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Is Amazon.com safe?

As we’ve discussed before, 70% of our sales are through Amazon.com, up from none in 2009.  Amazon.com has capture more and more of our sales, something through aggressive tactics like advertising against our own website through Google AdWords.  And there’s been a lot of news in the last couple of months about Amazon.com using its position as a third party marketplace to glean data to become a competitor for some of the top selling products.

Besides all that, how is Amazon.com for consumers?  My personal experience is that I continue to practice higher and higher levels of caution when shopping on Amazon.com, and I continue to look for more reliable alternatives for some of my purchase categories.

So what’s the problem?

About 10 years ago Amazon.com started courting Chinese sellers aggressively to help fill up their marketplace.  Because of multi-national agreements on postal service costs, shipments from China can often be shipped for less than the cost of shipping within the US, very often far less.  My guess is that our average postage cost for shipping first class packages within the US is about $4.00.  Many shipments from China can be shipped from China to their final destination in the US for a third of that.  That gives Chinese sellers a significant advantage.  So theirs that.

But if you’ve had any experience dealing with companies in China, they work from a different rule book; dishonesty seems much more common and is considered acceptable by many.   It is not uncommon for employees in China to arrange for two invoices when dealing with vendors, one of which shows an inflated price and one shows the real price; the employee pockets the difference.  It is also common for vendors to fake material certifications and substitute inferior materials.

So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that a huge increase in Chinese sellers now selling on Amazon.com brings with it a lot of problems, like:

Fake products

Perhaps 3 or 4 years ago I bought some Apple earbuds off of Amazon.com; they were cheaper than on Apple.com and had stellar reviews.  What arrived were so obviously inferior and stopped working after a short while.

Inferior products

The prevalence of Chinese sellers on Amazon.com means that a majority of pretty much any category of item you are looking for will be really cheaply made and marginally functional items.

Fake reviews

I think 2 or 3 years ago the fake reviews started in earnest.  At first it was really obvious stuff, like 3,000 identical 5-star reviews on a product all added on the same day, or reviews done in really bad English.  But as time when on, it got more sophisticated.  In addition to realistic looking completely fake reviews, sellers routinely simply pay shill buyers to buy their product and give it a positive review, and then reimburse them for the cost.  I’ve received cards with purchases from Amazon.com offering to refund the purchase price for a positive review, so they are pretty bold about trying to recruit people.

Brushing

You might be familiar with the brushing scam from all the unsolicited seeds that have been sent to people in the last couple of months.  Apparently this scam involves sellers using fake accounts to buy their own products, then mailing them to unsuspecting people. They do this to ensure they can write positive reviews for their own products, thereby giving their items a boost in Amazon’s search results.

Account takeovers

We’ve even heard of unscrupulous sellers registering trademarks and then using them to claim that they own a seller account, thus taking it over from the legitimate account owner.  They then start selling inferior knockoffs from the account to capitalize on the brand (and in the process ruining the brand).

Fake competitor reviews

Some sellers will intentionally add obviously fake reviews to a competitors product so that the product gets banned by Amazon.com.  Or they will leave negative reviews to drag the overall rating down.  This means that it is harder to tell the good products from the bad ones.

Help?

I’m sure there are more I’ve missed.  After reading all this you might be thinking that Amazon.com is a wasteland and you should stay far, far away from buying anything there.  You might not be too wrong.  So what can you do?

Use a review filtering service

First and foremost is to use a review service and / or plugin like FakeSpot or ReviewMeta to get a clearer picture of products and sellers.  These services use artificial intelligence to (try and) weed out the real reviews from the fake ones.  It isn’t uncommon to see a 4 1/2 start rating get restated to a 1 1/2 star one after the bogus reviews are filtered out.  They also rate sellers from A (good) to F (very bad) based on how many of the reviews are fake.  I no longer buy from sellers that don’t have a B or better rating.

Buy from people you already know

If you are happy with a product, buying it again from the same seller isn’t a 100% guarantee, but is pretty close.  A lot of what we do is repeat buying.

Distinguish between safe

Buy elsewhere

A lot of big retailers are getting their e-commerce act together and are great places to buy things now. Personally, I am trying to move a lot of my purchases away from Amazon.com as I just don’t like supporting a retailer that has created and supports so much pandemonium on their marketplace.

Here are some of my favorites.

Walmart.com has free 2-day delivery on lots of items and items can be shipped to a nearby store for pickup for free.

Target.com can ship things to a nearby store for free and get 2-day free delivery for orders over $35.  We are lucky enough to have a small footprint Target nearby that isn’t too busy.

B&H Photo Video has an astounding deal for tax-free purchases, especially important for us as the sales tax in our state and town is almost 9% now.  If you sign up for their PayBoo credit card, any purchases you make with it will automatically refund you the tax, effecting a tax free purchase.  I make all of my large electronics purchases from them now, like the new iPads we just got for our kids for the coming (remote learning) school year.

Yes, we sell on Amazon.com

As mentioned above, about 70% of our sales volume is on Amazon.com.  But you can trust our listings on Amazon.com for one really good reason – we are the only company that sells what we sell.  No-one else offers Revere Ware replacement parts and I seriously doubt anyone would go through the trouble to knock off the parts to start selling inferior versions given that our product is somewhat niche and doesn’t have huge sales volumes.

 

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Things are getting back to normal

Our sales continue to be substantially higher than the same period last year.  Because Amazon.com has been limiting restocking shipments for all but essential items, we were starting to get worried about our inventory running out; we began the pandemic lockdown with about 3 months of inventory for normal volumes we expected this time of year, and some of our parts inventory were getting thing.

Amazon did start allowing some restocking of non-essential items, but in the last few weeks, we were very limited in what we could send; we only managed to get a few part numbers that were close to being exhausted restocked and could only send a small amount of each item.

That all changed last week when, without receiving any official notice, we discovered that there were no longer limits on the restocking of any of our parts.  We’ve managed to ship a considerable amount of inventory to Amazon.com now that should bring us back to our 2-3 month stock level targets.

We’ve also continued to frequently restock our fulfillment center that serves orders made from our website.  You should have no trouble getting our items from either source.

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Business in the time of coronavirus update

Stock levels

Orders from our website continue to ship without issue and we are able to keep the stock at our fulfillment contractor at sufficient levels.

Amazon.com has opened up the ability to send restock for non-essentials, but they have placed limits on restocking shipments on items they consider to sufficiently stocked, which are levels below what we prefer.

We have always tried to aim for a 3-months supply on hand with Amazon.com when we plan restocking shipment quantities;  we typically check stock levels once a month, it typically takes a month for items to get into stock, and that gives us an extra month buffer in case of issues (like a global pandemic).

Now it seems they really only want you to have a months inventory on hand, so they limit incoming inventory until the stock levels are below something like a 30 day supply, and they limit the amount you can send.  The bottom line is that some of our Amazon.com listed items may end up out of stock over the next month or two.

Shipping speed

As anyone that has been buying from Amazon.com over the last two month knows, the prime shipping landscape has changed dramatically.  While some items are shipping faster now than a month ago, for many items, delivery is still quoted at two weeks or more, and many items take 1-3 weeks to arrive. The upside is my children are learning to be more patient. 🙂

Shipments from our website on the other hand typically ship the next business day and are for the most part sent USPS first class mail.  In normal times, the quoted delivery time for first class mail to anywhere in the US is 1-3 days. The USPS is now quoting 3-4 days for this service, which is still not bad.

So if you order from our website, you will pay a little more for shipping, but will get it there faster.

USPS delivery

But beware that there is an increased incidence of mis-delivery by USPS postal carriers.  I’ve experienced this personally with packages and letter mail delivered to the wrong address on our street or the wrong street entirely, and we’ve had customer reports of missing packages.  I suspect this is due to some USPS personnel calling in sick for personal safety reasons, and being replaced by personnel less experienced with a particular route.

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Parts shipping and inventory status

We received this notice from Amazon.com yesterday:

We are seeing increased online shopping, and as a result some products such as household staples and medical supplies are out of stock. With this in mind, we are temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock, and deliver these products to customers.

For products other than these, we have temporarily disabled shipment creation. We are taking a similar approach with retail vendors.

This will be in effect today through April 5, 2020, and we will let you know once we resume regular operations. Shipments created before today will be received at fulfillment centers.

Currently, we have approximately three months stock for all parts for typical sales volumes for this time of year at both Amazon.com and our websites fulfillment contractor.  While we can’t currently send inventory to Amazon.com, it seems likely that sometime over the next two months that restriction will ease.

Our fulfillment contractor tells us they are operating at full capacity, accepting new inventory, and have no plans to shut down.

So, for now, we can provide all of our parts without interruption. 

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Amazon.com and suspended listings

We sell about 2/3 of our parts via Amazon.com these days.  It seems to be the place that people go to look for things, and the low shipping cost is advantageous to customers.  But Amazon.com is not without its problems.

Competition:  Amazon.com actually advertises with Google to steal business from our website to our products on their website.

Feedback: The feedback system on Amazon.com is just broken.  Happy customers rarely leave positive feedback but people with a bad experience often do, leading to a skewed feedback rating.

No-questions asked return policy:  People often use negative feedback to justify returns, in response to their own failure to check product details.  We see a lot of “it didn’t fit” which to us clearly means they didn’t bother to check the copious details we have for our products to avoid wrong purchases.

It is that last one that really gets us.  We get enough returns by people that just don’t bother to check the details that about once a month, one of our products on Amazon.com gets suspended due to and “abnormally high” return rate.  We then have to go through a rigamarole to get the listing activated again.

One time, we decided just to leave a couple of listings inactive for a while because they constantly had this problem.  Eventually, someone tried to hijack the relatively good ratings on the product by submitting changes to the listing name and description, and listing some totally unrelated product in its place.

And then there are the nightmare stories we’ve read about

  • Amazon.com suspends a seller account for some unknown reason they won’t disclose.  Game over.
  • Competitors will leave feedback that claims a product exploded on them, causing Amazon.com to suspend the listing indefinitely with no recourse.
  • People actually hijack entire seller accounts and then start listing far inferior products under the same listings.

So, even thought it might make sense to simply close sales on our own website, as our cost per shipped item is much higher than on Amazon.com, we keep it going as a stop-gap against issues with Amazon.com.

You can help support the continuity of independent sellers like us by purchasing from our website, even thought it might cost a bit more due to higher shipping costs.

 

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Revere Ware parts … in Spanish? Or, why not to buy our parts on eBay

I suppose this was bound to happen.  We’ve written before about retail arbitrage, where some eBay sellers relist items available on Amazon.com for a higher price than you might otherwise pay there, and simply have the item “drop shipped” to you from Amazon.com, when you purchase on eBay.  This essentially means just purchasing the item on Amazon.com and entering the eBay buyers address as the shipping address.

Of course, there are websites that providing information on setting this up.

The most recent twist to this is that we’ve found listings for our parts now in Spanish.

Note that eBay’s official policy is that this practice is not allowed:

Drop shipping, where you fulfill orders directly from a wholesale supplier, is allowed on eBay. Remember though, if you use drop shipping, you’re still responsible for the safe delivery of the item within the time frame you stated in your listing, and the buyer’s overall satisfaction with their purchase.

However, listing an item on eBay and then purchasing the item from another retailer or marketplace that ships directly to your customer is not allowed on eBay. In such cases, we may remove your listings from search, display them lower in search results, or remove them completely from the site. We may also limit, restrict or suspend your ability to buy, sell, or use site features on eBay, and you could lose any special status and/or discounts associated with your account.

A more nefarious twist to this practice is that some scammers use stolen credit cards to purchase the items from Amazon.com to fulfill the purchase on eBay; this is called triangulation fraud.

The bottom line is that, it is generally a bad idea to buy our parts on eBay for a number of reasons.

  • There is a high risk of fraud
  • You get no guarantee at all if anythng goes wrong or you get a defective part.  These sellers are about as fly-by-night as they come, and will just close up shop and open a new account if their feedback becomes negative.
  • You are paying more than you would just buying it on Amazon.com
  • The sellers are selling in violation of eBay’s policy.

Please buy just from our website or from our store on Amazon.com.  We are the only authorized sellers of our parts and we don’t sell on eBay.  If you buy from us, we guarantee a good experience and will replace your part if it is defective.

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More progress on the sales tax situation

It looks like more states have passed legislation mandating marketplaces like Amazon to collect taxes, and submit returns, on behalf of third party sellers.   Here is what we just received from them:

Dear seller,

Based on changes to Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, and Utah States tax laws, Amazon will begin calculating, collecting, and remitting sales and use tax for all orders shipped to customers in these states on October 1, 2019.

Your existing tax calculation settings, order details, and payments reporting will update automatically to reflect this change. Changes to your tax settings or seller account are not required based on the state law changes. However, you may consider working with your tax advisor to determine if your business has any other ongoing tax remittance or reporting obligations.

Answers to common questions are available in the Marketplace Tax Collection FAQ.

For more information from Amazon or links to each state resource, see Marketplace Tax Collection FAQ

Thank you for selling on Amazon.

Regards,
Amazon Services

Since that now includes our home state, California, that is a relief.  I imagine now it won’t be long until all states require this.

But is still leaves us open to abuse from state tax authorities for sales through our website.  We still await a solution to that problem.

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eBay drop-ship retail arbitrage

We wrote a post on eBay retail arbitrage, termed by them as drop-ship listings, in 2017.  Since then, the problem has only gotten worse, with something around 150 currently listed items on eBay that are merely fronts for our parts sold on Amazon.com.

To refresh your memory on how this works, someone lists something currently sold on Amazon.com on eBay, with a markup.  When the order is placed on eBay, they have software that automatically places the order on Amazon.com with the eBay purchaser as the recipient.

We don’t like it as we prefer our customers get the items at a more reasonable price, and it can result in some odd activity on the other end when such drop-shipping sellers leave us negative feedback on Amazon.com; negative feedback on Amazon.com is a huge problem as compared to eBay.  on eBay, most buyers are motivated to leave feedback, whether they had a good or bad experience.  An Amazon.com, feedback is not at all integrated into the ethos of the site; there are disproportionately more negative feedback reviews per sales volume than on eBay because most of the people with a positive experience don’t bother to leave feedback.

eBay has a policy against drop-shippers that don’t actually hold inventory.  However it appears they don’t actually enforce this policy (see the chat with eBay support in that article).

In any event, what we worry most about is the damage to our brand that a poor buying experience can have.  What I mean by that is, our primary purpose in selling these parts is to make people happy and to provide them with a satisfactory buying experience.  Given the pain that Revere Ware owners went through for decades before we came on the scene 10 years ago.  Most people are thrilled that our parts are available, and we don’t want to temper that with a bad experience.

So, please buy our parts from our own website or Amazon.com, not from eBay, as we don’t list any parts there.

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Inferences from a wooden handle

A customer pointed out this listing for a vintage Revere Ware skillet with a wooden handle

It’s a beautiful handle, which gives the skillet a very pleasing and unique appearance.

You can see from the handle detail that this is a very old skillet, made within the first few years of Revere Ware production.

The spline, rather than being a straight piece on those handles, was the same shape as the actual handle.  This was the style that had two screws close to the pot, and a third screw in the center of the end, where the hook went through.  It appears as if this customization used the two screws for near the pot end, to hold the handle, forgoing the hook.  Here is a blurb on adapting our newer style handles to that older style spline.

Everything about this handle, including the workmanship, tells me this is something that would not have been offered by Revere Ware, but was custom made by someone who probably could not get a replacement handle.

Before we started selling our parts, we saw a lot of funky attempts to continue using Revere Ware pots despite handle issues.

  • At least one other home made wooden handle
  • People attempting to epoxy broken handles together using high temperature epoxy
  • Holding the metal spline on a pot that has lost its handle with pliers or oven mitts
  • A complex polishing and restoration process that involved 5 different grits of sandpaper

Because of this, when we first opened our shop for replacement Revere Ware parts, we got a lot of appreciation emails from customers.  While we still get one now and again, dealing with customers on Amazon.com has turned into a very different experience.  People are quick to pull the trigger on negative feedback over any issue, no matter how small, without even contacting us first for assistance, and then rarely respond when we follow with an offer to help after seeing their feedback.

We sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 parts a year these days across about 6,500 customers.  In our mind, that is 6,500 people we’ve had the opportunity to help continue to use their cherished piece of cookware.  We also answer somewhere between 500 and 1000 questions each year for people, whether they are customers or not.  The nature of a business like ours is service more than product.  Service to help people find the right part, service to answer questions and sometimes solve a historical mystery, and service to solve problems when they arise.

Retailing used to be about service.  Consider this bit from an article today in the Wall Street Journal:

Long before internet shopping, when a personal touch and pride of proprietorship were essential to successful local merchandising, Robert Lazarus Sr. was the president of the largest department store in Columbus, Ohio, my hometown. His name was on the building: the F&R Lazarus Co., among the most prestigious stores in the Midwest.

A dignified, respected man, he lived in a grand and tastefully decorated house. He kept his home number listed in the phone book.

Here is something his son told me, years after Robert Lazarus had died, and the store had disappeared.

One evening when the son was growing up, the telephone in their home rang. The caller, with nervousness in his voice, asked for Robert Lazarus, who came to the phone.

The man, almost apologetically, said he and his wife had purchased a tea set at Lazarus. They had never owned one before, but saw it on display and decided it was something they would like to have in their home.

Robert Lazarus waited to hear what was coming next. Was there a flaw? Was a cup or saucer broken?

That wasn’t it. The man said he and his wife did not know the proper way to serve tea—how to make use of the tea set when company came over. They sensed there was an etiquette to it, but no one had ever told them what it was.

Some of Lazarus’s customers had very modest incomes; to them, that downtown store was almost a palace, a place of aspiration, even if they were only looking. The tea set had represented a step up, a significant expenditure for this man and his wife. And they weren’t quite sure how it was intended to be used.

So the husband called the man whose name was on the store—at home, at night—for advice.

Robert Lazarus, his son said, stayed on the phone with his customer and, with great care, walked him through the steps of having a tea party, of using an elegant tea set. He told the man stories about tea receptions he and his own wife had given; he answered every question.

Then, before hanging up, he thanked the man profusely for having shopped at Lazarus.

I asked the son—by then an elderly man himself—if his dad had seemed at all bothered to have received the call in the middle of an evening with his family.

“Bothered?” the son said. “He couldn’t have been more pleased. He talked about it with great fondness for the rest of the night.”

I imagine the man who had placed the call did, too: The man who, in a time before customer service meant algorithm-generated email responses and endless waits for offshore call centers to answer, had taken a deep breath and dialed the phone, not knowing if he was making a mistake by imposing.

And who had been greeted, by the president of the F&R Lazarus Co., like an old friend.

Sometimes, dealing with customers on Amazon.com almost makes me want to quite the business.  I got in this business because I wanted to help people in a way that I wanted help myself years ago when I was looking for replacement parts for my Revere Ware.  With less business going to our website, where we have very few returns, almost no complaints, and the occasional praise, and more business going to Amazon.com, where we constantly struggle against abrupt and inconsiderate negative feedback and rarely a kind word, it is more of a burden and less of a joy these days.

While I love the convenience of ordering online and the benefit of being able to find things that used to be impossible to find, I had the impersonality of it all.  Perhaps this is what can save the malls and local businesses against the onslaught of  online shopping, good customer service and a very personal experience.

I’m trying to do my little part to keep business more personal.  While you can’t call me at home, I do answer every question, no matter how stupid you might think it is, frequently even during evenings and on weekends, and I try to make every customer happy if I can.

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Please don’t buy this

World Kitchen, which owns the Revere Ware brand along with a number of other iconic brands of yesteryear, no longer sells the classic copper bottom cookware.  This is probably a good thing, as the quality of the cookware produced in the last decade was even worse than the rest of the post-1968 cheaper Revere Ware.  We have oft heard stories of copper bottoms which appeared almost painted on, or simply fell off completely.  I suspect they discontinued the copper bottom cookware because, after decades of poor quality, it had finally cheapened the Revere Ware name.

But you can still find new copper bottom cookware for sale.  Consider this one on Amazon.com.

I was shocked to see the high price and the 4-star rating on this piece.

Do yourself a favor if you are looking to replace a sauce pan, or any other Revere Ware piece; buy a used one from eBay or your local thrift store.  You can get one for less than half the price shipped and the vintage items (with the double circle process patent stamp) are readily available.  They will last you another lifetime.

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