Sellers frustrated with Amazon’s Q1 2011 changes… what’s up, why and what we’re doing about it.

January 17, 2011

ChannelAdvisor ChannelAdvisor By ChannelAdvisor

Selling on Amazon’s third-party marketplace is harder than any other channel due to the deep data requirements, the complexity of the Amazon catalogueueue system and changes.

The last two weeks have been rough for sellers and I thought it was an interesting topic for those impacted as well as those not impacted or even those just interested in how Amazon runs this business.

Like many e-commerce companies, Amazon queues up changes through the holiday period (Q4) and then releases them when the main holiday is over.  This year has seen an unprecedented number of changes that have some sellers frustrated.

Before digging into some examples, I wanted to explain a little bit about how Amazon thinks so that everyone understands that there is a ‘method to the madness’.

How does Amazon think? Focus on the inputs!

Before seller’s criticize a partner like Amazon, it’s important to ‘spend some time in their shoes’ and understand how they think and approach things.  Given Amazon’s run-away success in e-commerce, cloud computing and e-readers, it’s also a great way to see how a first-class operation runs.

In the 2010 shareholder letter, Bezos opened the kimono ever so slightly to reveal how they think about the company at the executive level.  You can see highlights  in this post over at Shmula.  Here’s my favourite snippet:

Taken as a whole, the set of goals is indicative of our fundamental approach. Start with customers, and work backwards. Listen to customers, but don’t just listen to customers – also invent on their behalf. We can’t assure you that we’ll meet all of this year’s goals. We haven’t in past years. However, we can assure you that we’ll continue to obsess over customers. We have strong conviction that that approach – in the long term – is every bit as good for owners as it is for customers.

So what’s this have to do with selling on Amazon?  Well, pretty much everything.  The 3P experience touches over a third of Amazon’s customers so has to be extremely robust to meet customer expectations and also Amazon is constantly tweaking it to make improvements.

I often talk about the Yin/Yang of online selling – the seller experience is the other side of the coin for the buyer experience.  Amazon ‘gets’ that like no other company on the planet because of their focus on inputs – and seller data/product information is a very important set of inputs.

Therefore, for the first nine months (with a focus on the Jan/Feb time-frame usually), Amazon implements a ton of changes for sellers, all geared towards improving the customer experience. This can cause pain and frustration to sellers that aren’t ready for the changes or aren’t familiar with this pattern at Amazon.  We are seeing that already in 2011 and I wanted to detail some of them and then talk about how a partner like ChannelAdvisor helps ease the pain.

January changes cause some seller pain

Here in early January, we are dealing with two Amazon changes that I thought were indicative of the ‘focus on inputs’ and that are causing some seller frustrations.

First is the automotive category (parts and accessories).  Amazon rolled out a new product type to production that caused some mysterious error messages when sellers tried to list their parts, referencing a field that most sellers had never heard of before.

Second is the shoe category (within fashion/apparel where you will see Amazon making a ton of changes this year).  Amazon had the challenge that they were getting so many different sizes from sellers for shoes that it was polluting the catalogueueue and causing a lot of mismatches (e.g. 9.5 vs. 9.5w, etc.).  So they have changed the way that shoe size is submitted.  Now they want the format: [Size]+[Width]+[Sizing-System Locale]+[Age Group/Gender].  (we can go into more detail for those interested in comments).

Many sellers weren’t ready for the change and have been getting some pretty cryptic error messages like:

SKU ‘ADI3573_5_17589’ appears to correspond to ASIN B0037UULJK, but some of the information submitted does not match the product information that is already in the Amazon catalogueueue for that ASIN. If your product is the same as the one on this detail page, please modify your product data to reflect the following Amazon catalogueueue values and resubmit. If your product is different than what is on the detail page, please provide more data and resubmit. ‘size’ Merchant value: ‘5.5 M US Big Kid’ Amazon catalogueueue value: ‘5.5’. For details, seehttp://sellercentral.amazon.com/gp/errorcode/8041 

On top of that the change is international, but has only been documented so far on the US site.

Certainly Amazon could be more coordinated in these types of changes, but my sense is they want to get them out fast and in the hands of sellers so that the buyer experience will improve rapidly vs. waiting for a ton of cycles.

The bottom line is sellers need to be patient and go through a little Q1 pain for a big 2011 gain.

Why a partner like ChannelAdvisor is a MUST

I don’t usually talk about ChannelAdvisor in the blogs because the goal of our channel-specific blogs is to provide broader education.  On this topic, I thought it was important to highlight the value that a partner like ChannelAdvisor can bring to the table vs. using SellerCentral or integrating directly to Amazon’s APIs.

Because of our scale (~5% of Amazon’s 3P volume across hundreds of sellers) we:

  • Usually (not always) receive advanced notice of changes before they are posted to the normal methods of communication
  • Whenever a problem does occur, we see it very early due to our scale
  • We have a ‘hot line’ to Amazon’s technical and seller business teams that allows us to work through problems with them very rapidly.
  • We literally have a 24×7 team that works on these things because of our scale.  If you had your own legacy API integration or process, the time to resolve complex issues like this would creep into the weeks vs. hours.
  • When we do find a problem we are able to make changes on our side that require little or no seller changes.  I call these ‘shock absorbers’.  They are pretty cool and worth a deeper discussion.

Shock absorbers

The parts and accessories example above and probably the shoe example too are examples of where we can act as a ‘shock absorber’ for our customers.  Let’s say Amazon changes the format of shoe sizes, instead of the retailer changing them, we can simply translate (transform in techy talk) the data to the appropriate data that Amazon needs.   Magico-presto, the seller didn’t have to make any changes and is back up and running.

 

Conclusion – Be patient and a partner can help relieve your stress

As frustration levels rise, I thought it would be helpful to dig into the topic of Amazon’s changes to not only show the ‘why’ (focus on inputs!) behind them, but also to illustrate a couple of recent changes and how we deal with them on behalf of our customers at ChannelAdvisor.

If there are any comments or questions, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.