If you haven’t read Merch By Amazon (Part 1) click here for a quick summary of how the program works.
My husband and I have been selling apparel and accessories on amazon.com for almost 10 years. I’ve been selling online since 1999. My Paypal account is older than any of my children. In fact, the site was called x.com when I opened the account. It was a definite improvement over getting money orders in the mail, although I do miss opening my mail box and finding money instead of bills. In all those years I’ve seen a lot of changes to e-commerce. I like to think I’m pretty good at adjusting and rolling with the punches. So, when I first learned about Merch By Amazon, I thought it was a great concept and looked forward to watching it evolve.
Then reality set in.
Today, Merch by Amazon is more like the Wild Wild West than a bona fide merchandise shop. To be fair to Amazon, I don’t think they anticipated the giddy excitement a service like this would cause. Imagine a business that costs nothing to start, takes orders that ship themselves, and stocks inventory you don’t have to buy. Add an estimated $500 million in equipment you didn’t have to acquire and that’s Merch By Amazon.
In the beginning, anyone could sign up and there were no limits to how many designs you could upload. This free-for-all led to an influx of sellers, many of whom have very little, if any experience selling T-shirts. A big part of making and selling t-shirts has to do with intellectual property rights which includes both trademarks and copyrights.
Enforcing trademarks and copyrights has always been an issue on amazon.com. A few years ago Amazon created something called the Brand Registry in an effort to help sellers control their brands. While not an ideal solution, it was at least a start in the battle against IP infringement. To qualify for the Brand Registry you have to provide your registered trademark number, images of your branding on both your items and packaging and a link to a website containing those items. Sounds like a pretty stringent process, right? It is and it’s pretty time intensive. Only after a review by Amazon are you issued an identifier that lets you list on the Amazon site using your brand.
We’ve gone through this process many times. It is expensive and time consuming. Yet, we’ve gone through the process each time we’ve introduced a new brand because we were under the assumption it was protecting our brand names on Amazon.
So… imagine my surprise when I learned you could just make up brands on the fly when you list via the Merch interface. Let me repeat that. You can just make up a brand. As many times as you want.
So now you’ve got sellers making up hundreds of brands because there are no limitations at all on branding for Merch sellers. Want to have a brand called “Amazing Birthday Gifts for Everyone?” No problem. Just type it in. How about “Play Ball Baseball Tshirt Baseball MOM?” Again, no problem. Just type in a sentence that makes no sense and call it a “brand.” I don’t think this helps the customer experience. In fact, it floods the marketplace with items many of us would be hesitant to buy. A brand name that is incoherent does not instill confidence in the item itself. But since all of these items are shipped by and sold by amazon, they appear high in the search results. How many pages will a customer scroll through before they leave the site without making a purchase at all? How many sales will Amazon and all of its Marketplace sellers lose?
I belong to a Facebook group about Merch. It’s a group of almost 8000 current Merch sellers or those waiting for invitations. (I do have an active Merch account with 1 shirt listed.) It’s a very active group and they do their best to help each other out. I lend a hand with IP questions from time to time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the group leader deletes me after reading this series.
The troubling part of the way Merch has set up branding can be understood by reading some posts from within the group. I won’t include names, but these are actual posts written by group members in the past 2-3 days.
“What brand name should I put? Different name for Different niche? or one name for all? Whats best?”
- “The brand name seems to count in the search results, so I’d say pick a name with some keywords in it that match your shirt.”
- “I use a different brand name for just about every shirt to thwart anyone trying to copy my designs.”
2b.”This is a really good point, but do we know if this could become problematic down the line, when you have tons and tons of shirts, all with different brand names? Just wondering!”
Traditional clothing sellers on Amazon must incur the expense of a trademark, packaging, branding, relabeling and more for the privilege of listing their brand on Amazon. This process must be repeated for every brand the company owns. It gets extremely expensive. Yet, Merch by Amazon sellers can simply create hundreds of brands on a whim. I love competition and all it represents, but if you’re going to state all sellers have a level playing field, then by all means, make the playing field level.
Aside from simply making up brands, some dishonest Merch sellers have taken on a different strategy. They troll the best seller lists for the most popular brands. (These are almost always trademarked brands with legitimate brand owners.) Once they identify said brands, they copy their designs (more on that later) and use the same brand name. Hence, when someone searches for that brand on Amazon, the Merch listings are inter-mingled with the legitimate brand owner listings. I spoke to another seller today who told me this happens to him repeatedly, but he is afraid to report this to Amazon because they may remove his listings instead of the hijackers.
Reporting these violations is extremely difficult. As brand owners we don’t even know who the perpetrators are since every item says “shipped by and sold by amazon.” The lack of transparency makes it impossible to contact the designers directly, much less pursue any legal action against them.
As brand owners and sellers, we have worked hard to create our brands, register them and cultivate them. We take pride in our brands. Many of us sell to retail stores, sell on our own websites, have social media followings and more. We took all the steps we thought would protect our intellectual property. Unfortunately removing any barriers for branding for Merch By Amazon sellers dilutes our brands. Customers “think” they are receiving a branded item and are then let down when something altogether different arrives.
Hopefully Amazon recognizes this problem and acts in the best interest of all sellers. Amazon could trademark several generic t-shirt brands and allow Merch sellers to list under any of those. They could require Merch sellers to select a store name when they sign up and list all their shirts under that name. I’m sure there are many other ideas out there that could allow Merch sellers to show their creativity and also protect brand owners and the integrity of the Amazon catalog.
The IP issues don’t stop there, though. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this post.