The Amazon Seller community has been buzzing about the future of retail and online arbitrage over the past few days. Much of the recent discussion stems from a recent article by Cynthia Stine (author of Suspension Prevention and writes the blog www.onlinesalesstepbystep.com). You can read the full article here. I will provide some thoughts on this article first, and then will provide some of my thoughts on the future of retail and online arbitrage.
My goal is to share a perspective of someone who still has a significant portion of their business reliant upon retail arbitrage (RA) and online arbitrage (OA). The picture in the aforementioned post of the truck with the Target cart is actually of a sourcing trip of mine 🙂 I made it the header image for this post today as well. This was taken after a particularly good sourcing trip in December of 2014. I wouldn’t recommend trying this today as Target has a policy against resellers in their stores today.
My Thoughts on the Article
The cliff notes version of the article is that it provides some serious doubts about the future of online and retail arbitrage. If you haven’t already I’d recommend reading through that article first. If you didn’t check it out from the link above, here it is one more time: https://onlinesalesstepbystep.com/arbitrage.
There have been some comments on posts in Facebook groups questioning the intent of this post, saying that it is creating unnecessary fear, and things along those lines.
I think Cynthia’s intentions with this post are pure, and she is sharing out of the desire to inform the Amazon Seller community based upon her knowledge and experiences. She has a service that helps Amazon sellers who are suspended work to get reinstated. With this in mind she is seeing the worst of what is going on with Amazon sellers, and the impact this can have on their businesses. This is a unique perspective, and these experiences likely skew one towards being overly conservative.
Personally, I would compare this to the way I sometimes feel about my business when I am going through and lowering minimum prices for items in my repricer. When I am going through this process, I am looking through items that have been in stock longer than I would have liked or the market price has dropped. However, this is not representative of my full business, as when I look through my orders I am able to see a significant number of items that have sold for my full asking price within days of arriving at Amazon warehouses. Depending on what I’ve looked at more recently (my repricer or my recent orders) this may impact how I feel about the outlook of my business at a given point in time. Also, my experiences will significantly impact what I believe is best for myself and others in the future.
My point here is that running a business that helps sellers who have been suspended on Amazon is more likely to lead you to have a conservative outlook when it comes to their policies. That’s not saying that any info in her article is incorrect, I just like a frame of reference for peoples perspective when I am reading almost anything.
It’s also very important to mention that the entire point of the article is about the future of arbitrage as it relates to Amazon’s seller performance department accepting retail or online receipts as proof for any issue that may arise from your account. This is the change that the article predicts will be coming. So I would say the article is about receipts, rather than the future of arbitrage entirely.
There are 2 main points where I am not in agreement with the article. The first is that the articles recommends, “Sell off your RA/OA inventory as quickly as possible.”
I think that is an extremely risk averse view and is not a prudent move at this point in time. I will discuss more later in this post.
The other point where I have some skepticism related to the article is that it states a timeline of October for when this policy will be implemented. I think that it’s very possible that this type of change could happen at some point in the future, but putting a specific timeline is a difficult thing to do. It’s possible it could happen in October this year, or several years down the road.
Amazon’s number one priority as always is serving their customers the best way possible. The reason for implementing a change to their policies related to receipts would be as a result of seeing an increase in dissatisfied customers related to orders where customers are not receiving items that met their expectations.
I believe that is happening to some extent today as Amazon has been tightening up restrictions on sellers continually over the years. This includes category’s requiring approval, brand restrictions, among other measures. The point is that Amazon will do what they believe is necessary to remedy any issues that are causing problems for their customers.
With that said, it’s also possible that different divisions within Amazon may have different ways they believe would address the issue and not be in full communication. So it’s difficult to say what timeline this type of change would take effect.
While I don’t agree with everything in the blog post, I appreciate the perspective it offers. Ultimately, I believe this article should be used as an opportunity to assess the risk in your business. That doesn’t mean you will be required to change anything, but I believe considering the risks in your business to be at an absolute minimum a good thought exercise. It might lead you to diversify your sourcing methods, diversify the platforms you sell on, or it might lead you to no change at all.
As someone who has been suspended from selling on Amazon, I regularly take some time to consider the risks that exist in my business. I urge you to do the same, and this article is a good time to think about it.
When do Receipts actually come into play?
Receipts are the key issue in the article, so let’s take a look at when they come into play.
In the event that a customer experiences a significant issue with an item that you sold, you will likely receive an email with a subject line like this: Action Required: Listing Removed from Amazon. The email will then outline the details of what the issue was with the specific product. The 2 that I have seen are “used sold as new” and “inauthentic.”
In the event that you receive a notification like that you will have to provide proof that the item was purchased from a legitimate supplier to prove authenticity. If Amazon was to make a change and no longer accept retail receipts, then if you sourced an item that you received a complaint on, you would not have a method for getting your listing reinstated. More importantly, you wouldn’t have a way to resolve the complaint from your account. It’s difficult to say how many of these Amazon will tolerate, but it’s best not to push the limits. Too many would seem to be a sure path to a suspension.
So that sounds kind of scary, but let’s take a look at how often these notifications come into play.
Personally on my account I have sold over 25,000 items so far in 2016, and have received exactly 1 inauthentic claim in 2016. This might not be representative of everyone who sells on Amazon, but the point is this a very rare occurrence for my business. Feel free to share your ratio of seller performance notifications to number of orders in the comments.
For me when percentage of items I receive notifications on are this small, I think it really comes down to a risk/reward analysis. We’ll get more into that later in the post.
Thoughts on the future of Retail and Online Arbitrage
I have been selling on Amazon since 2008, and full time since September of 2013. Retail and online arbitrage have been primary sourcing methods for me the entire time I have been full time. I have been asked multiple times to do a post on some of the changes I have seen to RA and OA over the years, as well as what I see as the future, so I will be incorporating a discussion of that into this post.
Over the years there have definitely been changes. Certain stores (like Target among many others) are implementing policies against resellers. Carts like this will no longer be possible:
Amazon has continually been tightening up their guidelines on what products can be sold. Most recently they are requiring approval for Adidas products in the sports category, and Jordan products in the shoe category. There have been many more ASIN and brand level restrictions over the past few years, and more so over the past few months. Most likely this type of restriction will continue in the future as well.
Another major change over the past few years is the number of new sellers. It’s not uncommon to see 100+ sellers on widely available popular products. Items that go on clearance nationwide at major retailers often see a significant increase in the number of sellers, and a resulting decrease in the selling price on Amazon. With all of these new sellers has come an abundance of service providers. There is a service to help with just about any aspect of your Amazon business at this point.
Those are a few of the major changes and impacts I have seen.
Now, in terms of going forward, here’s what I see with retail and online arbitrage:
I believe that retail and online arbitrage are here to stay in some capacity. That’s not to say that they won’t become more difficult, or that Amazon won’t issue more restrictions in the future, but I don’t see them going away entirely.
In order to completely end retail and online arbitrage, Amazon would have to begin requiring sellers to obtain approval letters from every company for every product that is sold on the platform. Unless there is this level of restriction in place, then retail and online arbitrage will be possible on Amazon.
Even in light of a potential change in the way that seller performance deals with receipts, this does not mean that retail or online arbitrage are dead. If they put this type of policy in place, it would make RA and OA riskier, but it doesn’t put an end to them entirely. As discussed above, I’ve only had one issue where I would need to provide receipts in all of 2016. This is an extremely small percentage of items. This means that for the extreme majority of items sourced via RA and OA, it won’t even come into consideration. If a change does happen, there’s no doubt it adds risk, but it’s just a matter of deciding how to assess that risk in my opinion.
I believe Amazon will continue to tighten up their requirements for sourcing products, and will continue to add approval requirements for specific products and brands. I think that at some point in the future it’s possible that RA and OA receipts will no longer serve as proof for inauthentic claims. I think that the change will take some time to roll out, and probably won’t be universally rolled out across the board immediately.
Ultimately, I don’t see RA or OA going away anytime soon. Creative and skilled sellers will be able to make these sourcing methods work for a long time.
I think what’s most important is evaluating the risk that exists in RA / OA and then weighing those against the rewards. Make a decision on what risk / reward ratio you are willing to accept, and then focus on the necessary actions to put that decision into place.
Below I will get into a few of the different decisions I believe you could come to after performing a risk analysis on RA / OA. These will assume that you have a significant portion of your inventory that was sourced via RA and/or OA, and these are your primary sourcing methods today.
Where you fall on this spectrum will largely depend on your analysis of the discussion throughout this post, as well as where you believe Amazon will go in the future.
Extremely Risk Averse – Immediately remove all inventory that has been sourced via retail and online arbitrage, and stop sourcing any new products via RA or OA.
Risk Averse – Stop sourcing all new RA / OA and begin to shift to purchasing inventory via other sourcing methods such as wholesale.
Calculated Risk – Keep sourcing RA / OA, while monitoring Amazon’s changes. Keep 2 to 3 months inventory in stock at a given point in time to be able to adjust if a change comes through the pipeline. Don’t make any drastic changes to your business at this point in time.
Ignore Risk – Keep sourcing RA /OA as you do today, and plan to continue these methods until retirement or you are suspended. Essentially, you’ve picked your path and will not deviate no matter what changes are made by Amazon.
My plan is to follow what I have classified as the calculated risk strategy. I plan to continue sourcing via retail and online arbitrage. I will keep my existing purchasing guidelines which are designed to turnover my entire inventory within 90 days. This will allow me to adjust relatively quickly if a change comes through the pipeline from Amazon.
For the retail and online sourcing that I will be doing (and this has been the way I have been operating for over a year) I will be extremely selective on what types of receipts I receive from the retailer. For the receipts I require that they have either the UPC or the exact name of the product on the receipt. Essentially, I won’t be sourcing from anywhere that has very generic terms on the receipts that make it very difficult to determine which line item relates to each item. Above and beyond the proof that comes from the receipt, I will be making sure that I do everything in my power to make sure that the item arrives exactly as the customer expects it. That means that I diligently have my team and anyone who is working with products carefully inspect for any issue prior to sending to FBA warehouses. If there is any doubt at all in our minds as to whether a product is in new condition, then we will not list it as new on Amazon.
I will be paying close attention to what Amazon is doing from the network of people that I know who sell on Amazon, as well as keeping an eye on what is going on in the Facebook groups. Until there is a definitive way that Amazon is handling things, I won’t be making drastic changes to my sourcing methodologies.
I will also be dedicating time to expanding the wholesale sourcing that my business does. I think that wholesale sourcing is one of the safest methods for the long term. I want my business to be able to continuing operating for a long time, so I believe that increasing the amount that I purchase wholesale will be very important to this in the future.
With that said the profit potential of online and retail arbitrage are very significant, and in my opinion this justifies taking on some additional risk.
The #1 takeaway for me is that it’s essential to play by Amazon’s rules. They change things from time to time and when that happens it may require adjustments. With any change they are making it’s important to consider the direction Amazon is going, and determine how you fit into that puzzle.
Second, assess your risk and make sure you understand / are ok with it. Run through different scenarios. Consider what the worst case scenarios are. Make a decision and then act upon it. Focus upon what is actionable and in your control.
Ultimately, based on the information that I have available to me I plan to continue sourcing via retail and online arbitrage. I have assessed all of the risks that I can think of, weighed them against the rewards, and believe that the risk / reward ratio justifies continuing on with RA and OA.
There’s a quote I heard recently by Mark Andreessen, “Strong opinions, loosely held.” I think that applies to this business, and at this time, I believe continuing RA and OA are the right choices for my business. With that said, if information to the contrary surfaces that indicates that I am not on the right path, I am willing to drop that opinion and switch things up.
To be perfectly clear, these are my thoughts on the topic, and not recommendations for what everyone else should do. The recommendation that I will make is to consider all of the risks, and rewards of selling on Amazon utilizing either RA or OA. Then run through scenarios to see what you believe is the most likely, what let’s you sleep at night, what helps you reach your goals, etc. Really ask yourself some of these tough questions and come up with what you believe is right for you.
I’m almost 3,000 words in at this point, so we’ll close up this post for today. I’d be happy to keep the conversation going, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of retail and online arbitrage. If you have thoughts or questions about those topics or anything else I touched on in this post, please let me know in the comments below!
45 thoughts on “The Future of Online and Retail Arbitrage As I See It”
I am a new seller and was interested in the RA business model. However, after hearing more about Amazon’s new (and proposed) policies, I am reconsidering. Do you have an article addressing other sources of obtaining products to sell (example: Wholesale)?
My opinion is that the risk / reward on RA is still favorable.
In terms of wholesale, I don’t have a ton of content out there on it yet, but I will plan on doing some posts on it in the future.
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I started my business about a month or two ago and I have been unable to get any products approved on RA or OA. Even products I bought at the start seemed to go offline that I previously thought were approved. I am now going to save up and attempt my first wholesale buy.
Thanks for sharing your experience. Testing out the wholesale route sounds like a good plan.
LEGO and FUNKO now restricted.
This seems to be hit and miss depending on the seller. It’s definitely been an interesting few weeks though as some of these restrictions have been lifted, and some have stayed.
Thank you for your analysis of the current, and possible future situation.
I encountered a very strange situation, just last week. Bought 2 different sizes of the same jacket from a well known manufacturer on an online clearance from a company with both B & M and online presence. Neglected to list as soon as I bought them, and when I was packing to send in, the one size went through, fine.
The other was restricted. I sent in the very well itemized receipt, which was rejected.
I’ve since bought (after first listing) three other styles from the same company. Just this one, for whatever reason, is restricted. Ahhhh. Lucky me.
Thanks for sharing your experience MickiSue.
I’m familiar with the Cynthia Stine lady by name. She seems to have a lot of fans, but every time I hear anything about her, she is predicting Amazon Armageddon. Last time was when the ASIN quantity limits started showing up. She was talking about how PL people weren’t even able to sell their own items and all this other jazz.
The idea that Amazon is going to end retail/online arbitrage just seems counter to how they operate. Their app is targeted to arbitrage. Why would the scanning portion of their app be front and center and why would they keep improving the scanning function (continuous/image scan) if they were doing away with arbitrage? Besides, Amazon is known for having almost every kind of product imaginable with, usually, the lowest cost. That wouldn’t be possible without RA/OA sellers bringing in random products and driving prices down.
I’d like to eventually get some private label items going, not because the world is ending, but just as another option.
I’m just going to keep doing what I do and keep my ear to the ground.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this comment Shawn!
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Kindof crazy that you wrote this the day before “Restriction Gate” for lack of a better term. Very prescient because major brands are doing just what you described.
I am hesitating before making huge purchases because even though I’m grandfathered in on all the brands I sell. I’m worried about “step 2” which would be further gating. Lego is a huge part of my game and I want to confirm that I’m grandfathered.
Do you have any hunch on what will happen going forward, especially this Q4?
Always love the blog.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter Ryan. It appears Amazon just added alot of new brands to their restricted list and you now have to not only provide invoices to get approval but also pay a $1000 – $5000 fee on top of that.
It also appears they are grandfathering sellers for those brands who have sold them recently and accounts are in good standing though. Seems like a nice level headed approach by Amazon so far. Have you heard any other news on this? Cynthia wrote a new article stating their would be no grandfathering but that just is not the case, so far at least.
No problem. I have seen the brand restrictions coming into play, but don’t have any definitive info on that. Just a lot of hearsay, and what I can see on my account. I think in the next few weeks we’ll know a lot more about how all of these brand restrictions play out.
I received a total of 5 inauthentic complaints, and Chris, you are right, my category is almost all health and beauty. I was selling on here before this category was gated, and they were fine with retail receipts that we provided in December as well as in April. There is a really high level of inauthentic complaints for this category, and we feel that out of 45,000 sales in the last two years, a few complaints are inevitable. We have not had even a negative feedback since last year out of 11,000 sales. I am wondering too, if some of this is coming from Amazon as there were no returns, messages or complaints on any order ever from a customer on two of the ASINS. In the past we could always trace what happened, but not on two of these. This notification was new too:
“We still need more information about the items at the end of this email. Please reply to this email with copies of invoices or receipts that include the following:
— Supplier information (name, phone number, address, website)
— Buyer information (name, phone number, address, website)
— Invoice date (must be issued in the last 180 days)
— Item descriptions
— Item quantities
Please note, we do not accept Commercial invoice; proforma invoice; order confirmation; purchasing list; contract document; delivery report as proof of authentication”
We actually had really good RETAIL receipts as we work with some of the same salespeople over and over and their names and ours are on Nordstrom invoices and receipts. Even my shipping address that is on my Amazon account was on quite a few. Some were over 180 days. I am hoping my account can still be salvaged and am getting help to make sure I have addressed everything the best I can. I am just sharing my story so anyone else might see it coming better than I did and avoid disaster. It is really devastating to go through this.
Thanks for sharing this info Julie, and sorry to hear you are going through this.
Received our first time-consuming Amazon email this morning. Called our supplier for authorization letter. They did not request AZ send this.
That’s interesting, thanks for sharing. So in that case, it appears the restriction was implemented by Amazon directly?
I think your analysis of the different risk profiles is solid. Good article!
Julie – I’m sure part of the issue is the category you were selling in. For ungating, the process for clothing specifically asks what brands you are selling, and makes it pretty clear they are looking for sellers that are buying the items wholesale. They are also not accepting retail receipts for ungating in that category either.
I suspect that if the ungating process is not accepting receipts for a specific category, they also won’t accept them as proof of authenticity if an issue arises.
A category such as Toys, which is ungated as a whole likely won’t have those same restrictions.
In May I received an inauthentic claim from a buyer for a Tsum Tsum I originally purchased from Disneystore.com. I provided the receipt to Amazon and they would accept it. Their exact reason was “Please note , we do not accept Commercial invoice/proforma invoice/order confirmation as proof of authentication. “. So it seems that they are already refusing receipts from certain retailers. Like you this is the only claim I received in 2016 out of 32,000+ sales. I’m hoping that Amazon bases their suspension on a ratio of claims to sales and not a 3 strikes and you are suspended policy instead. In any case I am continuing to source OA/RA while working a bit more towards wholesale which I believe is a safer bet.
Thanks for sharing your experience Jon. I agree, I hope they handle things that way too.
Totally agree, Ryan. Thanks for the solid write-up!
Boy I hate hearing stories like Julie’s. I am sorry to hear about that, Julie. So Julie’s story not only confirms what Cynthia has been on a stump about, but it sounds even worse that what Cynthia said (that it would go down around October or maybe Jan ’17; it’s already here).
Best regards to you for getting back on track, Julie.
Awesome post! I have been concerned about RA/OA being phased out for a while now. I’m glad this is being talked about within the community. If it does get more and more risky people can work together to find new methods too. Minimal fears over here!
Thank you, and definitely, there will be ways to make it work in the future as well even if Amazon does make some changes.
Julie, I’m curious, the 98% feedback, is that over the past 365 days or lifetime? Anything under 100% in the past 365 days on NEW items are HIGH RISK for suspension as Amazon has been trying to weed out the sellers with inferior product.
I’ve sold a little over 30,000 Clothing/Shoes/Sports & Outdoors items over the past 365 days and have received 6 inauthentics (1 in 5000 odds of receiving an inauthentic).
I appreciate your optimism, but agree more with Cynthia Stine at this point. I was suspended two weeks ago for “inauthentic complaints” I sell $100,000 a month, and have excellent metrics – 98% feedback, .04% defect rate, out of 11,000 sales this year – you get the idea. I represented each complaint with clear retail receipts from Nordstrom and the Nordstrom Rack. I meticulously save and file every receipt and all my sources are big name stores – no liquidation, nothing iffy, perfect packaging. We looked up every sale, every message, EVERYTHING on each ASIN. Two of them had no returns and no messages or communication from buyers, and no complaints that we could see. They still got an “inauthentic complaint” from somewhere. Two other complaints, we could see what happened, fixed the problem, and the buyers were satisfied. One even retracted her statement. I have given a clear, professional POA several times, addressing the issues head on. My last submission basically included deleting my entire inventory (all RA and about 1500 listings), promising to not purchase retail for resale again, and only buying wholesale and developing my own products from here on out. I still have not heard back from them. They kept asking for WHOLESALE RECEIPTS. My retail receipts are NOT being accepted. I had a meeting with Chris McCabe, who worked in Seller Performance on the Jeff Bezos escalation team. He said they are absolutely fazing out the retail receipts and they will NOT be accepted. I can tell you they are not being accepted NOW. If you get an inauthentic complaint – which if you do any volume, you will – you are in danger of losing your account. Now I am stuck with inventory at FBA and my own warehouse and a lot of debt because I had purchased a large amount of inventory for Q4. This is a real threat, so I hope others can learn from my situation right now and make the adjustments needed to not be in this position as you are trying to get ready for the holiday season.
I am sorry to hear that happened to you, and thank you for sharing your experience, that is definitely concerning. Were there 3 total performance notifications on your account prior to the suspension?
We are in agreement the inauthentic claims are rare, and the more rare you can make them the better.
As Cynthia says, many of the inauthentics could be prevented simply by going the extra mile with prep. ie; spend a buck or 2 for the double inspection labor, 200# box, bubble wrap, bags, tissue paper whatever it takes. Even if the item doesn’t make it all the way to customer with pristine manufacturer packaging, the buyer will see the effort that went into at least attempting, and would likely be more lenient or forgiving than if it looks like you picked up something along side the freeway, chucked it in a flimsy box and sent it to him/her. Whatever extra you spend won’t totally cut into your bottom line – it is bound to reduce unsellable returns.
The other thing, and there is no way of knowing how big of a thing this is, is to avoid being a target for evil sellers. Don’t be the buy box hog or the price war initiator. If there happens to be impatient or evil sellers competing with you, they’ll have no motivation to have cousin Billy Bob file a complaint when they are priced lower than you. And they will run out – sucks for them. Think Tortoise and Hare. It takes a good bit of discipline to get your cash flow to that point, but if you can, you’ll enjoy not only the higher ROI but also the piece of mind that comes with not having another seller out to get you.
You can’t totally eliminate the inauthentic suspension threat, but I believe the above steps would greatly reduce the odds.
Thanks for the comment, and for bringing up these points.
I think your last line sums it up best. There are definitely risks in place with RA and OA, it’s just a matter of doing what we can to reduce that risk. That is assuming of course that we decide to continue sourcing via RA and OA.
Ryan, excellent article, and i appreciate your logical analysis of the sea change related to RA/OA. Also Jeremy’s emphasis on focusing on online sales as a professional endeavor is important to maintaining a solid, profitable ongoing business. Thank you for taking time to help me assess risk associated with our RA activities.
No problem, glad you found this post helpful.
Thanks Ryan. Good, thorough piece. I agree with you. Can you imagine what outrage would be expressed by Amazon’s customers if they could not longer find enough of the products they want on Amazon since Amazon cut off half of the supply of those products? The fact that we are pouring the products in via RA and OA is a huge component of Amazon’s appeal!! (You know, one stop shop? But Amazon cannot buy every product they need for themselves.) And they would be insane to do anything like that right before a Christmas season. Anyhow, as you said, the issue is mostly about receipts, which I agree, are very very rarely requested. If Amazon is going to try to eliminate RA/OA, I think they will have to do it very very VERY slowly or they’ll shoot themselves in the foot.
Thank you for the comment. I agree with you, I think that a significant number of items would be eliminated from the catalog if it was banned completely, which doesn’t seem like it would be good for customers.
Great article, Ryan!! Thank you!!
Thanks Terri, glad you enjoyed it!
I’m on here e-mail list and got the doomsday, world is crashing e-mail as well. Generally really like her stuff, bought her book. Great advice, great experience. But this was a really skewed view on her part. Way too overdramatic. She’s been working the suspension business too long, needs a break.
Thanks for the comment. Time will tell of course, but I agree with you that the immediate outlook doesn’t look quite so gloomy.
As someone who has done a much smaller amount of RA/OA sales (~3500 units YTD) I am taking the same approach. To me, as someone who takes my business very seriously and plays as closely to the rules as possible, I think in the long run, the tightening of the reigns is only going to help my business as it increases risk, complexity and the demands on other sellers. We pride our business on being very professional and would love to see less professional sellers removed from the game. For now, I see no future in which the gravy train of seller fees that Amazon brings in will be removed from their books, so work to be one of the sellers that survives and brings quality and value to their business and ride that to increased success.
Good thought Jeremy, thanks for sharing.