Pay a visit these days to Amazon.ca, and you’ll notice straightaway that it is awash with third-party sellers: businesses other than Amazon who use Amazon’s colossal e-commerce platform to peddle their own merch. Some of these brands are known to all – vaunted household names, ubiquitous corporate marques, the retail elite – and others are known only to God and the shadowy people who run them: shifty-looking fly-by-nighters with a patchwork sampling of Chinese-made garbage on display like it’s a digital yard sale.
The problem with Amazon’s new model is that every one of these businesses operates under the aegis of the world’s largest and most trusted online retailer. Which is to say, they have the implied endorsement of Amazon.com, Inc. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Amazon’s marketplace sellers program is a spinoff of the company’s invitation-only Merchants@ initiative of the early 2000s. At that time, I was running a reasonably successful online retail business – in Canada – and to my shock and wonderment received a personal invitation to join the US-based project. My line haul logistics were already setup to ship into the States. Merchants@ was extremely well-prescribed in terms of service coordination, joint promotional opportunities, and standards of ethical conduct. I had a direct line of support to actual Amazon staff who were actually in charge of actually overseeing my account.
I dined out for months on the press that agreement generated: tiny Ottawa e-retailer attracts the attention of blah blah blah you get the picture. I made the front page of both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Sun business sections in the same month. Revenues in my first full fiscal year were over a quarter million. Spillover sales on my own branded site pumped me up to a cool mil. It was my business wet dream come true.
And then, just as abruptly, I woke up clutching my junk with jizz in my shorts.
By the mid-2000s, Merchants@ became Amazon’s most lucrative growth opportunity. And Amazon, being a typical American corporation with legal personhood but no soul, cheerfully discarded its well-defined, invitation-only concept and threw wide its digital doors to any huckster with shit to shill.
Okay. I can deal with competition.
But then, in very short order, came Fulfilled by Amazon. Wherein Amazon stocks and ships select products for third-party merchants, and heavily weights its internal search results to those who indulge in this service. I say “indulge” because Fulfilled by Amazon leaves the seller with precisely nothing after all service fees have been subtracted from the sale. They pitched their new work-for-free model as a “marketing expense.” I refused, on principle, to participate and my business took an immediate nosedive from which I never fully recovered.
The point of my sad story? What was once a noble and well-executed idea transmogrified from greed into an unwieldy and virtually unmonitored bazaar that is rife with con artists and other businesses behaving badly. The only shield that stands between you and the fleas that inhabit this mangy mutt of a marketplace is Amazon’s A-to-Z Guarantee – and even then you have to exhaust every effort to extract an amicable resolution from the very people who screwed you in the first place.
I’m looking at you, Dealkings of Brooklyn, NY: the guys who charge $27.43 for an item to be found at Home Depot for $4.99 (shame on me for not checking!), who don’t ship by their promised date, who respond to cancellation requests by shipping anyway, who then claim by replying to my original cancellation request that they never received my cancellation request, and then who stop communicating with me altogether.
Is this really the kind of business with whom Amazon.com, Inc. wants to associate? The kind that offers to refund your money only if you remove your negative rating from its Amazon storefront? The kind that does not disclose its returns and refund policies, even when asked, or that ships from the USA but presents itself as based in Canada?
As far as I’m concerned, Amazon’s marketplace sellers program has a lot to answer for: that there are apparently no criteria by which these businesses are selected, except for their eagerness to pay the requisite tributes; that there is no requirement to disclose from which country your order originates – until of course you receive your shipment notification; and that the A-to-Z Guarantee has become so slippery that most customers might abandon the process long before it works to their advantage.
The Christmas shopping season is upon us. Think upon my words. Buy diligently.