Back in the early 2000s I used to buy books on Amazon and nothing else. Then as their marketplace expanded I started buying almost everything on Amazon. From Shampoo, to shoes, to mascara, to dog food. It was all bought on Amazon. And now in 2021 I buy books on Amazon and nothing else.
In 2004 and for a few years after that, what you saw was what you got on Amazon. It was like buying on any other reputable e-store, such as Apple, Bestbuy, or Revolve. Ordering on Amazon wasn't a gamble like eBay, where it was a toss of the dice whether that handbag you were ordering was real or counterfeit, or if those Nikes are really coming from the United States, or from a knockoff factory in China.
But with every order that I placed with Amazon over the years, the stranger things became. I remember the first time something odd happened, I was a grad student and I had an idea for an experiment that required a simple piece of lab equipment. I wanted to do this experiment in my garage in my spare time so I opted to buy the equipment myself and just do it more as a side project to see if it worked first before integrating it into my thesis. If I were to buy this item brand name from a lab supply company it would cost $3,000 but on Amazon they had a bunch of no-name brands selling this device for about $300. I bought one that had a few reviews, all positive. Seemed legit.
Well I bought the device and unlike most items from Amazon that arrive in 2-5 days, this item didn't arrive for about 15. When it arrived the box looked like it traveled through Hell to get to Southern California. The box was dirty, beat up and didn't have the Amazon logo on it. When I opened the box the device was in a plastic bag and it was wet. The device also looked like some relic from a cold war era soviet laboratory. This was not the item pictured, and it was used.
Obviously I wasn't going to keep this thing so I contacted Amazon's customer service and because this item was sold to me by a "third party" I needed to contact the merchant to get a resolution. I didn't know what they meant by "third party" because I thought everything I bought on Amazon was sold by them, but I wanted to return it so I contacted the merchant, let them know the issue with what they sent, and waited for a response. No response. I wrote again, and no response. I waited about a two weeks for a response and still nothing so I figured one way to get their attention would be with a review. I took a picture of what was sent with a low rating and that was it. Within hours I received a response from the seller that said that they will give me a refund of $10 once I take the review down. Instead of responding to the worst attempt at a bribe I have ever encountered I just took a screen shot of their e-mail and added it to the review. Several hours later, I received another e-mail saying they will give me $15 back of the $300 I spent if I take the review down. At this point I had enough, I wasn't going to wear them down in $5 increments up to $300 so I just sent the communications to Amazon, let them know what was going on and they gave me my $300 back.
The situation was strange for many reasons. First the item, although sold on Amazon, did not come from one of their warehouses. It could have come from anywhere and it was not the item pictured. And it was used. When I looked at the reviews again, it became obvious these were all fake. They were written in broken English, all said a variation of the same thing about the item, and the reviewers names were clearly fake too.
Just for fun I kept an eye on this item and the company that sold the device to me because I wanted to see if anyone else had a similar experience. But after two months of the issue I had, their store was taken down. There were likely many complaints about this store so Amazon just removed them from the marketplace. However a month later when browsing Amazon again for something unrelated I noticed that the store was back up, but under a slightly different name. Think if the store was called LabSmart, this new store was called LabbSmart.
You cut the head off of a hydra, and two sprout back.
But this sort of thing on Amazon had become less odd because it became more common as the years went on. From counterfeit shampoo, to knockoff cookware, making purchases from Amazon became less like shopping in a store and more like perusing a Turkish bazaar. Or it became like shopping on Ebay.
The Magic Warehouse
If you ever tried to buy makeup or personal care on Amazon, you have probably seen a product that you know is good but with a lot of bad reviews. And the reason why that item is poorly reviewed is not because it doesn't work, it is because users are claiming the item is counterfeit or expired. I've seen foundation from well known, reputable brands, sold on Amazon with terrible reviews because users reported that this wasn't the "real" foundation. This leads me to believe that whomever was selling this item probably got their hands on thousands of empty containers of the real product, and filled it with bulk, generic, foundation made in China. Or the seller got a bunch of discarded expired foundation from dumpsters of big box retailers and sold it on Amazon.
And this doesn't just happen with foundation, it happens with toothpaste, it happens with shampoo, and it happens with skin care.
To understand why the skin care you get isn't what you think you're getting, you first need to know what Amazon is and what it isn't. Amazon is not a store like Target or Macys, where they interview and vet vendors before stocking their goods. Amazon is more like a Public Storage if people used Public Storage to store their junk with the intention of selling it online, and fulfilled directly from the storage unit.
If I wanted to sell OUMERE at Bergdorf Goodman, or Netaporter.com, or Sephora, I would need to contact their team members in charge of vendor relations, set up a meeting, have OUMERE products tested by their staff, and have an interview and possibly inspection of how OUMERE operates, how I manufacture, where I source my ingredients, how I keep items shelf stable, and how to use the products. The reason why the vetting process is intense is because any store that carries OUMERE is responsible for it.
If I wanted to sell OUMERE on Amazon, all I need to do is set up a merchant account, take photos that meet their quality guidelines, write a description, provide product ID numbers, provide the weight and dimension of the product, and send it in. Or fulfill it directly myself.
If someone wanted to sell Crest toothpaste on Amazon, they could go to one of those bulk discount retailers that sells expired or returned goods, buy it in bulk, keep it in a bathroom or garage for months, then sell it on Amazon. And because the toothpaste from someones bathroom has the same SKU (product identifying number) and barcode as the Crest toothpaste from the factory or reputable merchant, it all gets mixed into the same bin in the Amazon warehouse. Or it comes directly from someones house. So you don't know if your getting clean toothpaste or bad toothpaste. And there is no differentiating between which toothpaste came from the manufacturer, and which came from a third party.
You will not see a level of vetting of any skin care products or any products on Amazon like you would see at Target, Bergdorfs or Macy's. And that is because Amazon is not so much a store, but a platform. And a platform is not responsible for the activities of its users, no matter what. Amazon's primary responsibility as a platform is to store, advertise and fulfill the orders of its merchants. Amazon is a glorified warehouse. And a warehouse is not going to inspect the ingredients, supply chain and safety of every item it stores. Trouble is bound to happen under these circumstances.
Think about it this way, if someone were to go on Facebook and use that platform to stalk and assault someone, Facebook cannot be charged for aiding criminal mischief because Facebook is not a service or a product, it is a platform. And according to Section 230(c)(2) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, platforms are not responsible for the third party activity of their users. They are only responsible for making a reasonable effort to curtail illegal behavior and to take down offensive or illegal content once detected or reported.
If someone were to sell skin care containing a skin burning agent on Amazon, and you bought this product, applied it and got a hole in your skin, Amazon is not responsible for your disfigurement. If you wanted to sue, you would have to sue the vendor and if that vendor is based in China, good luck getting them to pay your medical bills.
As a platform, Amazon is required, by law, to remove counterfeit, harmful or illegal goods if detected, just like how they removed the third party store once I reported I was sold a counterfeit good and bribed to remove a negative review. But another store quickly sprouted in its place. Amazon has approximately 10,000,000 sellers on their platform, they cannot police every single one of them. And there are more and more counterfeiters and shady operations emerging on the platform every day. And with every day the scammers get smarter.
They are getting smarter with the counterfeiting. They are getting smarter with fake reviews, and they are getting smarter with new ways to fly under the radar of detection.
This is why I am back to only buying books on Amazon. I don't think anyone is going to counterfeit Upton Sinclair or a biology text book from 2006. And for everything else I am sticking to brand name e-commerce stores and brick and mortar.