Amazon marketplace crackdown has sellers searching for legal help


Amazon marketplace crackdown has sellers searching for legal help

Leon Neal | Getty Images

Merchants who have been suspended from selling goods on Amazon’s marketplace are turning to a cottage industry of lawyers to regain access to their accounts and money, amid growing scrutiny of how the retailer treats independents.

Millions of accounts on the leading ecommerce platform have been prevented from engaging in sales for alleged violations of Amazon’s broad range of policies and other bad behavior. Even temporary suspensions can be a critical blow to the small business owners who rely on online sales.

Four ecommerce-focused US law firms told the Financial Times that the majority of the cases they took on were complaints brought by aggrieved Amazon sellers, with each handling hundreds or thousands of cases every year.

About a dozen sellers also said they had grown worried about Amazon’s power to suspend their accounts or product listings, as it was not always clear what had triggered the suspension and Amazon’s seller support services did not always help to sort out the issue.

Account suspension was “a big fear of mine,” said one seller, who declined to be named. “At the end of the day, it’s not really your business. One day you can wake up and it’s all gone.”

Amazon’s recent efforts to crack down on issues such as fake product reviews have come as US and European regulators have upped their scrutiny of the online harms facing shoppers.

But critics said the existence of a growing army of lawyers and consultants to deal with the fallout from Amazon’s actions pointed to a problem with the way the retailer treats its sellers.

“If you’re a seller and you need help to navigate the system, that’s a real vulnerability for the marketplace. If you’re operating a business where the people you’re deriving revenue from feel that they’re being treated in an arbitrary way without due process, that is a problem,” said Marianne Rowden, chief executive of the E-Merchants Trade Council.

“The fact that there are entire law firms dedicated to dealing with Amazon says a lot,” said one seller, who, like many who spoke to the FT, asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Amazon declined to comment in detail but said its selling partners were “incredibly important” and the company worked hard to “protect and help them grow their business.” The company worked to “eliminate mistakes and ‘false positive’ enforcements” and had an appeal process for sellers in place.

Sellers on Amazon’s marketplace account for more than 60 percent of sales in its store. In the nine months to September 30, Amazon recorded $96 billion in commissions and fees paid by sellers, a jump of nearly 20 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

As the marketplace has grown, Amazon has had to do more to police it. During the first half of 2023 in its EU store, Amazon took 274 million “actions” in response to potential policy violations and other suspected problems, which included the removal of content and 4.2 million account suspensions. Amazon revealed the numbers as part of its first European transparency report newly required by EU law.

Amazon typically withholds any money in the account of a seller it has suspended for alleged fraudulent or abusive practices, which it may keep permanently if the account is not reinstated and the merchant is deemed to have been a bad actor.

Figuring out what caused a suspension and how to reverse it can be difficult. “We had a listing shut down during Prime Big Deals Days with no warning, no cause, no explanation,” said one kitchenware seller who has been selling on since 2014. “That’s pretty common.”

Amazon gave no further information when the listing was reinstated days later, the seller said.

Such confusion drives some sellers towards lawyers and consultants who advise on underlying problems, such as intellectual property disputes.

Amazon-focused US firms said they typically charged flat fees of between $1,300 and $3,500 per case.

CJ Rosenbaum, founding partner of the Amazon and ecommerce-focused law firm Rosenbaum Famularo, said the practice experienced a “big jump” in demand during the pandemic.

Many cases related to IP complaints from bigger brands “trying to control who sells their products” and making “a baseless counterfeit complaint” against a smaller Amazon seller, he added.

Lawyers said some sellers had been wrongly accused by the company’s automated systems that identify breaches of rules and policies. They added though that others had broken Amazon’s rules.

The retailer has become “more draconian” in the enforcement of its policies in recent years, said attorney Jeff Schick.

“Clients will say Amazon is unfair,” he said, but added that if the company did not strictly enforce its rules “then the platform becomes the next [US classified advertisements website] Craigslist.”

As part of escalated disputes, lawyers might steer merchants through a costly arbitration process that the company requires US sellers to use for most issues, rather than filing lawsuits against it.

Sellers were subject to “forced” arbitration clauses that required them to “sign away the right to their day in court if a dispute with Amazon arises,” said a 2022 US government report.

The details of arbitrations are not public, and decisions do not typically set binding precedents. They can also be hugely expensive: the up to three arbitrators that preside over a case can charge hundreds of dollars an hour.

“Quickly, you’re at $25,000 of costs or more,” said sole practitioner Leo Vaisburg, who left firm Wilson Elser in 2022 to pursue Amazon-related work full time. For many small businesses the high costs were “a barrier to entry,” he added. “Very few cases are worth that kind of money.”

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *