create a new version as a variation. Not something that you want to be playing with right now and I know that there are tons of services that are happy to take your money to do this for you.

Just because something is technically possible to do in in the catalog it doesn’t mean that you can do it. I mean, obviously it’s possible to technically do things that you’re not supposed to do on Amazon, otherwise people wouldn’t need to hire us.

[00:09:55] Chris: Well, that’s the same thing in the in law enforcement as well, right? There are things that you can technically do that are also illegal. It doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish them. It means that there could be consequences and repercussions, right? And in this particular case, it is alarming that a lot of of services are either ignorantly offering this as a workaround or they deliberately are putting your brand in your whole account at risk by doing this because of what Leah was just saying about this is a terrible time to be doing risky ASIN merges just because somebody that you think you can trust told you that it’s okay just because they’ve been doing it for a while, because you’ve done something in the past and executed it flawlessly and no one ever hassled you at Amazon about it, doesn’t mean that’ll continue on into the future without repercussions and penalties.

The other thing is Amazon could look at multiple listings of yours. They might not feel like going through your entire listing collection and catalog of your own listings, it’s a lot easier, and I speak from past solid performance experience, it’s a lot easier to suspend your whole account and delete all your listings and force you to sort that out instead of them sorting it out.

And I think a lot of people don’t understand that perspective. They think, well, they might shed a few of our listings and they might send us a policy warning or a performance notification telling us, Hey, sometime in the future, clean this up. We took a few of your listings away. I don’t know why people assume that, it’s a lot easier to either cancel all of your listings, which as you noted, this is mostly resellers dealing with it.

Some resellers have thousands to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of listings. It’s a lot easier to just suspend your whole account, shoot first, ask questions later.

[00:11:42] Leah: Well, so the interesting thing is that often times if the ASINs were merged due to duplicate listings, it actually isn’t the reseller that is merging them.

It’s often the reseller that created those duplicate listings but it is often the brand that is trying to merge them together into one ASIN, which isn’t necessarily the incorrect thing to do, I think the issue right now is that you trying to clean up duplicates. Looks a lot like detail page tampering.

And I think a lot of sellers don’t really take listing policy violations as seriously, because like I said, Amazon will do these purges where there will be like hundreds or thousands of cases where people are being suspended, and then we won’t really see any enforcement around that for six months.

But that being said, Usually when it’s considered product detail page tampering, Amazon does suspend the entire account versus just the listing. So I think it’s not something that sellers really hear a lot about because it’s not happening constantly. But when they do take action, they do tend to take action against the entire account.

And if this is something that you’ve done on your account in the past, obviously like you can’t undo right? What you have done. But if an investigator is looking at your account and they’ve seen that you’ve done it in the past. If they see that you’re still doing it, they’re far more likely to suspend you than if they saw that you’d done it in the past, but you’re not doing it anymore.

So just doing it now I think is just an extremely risky time to be doing it. Again, there is also legal implications now that the FTC is paying attention to this and I do also just wanna briefly touch on, this isn’t exactly what the question was asked via the email, but it is related and that is brand name changes because this is another conversation that I’ve been having with a lot of sellers. And again, there are a lot of services that will do this for you if you pay them to, but it is definitely against policy. Amazon considers a brand name change to be a fundamentally different change.

Doesn’t matter if you own both of the brand names and because that’s another reasoning I’ve been seeing from other service providers being like, oh, it’s fine if you own both brand names.

[00:13:46] Chris: I don’t know where that came from.

[00:13:48] Leah: I don’t where that came from too, but it is definitely not correct. And this isn’t just my reading of the policy. This is from conversations with higher ups in Amazon that have talked to people that did this before hiring us and then later got in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if you own both of the brand names, it doesn’t matter who owns what. It is 100% against Amazon policy to change the brand name on an existing ASIN.

So if you want to rebrand your product, you need to create an entirely new ASIN for that product, start from scratch with reviews, start from scratch with sale velocity. You can’t just change the brand attribute, even though it’s technically possible to push through. You cannot change the brand attribute on your ASIN that is already existing in Amazon’s catalog. You are risking your entire account by doing that. Best case scenario is that Amazon at some point just switches it back to the old brand attribute, worst case scenario is that they do take out your entire account.

[00:14:42] Chris: Or they revoke your brand registry, we’ve seen different things in terms of outcomes. We haven’t seen mass account suspensions over this, but that’s yet.

Once they start paying attention to stuff, I think a lot of sellers don’t understand, that people got away with certain practices for a certain amount of time because Amazon either willfully or not, wasn’t paying attention to it. They either knew about it. They had no fix for it. No plan for it. No training around it, no process for it. So that’s why they ignore it or they simply weren’t paying attention to it, period. That doesn’t mean that yesterday is tomorrow and that whatever was ignored yesterday, no one cares about tomorrow for exactly the reasons we’re talking about today.

If the FTC jumps in and suddenly finds something interesting, guess what? Amazon might not be lock and step with exactly what the FTC wants them to do, but they’re certainly thinking about it, paying attention to it and trying to cover themselves.

[00:15:36] Leah: They’re certainly gonna make a show of paying attention to it and acting accordingly. So there is going some kind of enforcement.

[00:15:43] Chris: At least an initial minimum push. That’s potentially just observational or review oriented, review meaning they’re willing to take a look at it to decide what can be done. Just to show that they’re taking an interest.

It doesn’t mean they’re suspending everyone tomorrow, but clearly once they start unearthing these things, I mean, this is a tricky topic, what we’re talking about today because you and I see this stuff all the time. We don’t even have the best accurate prediction for which way this is going to go.

[00:16:14] Leah: No, I think also this is the one area of policy where when sellers do get in trouble for it, they consistently think that they have done nothing wrong. And we don’t really see that with other supensions, I mean, some people don’t think they did anything wrong regardless of what happened, but this particular area of policy 95% of the sellers we have worked with on cases like this where Amazon has taken action, the seller doesn’t think that they did anything wrong.

And then I look in the account or I look at the listings and it’s like, oh here are the like 30 things that were wrong here. It is a very poorly understood part of policy, and it’s also a very poorly enforced part of policy, which means that a lot of people just don’t take it seriously or I have the inevitable three times a week conversation of, well, I see other people doing it and it’s fine.

[00:16:59] Chris: It’s not just that, they’re interpreting the policy favorably to their own reading of what they need and what they want. And the biggest error, the biggest mistake you can make is assuming that Amazon’s reading of their own policies is a hundred percent coinciding with yours because we find that to be rarely the case and Amazon’s policy interpretation is what counts. Not yours or what you see other sellers doing or what agencies and consultants and service providers who might not even have knowledge of compliance are telling you is allowable.

[00:17:36] Leah: well and again they are like Seller support said it was okay, not a valid reason, not something that you can show Amazon later to get you out of trouble. Support don’t have like a good grounding in the policy here.

[00:17:47] Chris: Correct. And a good aside for, for that is support and account health reps aren’t policy experts.

You might think that’s crazy. They should know all the policies. So anybody who has any questions, we know this is a huge topic. We do see people still doing improper ASIN merging. That’s a really risky thing to do. If you do that, make sure you understand that that’s high risk behavior and you could get in a lot of trouble for that.

[00:18:14] Leah: But also not just by Amazon, the FTC is paying attention to this. Now you’re looking at potential legal issues too.

So any questions on that? Once again, direct them all to Leah. None of them to me. Thank you again for listening. This is important stuff and compliance and policy are things that any responsible brand owner or Amazon business owner needs to pay close attention to.

So we’re happy to answer questions about it. Take care and we’ll see you next time on Seller Performance Solutions.

Hosts & Guests

Chris McCabe

Leah McHugh

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