As you probably know, at A&A, we sell mostly things like broadband and telecoms as services, but there are a number of things that are just stock items that we sell (everything from routers, splitters, cuddly dragons to ISP grade Firebrick costing tens of thousands). So we thought it may be an idea to try out Amazon and see how it works as some things may be better and more convenient sold through Amazon.
Time consuming and tedious at first
To start with, it was quite time consuming and tedious to set up the seller account. They don't just want company details, but also passport numbers and expiries of all beneficial owners of the company, scans of passport, scans of bank statement to prove account number, credit card number, the works. It probably took me a couple of hours to sort that all.
Listing a product
Listing a product is not too hard. It involved a title, description, images, and so on. It was not entirely clear what each field did in terms of the listing, but easy to play around and learn how it goes.
As an experiment we decided to list something simple to start with, as this is a bit of a test to see how well it all works. Some playing cards (please buy some). These are actually the ones from my previous blog post, which A&A are selling now.
Of course anyone that got them free from me are welcome to leave an Amazon review - the funnier the better.
Fulfilled by Amazon
One of the things we wanted to experiment with is the whole "fulfilled by Amazon" thing, where they hold the stock for you. Now this has costs, related to the volume of the item, so playing cards are a good test for this. I suspect cuddly dragons are not so good.
To my surprise that was easy. I had to update the listing with weight, and dimensions. I had to advise the overall weight and dimensions for the box of 50 packs we are sending. It ended up with a shipping label to print. UPS collected later that day. 24 hours later, Amazon are selling!
It is meant to shows as Amazon Prime as well, not sure if I have missed something or being impatient on that one. It could also be I set the price a tad too low to make sense for 1-click and prime. I'll see if I can work that one out. I can see Amazon Prime being useful for things like DSL routers and splitters and so on. [update: increasing price by 99p means it is now 1-click and prime, but I could not find the help to tell me what the price has to be for this.]
The hard part - barcodes!
It turns out product barcodes are a bit of a complicated area!
There is a group (GS-1) that manages product bar codes world wide. Wikipedia explains it a bit.
It seems that, until 2002, you could buy a block of barcodes and they were yours forever and nothing prohibited you from reselling them to others. This is the sort of model I like for such things personally. There are some rules or guidelines on things like barcode reuse after a product is discontinued, but it is all pretty simple.
However, these days, you have to be a member of GS-1, on an ongoing basis, and so you effectively rent the barcodes.
However, if you google, you will see that loads of people sell barcodes, outright, for quite reasonable prices. So I bought some. Simples.
Is this legit? Well yes, from what I can tell, as these pre-2002 barcodes could be sold and re-used, so that is all that is happening.
However, it seems Amazon have a bit of an issue. They use barcodes, these UPC and EAN unique barcodes, to track stock. Indeed, if a barcode is issued to a product they will treat all stock of that product the same and interchangeable. When you create a listing you, ideally, need to give them the UPC or EAN barcode number. (There are other ways with labels on the product with Amazon issued codes).
So why is that an issue. Well, the problem is that you can just make these up. Amazon seem to accept any barcode they don't yet have in inventory. So even if you have barcodes, you can find some Chinese company has effectively hijacked them and so you cannot list your items on Amazon. Apparently Amazon can fix this, but apparently it is a hell of a lot of work.
It also turns out that it does not matter if you got barcodes directly from GS-1 or from some reseller. Indeed, it seems, the resellers check on Amazon first to eliminate any that have been hijacked. I do not know if GS-1 do the same.
As it happens, having bought 100 barcodes in March, most are now magically allocated to clothing or iPhone cases on Amazon! I did not realise this at first, as my listing for the above pack of cards using a barcode printed on the pack, works. But there was a slight clue - the control pages for setting up the listing showed this image...
Now I come to trying to list the A&A decks of cards I find the code is not available as it is an iPhone case! This is a tad infuriating as we printed the barcode we allocated on the box! Not being listed on GS-1 as the owner, I cannot even go through the apparently time consuming process of disputing with Amazon, I don't think.
My only choice will be another barcode, and stickers on the packs (or, Amazon can do labels that go on the product for you, which would be a shame on my nicely designed boxes). I think I would rather do the stickers myself...
So what can be done?
Well, Amazon have a solution, it seems. They plan to only accept UPC/EAN codes where the manufacturer matches what GS-1 have listed. This means, apparently, these older re-sold barcodes won't work. What is odd is that, just yesterday, one did work, one we got.
If Amazon do actually go through with this new policy, even if just for new listings, that should stop the hijacked barcodes happening. However, it will mean we have to join the club and pay the ongoing fees to have directly GS-1 allocated codes, which is a shame. What we hope is that existing, legitimate, re-sold barcodes are not suspended on the Amazon site, which may possibly happen one day I guess. At this point that only impacts selling some playing cards for a bit of fun, which is why I am glad we did an experiment on this.
Even so, I can see people selling stuff, using made up barcodes, simply telling Amazon the item they are selling is "manufactured by Andrews & Arnold Ltd" which they can just look up on the GS-1 web site, and Amazon would accept the listing. After all, the seller does not have to claim to be the manufacturer. It is possible Amazon would take such issues more seriously, who knows. It would also be interesting if GS-1 would handle the arguing with Amazon for us as a member given the claims GS-1 make about how much better it is getting codes from them directly.
More to learn
We have to fully understand the costs in practice, and the processes for payments, and for VAT invoicing as well. Things will be shipped without us having issued an invoice, so we are going to have to import in to our accounting system. It is exactly this sort of thing which a trial on something simple like playing cards is worth doing.
We also need to consider what sort of things will be sensible and cost effective to sell via Amazon rather than shipping ourselves. It may be that Amazon is not for us (except perhaps for playing cards), we will see.