Hi, I’m Emmanuel. I work with E-commerce brands ranging from small health brands to billion dollar camera companies, helping them remove the most stubborn of unauthorized sellers. I take care of your minimum advertised price map. I’ll be glad to guide you on your journey as you clean up your marketplace, once and for all.
What Kind of Online Map Violations Brand Protection Tips & Tricks Will I Find Here?
Online Brand Protection, minimum advertised price map and map enforcing on Amazon, Walmart, or many of the other major marketplaces can be both a complex and simple process. On one hand, there are multitudes of details that are important to know to get a strong grasp on your marketplace and map violations. But then again, the philosophies behind brand protection can be whittled down to just a few key concepts. Let’s keep a competitive price for your brand and make sure your sellers are adhering to map compliance.
This particular article is not a comprehensive breakdown of online brand protection. To find that, we recommend reading some of our other Definitive Guides on related map policy violation and minimum advertised price protection.
Instead this article is a collection of both easy and advanced tips & tricks we’ve picked up along the way to help you answer some of the unsolved mysteries you may be experiencing along the road to a cleaner digital marketplace. Here’s the thing, major retailers are serious about product pricing.
Remember that you are never alone on this journey. If there are any questions you still have after combing through our articles, please feel free to contact us via our email address or phone, and we will help you in whatever way we can to get to the bottom line and protect your brand. The last thing you want is a price war with your own thirdparty sellers – that will affect your profit margins!
The Do’s and Don’ts of Serial Number Tracing & Test Buying
What do you do when your electronic Cease & Desist letters didn’t work? You need to find out who this unauthorized seller is, since it’s unlikely they use their full name or actual business name (although some do). The most obvious next step is a test buy.
There are two ways to do this. If your brand’s product has serial numbering on each package or unit, you are in great shape. Buy the product from each unauthorized seller and track the serial number. Now you have a starting point for your investigation.
Either a distributor has a leak in the supply chain, a retailer had to get rid of excess inventory, or a guy uses a retail store, kiosk, or expo booth as a front to sell the product online where it is far more profitable (or else there is a shadow hierarchy which we describe in another article).
But it’s not enough to have serial numbering. If you have your serial number printed on a box in ink, it can easily be removed with nail polish remover and a Q-tip. We recommend having your serial numbers etched on to the product itself, if possible. This is much more difficult to scratch off. Now, if they decide to remove the inked serial number, but can’t remove the etched serial number, you have product tampering which can be a misdemeanor and no longer a civil breach of contract case. Very easy to scare the unauthorized seller off now, or go all in by using a legal team to stop the person or company violating your MAP.
Brand Alignment Quick Tip
“Learn the difference between and FBA and FBM seller. An FBM seller’s return label address can be one of the most valuable investigative clues you have”.
The second option is to purchase the product FBM or Seller-Fulfilled Prime, if possible. Let’s say you have an unauthorized seller who sells your product FBA. Take a look at the rest of the inventory, even if it is other brands they are selling. Try to find something that they are selling FBM and purchase it.
Do your best to purchase something priced around the Buy Box so they do not get suspicious. In that situation, the worst thing that will happen is that they cancel the order and mark down your name and address, in which case you will need to purchase another product under a different customer account (of which you should have several in multiple zip codes). Mail forwarding services are easy to find.
Be sure not to use your company’s public address or zip code since that is easy to check. If the address is connected to your company on Google in any way, use a different one. Note that the seller may not even have the high-priced FBM item in stock, since many sellers will list an item at an unsellable minimum advertised price map for the sole purpose of tracking analytics to see if it is worth it for future inventory.
When you receive the FBM item, check the return address label. If they are smart they won’t list their actual address, but they are still likely to use a PO Box or send from a zip code near their physical location. Now you have a lead, and the brand can check their distributor list to see if they have anybody in that area. Of course, If you have been reading our other articles you will realize that it can be a false lead, but any info is better than nothing.
Now there is a big caveat regarding test buying on Amazon. FBA fulfillment centers have something called commingling of inventory as an option. What that means is that if Seller A sends 10 units of a product to FBA and Seller B sends 5 units of the same product to FBA, the items get mixed. So it does not matter whom you buy from, Amazon takes a random product from those 15 units and packages it.
So it is possible that you buy one unit from each seller and both items come back with serial numbers that trace back to only Seller A. You may now think both seller accounts are the same user, when they are not. You are still identifying an unauthorized seller, so it is still a big win for you, but you may not be getting the complete picture. Purchasing two units from each seller is a solution but can be pricey since Amazon does not like it if a customer has too many returns.
Commingling is an option for sellers, and not required, but it is very common and you should always be aware of it. If you file a trademark violation on the item, then the correct seller will be penalized, so do not worry about that. FBM and Seller-Fulfilled Prime purchases would be the obvious work-around here. As you can imagine, if the brand is selling their product themselves on FBA, it is not a good look for the item to be commingled with unauthorized sellers, as that can lead to poor reviews and brand reputation since the customer will not know the difference. We always recommend that the brand and it’s authorized sellers turn off commingling when doing FBA to protect your MAP guidelines.
How Unauthorized Sellers Beat Amazon Resellers Vendor Central at the Buy Box
Many brands think they hit the home run by being accepted to the Amazon Vendor Central program. They think they are home safe and that Amazon will take care of their listings from here on out. But if their brand is not brand gated, nothing has changed for them regarding unauthorized sellers.
Nothing stops companies from competing with Amazon on the buy box. Of course, it is not smart practice for resellers to compete with Amazon on price since Amazon can do whatever they want with the buy box algorithm. Amazon gets lower distributor pricing than most if not all distributors due to the quantity they purchase, so the reseller might have to take a loss to compete, and if they can compete Amazon doesn’t mind temporarily taking a loss themselves to keep the buy box.
But that doesn’t mean you are in the clear from unauthorised reselling. If you have come to a MAP pricing agreement with Amazon, nothing stops other resellers from violating MAP price on most listings and winning the buy box. Which is why you need map pricing enforcement. We have seen so many listings where Amazon has the product listed at something like $129.95 while the buy box price is $49.95 by an FBA seller, especially in beauty categories or kiosk products that have large wholesale to MSRP margins where brand reputation and image is paramount. Amazon also knows how many items the FBA seller has in stock so they may allow the FBA seller to sell out their inventory at a lower price instead of competing and taking a loss if that’s what their algorithm chooses.
Arbitrage specialists have their own complex techniques to win the buy box. They use price history apps like Keepa and CamelCamelCamel to monitor how often Amazon goes out of stock on certain items. If they find a listing that fits their algorithm, they will purchase the item in bulk and send it to FBA and sit pretty behind Amazon’s buy box price. If it is a high selling listing, as soon as Amazon goes out of stock, the arbitrage seller will sell a large quantity of items at a higher price and turn a nice profit before Amazon gets items back in stock. What if these items are counterfeit? Poorly packaged? Returns? Those are bad reviews for your listing page that can affect future sales.
To understand how much money these unauthorized sellers can make during these Amazon out of stock gaps, see the example below. Using the Keepa extension I chose a random top selling listing for a computer monitor. According to JungleScout this item sells around 9,384 items per month at $66.49 for $623,942 in monthly revenue. Below is the price history for the last year.
That orange shading is all the times Amazon had this item in stock. The white gaps in the orange is when Amazon was out of stock and an FBA or FBM seller had the Buy Box. Let’s zoom in on one of those time periods.
The last time Amazon was out of stock for this item was March 21st to March 26th of this year. The blue line represents the price of the item. You can see that the moment Amazon went out of stock, the price jumped $5-7 as the FBA sellers took the Buy Box. That is what online arbitrage looks like. Now how profitable were these 5 days for the FBA sellers? Let’s do the math. $623,942 divided by 30 days is $20,798 per day. Multiplied by 5 that is $103,990 and 1,564 units sold. That’s a nice 5 day turn out. Don’t allow unauthorized sellers to profit from your brand and ruin your brands value reputation like this.
How to Spot Unauthorized Sellers with Multiple Accounts on the Same Listing
First, you need to think like an unauthorized seller. If you don’t have any ethics, why would you share 50% of the Buy Box when you can get 90%? Well, that’s what many unauthorized sellers do. Amazon has a very, very strict rule: the same seller cannot sell the same listing under multiple Amazon accounts. If you violate that rule, you’re done. All of your violating accounts are suspended. But that doesn’t stop some of these sellers.
They open dozens of Amazon accounts, using dozens of business checking accounts under a multitude of LLC names, which in some states you can get online for $50 in less than an hour. They then begin the process of category ungating, sometimes using forged invoices (easily done with Photoshop or even MS Paint).
The Buy Box process is very simple. The lowest FBA price shares the Buy Box (and nowadays Seller Fulfilled Prime is eligible as well). If two or more sellers have the same price, they split the Buy Box 50/50 traffic-wise (if there are 3 sellers then 33/33/33, etc.), rather than sales-wise, although the sales balance themselves out over time. You will always see many sellers at the same low price since they are using automatic price matching. They prefer to price match, because automatic price decreases, even by $0.01, lead to a race to the bottom and it is always better to share a loaf of bread rather than have none at all.
Often, when you see a popular listing with 10 FBA sellers sharing the Buy Box, it is not uncommon for 5 to 9 of them to be the same seller under multiple accounts, especially if it is a top-selling listing. Now how do you identify these sellers? It’s important to know if your brand has 10 violators or 2. Big difference in work load.
There are a couple ways to identify them. The quickest way is to click on their profile and look at their other listings. Amazon automatically sorts their other products by top-selling, so these sellers will often sell the same top products on multiple accounts; they are too lazy to mix up the accounts with different products or else have way too many products to organize this. So when you see 8 accounts sharing the Buy Box on a certain brand of lipstick, and also sharing a Buy Box on a bundle of batteries (a totally different brand or category), chances are you just spotted one person or distributor with multiple accounts.
Your best weapon is the amount of work they have to do to hide themselves. If you have 10,000 products on 3 different Amazon accounts, it’s difficult to track them unless you have many employees doing the grunt work. Let’s consider a hair dryer with 40 sellers with a Buy Box price of $29.95. On the 2nd page of sellers we might find 3 different FBA sellers with a price of $42.37. What are the odds that 3 different sellers have the same awkward price that has no chance of getting a sale? What you are seeing is one person or distributor who set the same minimum price on his automatic price matching on all 3 accounts, and due to the sheer number of products he has for sale, forgot about or never noticed that he no longer has the Buy Box on this item. Check the other products on these accounts and you’ll find that they share hundreds of the same listings and brands.
Once you’ve identified these sellers, contact Seller Performance on Amazon and let them know. They might not do anything for a while, but you might be surprised months later when all the accounts suddenly have no products for sale – protecting your brand identity! 😉 If these are unauthorized sellers or MAP violators, you have just dealt a death blow to their business for a long time.