Amazon abruptly banned Washington state candy maker Chukar Cherries. Months of unsuccessful calls

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Suddenly Chukar Cherries couldn’t sell a single cherry on Amazon.com.

The Prosser Company, Benton County, whose chocolate-coated fruits and nuts have become gift baskets and trail mixes day before among Washingtonians since the company’s founding 33 years ago, launched on the Amazon Marketplace on July 19, through automated email.

“Your privileges to sell on Amazon.com have been removed,” the email read. “Your ads have been disabled. Funds will not be transferred to you but will be held in your account.

Amazon’s fraud prevention algorithms had concluded that Chukar – which has been selling on the Amazon Marketplace since 2003 – was linked to another account, based just north of Shanghai, which the commerce giant had disabled for breaking. Amazon policies. The seller account that Chukar was supposed to be associated with, DBING, doesn’t sell fruits, nuts, or apparently a lot of things: it only has nine customer reviews, almost all negative, with six buyers saying they didn’t. never received what they ordered. (DBING did not respond to questions sent through Amazon’s customer service portal; no other company records could be found.)

Chukar also has no commercial ties with China. The company uses American ingredients and employs local workers.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Pam Montgomery, founder of Chukar Cherries. “But it’s kind of Amazon for you.”

Chukar’s experience illustrates how, while Amazon leverages the PRs of third-party seller successes, it locks sellers into what can be a precarious and automated business relationship. Algorithmic errors and malicious competitors can lead to financially devastating account suspensions or lead sellers through a grueling appeal process. Salespeople may never know what they did wrong or how to fix it.

“Being on Amazon is really essential. It identifies you as a significant business, ”Montgomery said. “But it’s not easy.”

Amazon reinstated Chukar’s account on Friday, after the Seattle Times asked why Chukar had not been able to sell any merchandise on Amazon.com for 67 days. In a statement, a spokesperson implicated a “bad actor” who had “created a false relationship with this seller, which led us to take action on this account.”

Amazon declined to say who the bad actor was, what steps the person had taken to link the two accounts, or what they could have hoped for.

“We are sorry for the bad experience,” Amazon spokeswoman Cecilia Fan said in a statement.

Three market consultants who spoke to the Seattle Times about Chukar’s case said that a “bad actor” was or was not the source of the problem, but much of the blame lies on the detection software. Amazon’s error-prone frauds, difficult appeal system and lack of human-powered account review, they said.

The size of Amazon’s marketplace – there are roughly six million third-party sellers on Amazon.com, generating nearly $ 300 billion in annual sales – has led Amazon to rely on automated mechanisms to catch and punish sellers. that break the law or violate its terms of service.

Amazon says it spent more than $ 700 million last year to fight fraud, abuse and counterfeit products on its platform. In recent months, he has been particularly interested in Chinese sellers. Since May, Amazon has banned nearly 55,000 Chinese sellers from the platform, mainly for soliciting fake reviews.

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However, Amazon’s crime-fighting technology isn’t perfect. In its quest to root out malicious sellers operating through multiple accounts, Amazon’s algorithms are generating “a huge number of false positives,” said Lesley Hensell, co-founder of third-party sales consulting firm Riverbend Consulting. “We work daily with clients who have been linked to accounts where there is a tangential link or no link at all. “

Amazon’s software searches for connections between accounts by trying to match business and warehouse addresses, banking information, ISPs, IP addresses and seller identities, said Chris McCabe, founder of ecommerceChris consulting firm and former Amazon seller investigator. fraud.

Sometimes Amazon’s software can be overzealous. Hensell was able to bring one of his client’s accounts back online, for example, after telling Amazon that the company was probably operating in the same coworking space as another seller who had violated Amazon policies. Another customer was suspended after Amazon linked the account to an account that had been owned by the customer’s ex-boyfriend for many years.

“Amazon’s technology for detecting this definitely has flaws,” Hensell said.

Once Amazon determines that two accounts are connected, it can be difficult to prove that they are not, McCabe said. This is what happened to the Chukar cherries.

Chukar chief executive Tim Oten spent more than two months trying to prove his company had no relationship with Chinese seller DBING. Oten filed almost weekly appeals with Amazon, sending the retail giant information about Chukar’s business license, physical locations, authorized resellers and employees.

Time and time again it received an automated response: Amazon had “received your submission but (did not) have enough information to reactivate your account at this time,” according to correspondence reviewed by the Seattle Times. Oten called a seller hotline, but the rep told him there was no one to talk to who could help him figure out what information Amazon needed to reestablish his account, Oten said. .

Meanwhile, the threat of a permanent ban on selling on Amazon loomed.

“If we cannot substantiate the claim, your account will not be reinstated and that account will no longer be allowed to do business on Amazon in the future,” Amazon told Chukar.

Amazon sales represent less than 5% of the company’s revenue, an amount equivalent to “losing one of our No.1 customers,” Oten said. “Like losing Bartell’s, REI, or Whole Foods.” (Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017; Montgomery said Chukar’s relationship with Whole Foods remains positive.)

Bad actors exist on Amazon, many of whom have learned to arm Amazon’s fraud detection systems against their competitors.

Federal prosecutors last year alleged that 10 Amazon employees accepted bribes in a plot to increase sales from certain third-party sellers, in part by reporting the accounts of their competitors for fraud, which had the effect of suspending these accounts. A market consultant and former Amazon employee pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme earlier this month.

“Amazon has created a system where sellers know how to avoid abuse,” said a former Amazon executive turned consultant, who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize his customers’ relationship with Amazon. Amazon’s decision to rely primarily on algorithms, rather than humans, to control the platform is understandable given its size, he said. But, he said, “the system is not working well.”

Chukar Cherries founder Montgomery said she didn’t know how much the company lost in sales as the company was blacklisted from the platform. Either way, she’s not interested in asking Amazon for monetary compensation. The company does most of its business before the holidays, so she said she was mostly happy to be back on the platform before the shopping season began in earnest.

She would, however, like Amazon to revisit its fraud detection algorithms and hire more people to work directly with sellers whose accounts have been deactivated. (Amazon says sellers can call support representatives 24/7, and 80% of seller issues are resolved in less than a day.)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos might also have some soul-searching to do, Montgomery added.

“It’s hurting a Seattle business, and Seattle has backed it,” she said. “Washington supported him. It’s terrible. “



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