In 2015, Pennsylvania resident Heather Oberdorf was blinded in one eye while walking her dog with a collar she bought from an Amazon seller The Furry Gang. According to legal documents, the collar broke when her dog lunged, causing the retractable leash to fly back and hit her in the face.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the seller who posted this collar subsequently disappeared, so Oberdorf sued Amazon, which said it was not responsible for defects in products sold by third-party sellers. The case has wound its way through the Pennsylvania court system since then, and in June, a Philadelphia appeals court sent the case to the state supreme court.
Amazon declined to comment on the case.
This isn’t an isolated incident. A November 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation highlighted how hard it can be to track down Amazon sellers and hold them accountable when they list banned, unsafe or mislabeled products.
That’s why news last week that Amazon will require its 461,000 active U.S. sellers to post contact information—like they already do in Europe, Japan and Mexico—was a welcome development for brands and customers. At least on the surface.
Amazon said it wants to “ensure there is a consistent baseline of seller information to help customers make informed shopping decisions.”
But Jonathan Weber, a third-party seller focused on outdoor equipment and office supplies, said he suspects an ulterior motive. Amazon may be putting sellers on notice that they are legally responsible for the items they sell while also making it easier for customers and brands to sue them directly and leave Amazon out of the equation altogether.
Either way, the question remains: Will the policy change actually help hold U.S. sellers accountable and deter bad actors?
Pro: Potentially more transparency
Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at market research company Forrester, called the move “an overdue way to provide transparency” in the wake of the Oberdorf case.
Having access to the information will give Amazon customers more transparency, according to Zach Weinberg, a director at research firm Gartner. But he said the benefits extend beyond consumers since it is potentially more beneficial for brands looking to police suspected sellers of fake products.
In addition, John Frigo, a third-party seller of home goods, gadgets and supplements, said it will stop sellers that break the minimum advertised price (MAP) established by manufacturers, which is a popular tactic among smaller sellers on the platform.
“It’s impossible for manufacturers to crack down on them as they are essentially a made-up Amazon account name and nothing more,” Frigo said. “It will also hopefully stop many sellers who buy bulk expired supplements and then sell them on Amazon as now there is no longer the anonymity there was before.”
In fact, Frigo is confident small sellers and resellers won’t get an LLC and a P.O. box or want their personal information on Amazon, so many may stop selling altogether.
Con: The information is only useful if it is accurate
Others are less optimistic. For starters, it’s unclear if Amazon is verifying these addresses.
An Amazon spokesperson did not respond when asked if the platform will verify seller addresses. Instead, she pointed to Amazon’s preexisting seller vetting process and video verification pilot for new sellers.
“It doesn’t appear as though Amazon is going to vet or check any of this information. So, really, people can just put in a fake business name and address and continue on as always,” Frigo said. “Ultimately what this comes down to is whether Amazon is serious about enforcing this or if this is a PR stunt [and] nothing will change.”