Amazon's A Shopping Mess

Photo: INA FASSBENDER, Getty

Of course, Amazon is listing actual, dumpster-retrieved garbage in its marketplace. But you’d be fully forgiven for not realising it.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that, following an investigation into Amazon sellers who claim they dumpster-dive for items they later sell on Amazon, Journal reporters themselves embarked on a dumpster-diving excursion behind various retailers in several towns in New Jersey and were able to easily list items on Amazon that they retrieved from trash bins. The issue again serves to remind us that Amazon’s quality checks and so-described “high bar for product quality,” as a company spokesperson put it, are shoddy—and that it’s time to seriously rethink how we shop from the Everything Store.

Using items collected from trash bins, the Journal said, it established a seller account under the name “DJ Co,” which reportedly cost $US39.99 ($58) a month plus other fees. After cleaning the miscellaneous items reporters retrieved—which included a still-sealed Trader Joe’s Imported English Authentic Lemon Curd 10.5oz jar that expired in May of next year—they were able to be packaged, shipped to Amazon, and listed for sale on Amazon’s marketplace. According to the Journal, the company didn’t inquire about sell-by dates or where the products originated.

At the time that the Journal listed the products, the paper said, Amazon did not specifically bar items retrieved from waste bins but did require most items to be new. But after reporters contacted the company this week, Amazon updated its seller terms to prohibit items “intended for destruction or disposal or otherwise designated as unsellable by the manufacturer or a supplier, vendor, or retailer.”

When reached for comment about the report, a spokesperson told Gizmodo that the company uses a “proprietary system” to vet new seller accounts for potential risk and described the company’s seller screenings as “significantly more robust” when compared to other, unspecified credit and employment background checks. The company also appeared to threaten the reporters involved with potential legal action.

“Sellers are responsible for meeting Amazon’s high bar for product quality,” the spokesperson said. “These are isolated incidents that do not reflect the high quality customer experience provided by the millions of small businesses selling in our store every day. Any negligent and potentially illegal activity by a few bad actors is unfair to the vast majority of exceptional sellers. We have expanded the scope of our existing supply chain verification efforts including increased spot checks of source documentation to ensure seller compliance with our policies. We will take appropriate action against the bad actors involved, including possible legal action.”

This is not the first time a report has flagged damaged or otherwise unsuitable-for-sale products on Amazon’s marketplace. A separate investigation from CNBC published in October similarly flagged concerns over items that should never have made their way to the company’s paying customers, including rotten or expired products with passed sell-by dates.

Threatening legal action against journalists for again surfacing the myriad problems with Amazon’s marketplace does not change the fact that whatever systems were in place to protect consumers failed. And any reasonable expectation that an item sold by Amazon is meant to be of the highest calibre—per the company’s own claims—has repeatedly been challenged. Most consumers who shop through the site likely have the reasonable expectation that something they purchase from Jeff Bezos’ grotesque exercise in monopoly is the same quality as a product they might pick up from, say, Target. Clearly, that is not always the case. And while Amazon has any number of quality-control checks, figuring out what’s been put through the vetting process is downright confusing.

In fact, it appears, a user instead could wind up inadvertently buying something someone else deemed—for reasons justified or otherwise—to be trash. This is because, in its quest to make absolutely anything available at any time on its marketplace, Amazon has a system in place that makes it relatively easy to become a third-party seller. But because third-party sellers are lumped in with Amazon’s verified products on its app and website, an undiscerning shopper is unlikely to know where the item is coming from—be that Amazon itself, an official brand partner, or Bob from Arkansas selling shit out of his basement. (Side note: Other major online retailers that compete with Amazon, like Walmart, also allow third parties to sell through their online platforms.)

Because of this, Amazon is not a regular store in the traditional sense. This is, of course, by design. For example, when you click on a product, the seller name may match the brand name but may only be available through third-party sellers, as is the case with the listing below.

Screenshot: Amazon, Gizmodo

When a user clicks through to their buying options, they’ll see a number of third-party vendors—some of which are fulfilled by Amazon and are clearly marked as such. Still, the system is seemingly intended to be confusing unless you’re paying close attention. But again, this seller system allows Amazon to maintain such market dominance by ensuring that almost anything is available to potential buyers at any time.

Screenshot: Gizmodo, Amazon

The problem with this system is that it can make it difficult for a casual user to discern without careful consideration whether an item is, in fact, a legitimate product that came from a verified supplier or whether that item even meets Amazon’s own ostensible quality standards. This is especially troublesome with food items, medication, or topical items like makeup that could inadvertently inflict actual harm on an unsuspecting buyer.

Shopping at Amazon is not the same as shopping at your local grocery store—no matter how much the company would like you to believe so. It’s long past time we stop shopping on Amazon like it is.

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