In my previous installment of Amazon Problems, I talked about fake Amazon product reviews. This time, I talk about fake products themselves. Thanks to lax Amazon policies, buyers now have to worry about whether their products are genuine or counterfeits.
Amazon is now more of an open marketplace and less a “store” like Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Nearly 40% of Amazon’s total sales now come from two million third-party sellers. When you buy something, the website might still look like Amazon but the behind-the-scenes process could be very different. You basically have one of three options:
- Ships from and sold by Amazon.com. The real “Amazon store”. Amazon buys the products wholesale directly from the manufacturer, keeps them in Amazon warehouses, and then Amazon ships it you.
- Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA). This means a third-party bought the product from somewhere, claims that it is authentic, and then ships it over into an Amazon warehouse. You buy it, and Amazon ships it. This allows the merchant to make their products eligible for Free Super Saver Shipping and Amazon Prime.
- Ships and sold by Third-Party. The sellers have to follow certain rules, but you are mostly dealing directly with a third-party seller with their own warehouse and order fulfillment. This is like eBay or traditional flea markets.
Because Amazon essentially allows anyone to ship them something and say “These are the real thing!”, that opportunity itself can encourage counterfeiting. In July 2016, Birkenstock announced that due to counterfeits and Amazon’s lack of response, they will no longer supply products to Amazon as of January 1st, 2017. In addition, they will no longer authorize third-party merchants to sell on the site.
According to another CNBC article, other brands with questionable authenticity include Michael Kors and Canada Goose. Amazon even commingles inventory from various third-party sellers, so you end up with no idea where your product really came from:
To unsuspecting consumers, fake products can appear legitimate because of the Fulfillment by Amazon program, which lets manufacturers send their goods to Amazon’s fulfillment centers and hand over a bigger commission, gaining the stamp of approval that comes with an FBA tag.
Furthermore, Amazon’s commingled inventory option bundles together products from different sellers, meaning that a counterfeit jacket could be sent to an Amazon facility by one merchant and actually sold by another.
I can only hope that Amazon’s own inventory is still kept separate from the Fulfilled By Amazon (FBA) inventory.
Per The Counterfeit Report, here are some other brand name items with reports of counterfeit copies online:
- Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes
- The North Face Denali jackets
- Gillette Fusion Razor Blades
- Giorgio Armani: Acqua Di Gio fragrance
- Bose headphones
- Otterbox smartphone cases
- Duracell batteries
It’s really hard to tell between fake and real products. Last year, a detailed teardown of a $199 Beats headphone that revealed only $17 of cheap parts went viral. That pair of headphones turned out to be fake. But wait, they did a another teardown of authentic Beats headphones and found them to be still very similar, with $20 of cheap parts. It really says something these hardware experts didn’t even recognize a fake after tearing it apart (the boxes and internal materials are also excellent copies).
This counterfeit problem should be a huge concern for Amazon. Every time I look at a brand name product like Bose headphones, Nespresso coffee pods, or Ray Ban sunglasses, I have to pause and weigh the chances that I’ll get a fake product. Is the price too good to be true? Why is this other price so much lower? If another big merchant comes along with a good user interface and reliable product sourcing, then I would definitely consider shopping there instead. (You hear that, Jet.com + Wal-Mart?)
What can you do? One option is to only buy things marked “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com.” This may mean you have to voluntarily pay more for the same product – so painful! – but it may be worth a few extra bucks for the peace of mind. I would also consider third-party sellers if they are the original manufacturers of the product. For example, you could buy ExOfficio boxer briefs directly from the ExOfficio seller account (although sold by Amazon is cheaper right now).
Amazon’s return policies could still be considered “customer-friendly”, but only if you are an alert and active customer. It is your responsibility to examine your product for any inconsistencies. If you spend the time to contact them and complain, by most accounts Amazon will refund your money if under FBA, or at least pressure the 3rd-party merchant to refund your money. This isn’t good enough; I hope that Amazon becomes less reactionary and be more pro-active about this problem.