Adventures in ‘Commingled’ Fulfilled by Amazon Inventory

These are words that any seller would dread seeing staring back at them from an Amazon Seller Performance team email:  We are writing because we have received complaints that you have sold counterfeit items on our site.”  Whether you are paying the fees for the Fulfilled by Amazon service (defined as items that “are offered by a third-party seller, but shipped from an Amazon Fulfillment Center to you”) or not, this email means that you have a problem with one listing or perhaps an entire product line.  Amazon will not show you which order it came from nor cite a buyer for you, lest you begin to send messages to the would-be whistleblower.  You naturally seek more information about which item caused this action by contacting Seller Support or Seller Performance teams. Unfortunately, these two particular teams do not directly decide what happens next.

“While we are unable to provide information about specific orders that are reported to us, reviewing your feedback, recent contacts from buyers, and inventory may help you identify problematic items.”

Some of my clients turn to me to help understand why they have received this email and to reverse this action, and reinstate their listings.  You know you are a legitimate seller of the item, hopefully.  If you know you are selling bad product, then reading this warning is a good little wake-up call for you to move off the site.  What if you are an authorized re-seller of an item and you are using FBA? You will want to know which team investigated this buyer complaint and why your items were not considered legitimate by either Amazon or the buyer.

Another variation on this theme comes from one case that I resolved for a consumer electronics seller.  Amazon cited the specific listing while clarifying with this: “We took this action because we have received customer complaints about these listings.”  Again, the actual complaint was not cited.  As it happens in Amazon-land, one buyer complaint can trigger such an episode.  There need not be other signs of trouble associated with your account to set off a listing review, whether coming in the form of bad feedback, claims, or chargebacks.

“Our policy states that items offered for sale on Amazon.com must be authentic. Items that have been illegally replicated, reproduced, or manufactured are prohibited. To learn more about this policy, search “Amazon Anti-Counterfeiting Policy” in Seller Central Help.”

You have not listed anything other than an authentic item.  You sourced them directly from the manufacturer, as the seller had on my recent consulting project.  You have purchase orders, invoices, and all relevant documentation ready to go for Amazon to peruse.  The items are all sealed in original packaging from the manufacturer to the customer.  What went wrong? In my investigations into these actions for the proven legitimate sellers I represent, I have arrived at one core explanation.  The true pain point here is an FBA process known among sellers as “commingled inventory.”

Due to the volume of merchant inventory sent in to Amazon FBA warehouses, inventory from one seller cannot easily be kept separate and distinct from another’s.  Commingled inventory has been defined briefly for me as “inventory that is recognized by either UPC or Amazon Standard Identification Number, or ASIN,” by one FBA source.  One example of an ASIN is B00JG8GOWU, for the Kindle Paperwhite.  Commingling is Amazon’s default setting to facilitate inventory accounting and to ease storage.

One single buyer complaint, no matter how vague, that an item is “different from expected” can trigger this action, and that may result in weeks of lost sales.  What can be done about this? At the minimum, Amazon effectively takes seven days to investigate the matter, including reviews of past complaints, other buyer comments, seller performance and anything else considered relevant.  You submit your documentation but then begin an interminable wait for reinstatement with little additional information from Amazon, other than a message indicating that they are working on the matter.  For future prevention, you can work with the manufacturer of the item to have an “X00” label printed directly onto the packaging using what is known as FNSKU labeling.  Or, you can sticker your inventory according to the below instructions in Seller Central.

Seller Central HelpFulfillment by Amazon (FBA)FBA Policies and RequirementsInventory RequirementsFBA Product Label RequirementsHow to Label FBA Inventory

With enough time, effort and energy invested in emailing the proper queues with the proper documents, you may see results somewhere within a 7 to 21 day window.  You may be prompted to provide more information as the investigation progresses and you may be asked more than once to provide the same documents.  Patience will come in handy here.  There is little else that a merchant can do to prevent this from happening, at least for the time being.   It helps to work with someone who understands the Amazon Product Quality team so that you can present your appeal.

“We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com selling privileges.”

So this could result in a suspension or block of your account, and you cannot directly contact the Product Quality team by phone.  If their email queues are sufficiently backed up you may end up waiting and wondering, so sticker your items to indicate that they are yours, and your inventory alone.  It is costly and logistically counterproductive to retrieve inventory from FBA warehouses, but sticker all new inventory for future prevention.

There appears to be no system in place to ‘whitelist’ sellers who have had similar complaints cleared as false positives before.  In one case that I worked on, the seller had already seen one listing suspended then reinstated after my intervention, only to have another complaint come in and yet another suspension and eventual reinstatement. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be procedures currently in place to prevent Amazon from repeating these actions against a seller already proven to be a genuine re-seller of specific ASINs.

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