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Amazon sends bizarre email in Chinese to suspended sellers

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is sizing up locations for its second US headquarters. Among the criteria: convenient access to mass transit and an international airport, a highly educated labor pool, a strong university system and a diverse population.
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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is sizing up locations for its second US headquarters. Among the criteria: convenient access to mass transit and an international airport, a highly educated labor pool, a strong university system and a diverse population.

The massive growth of Chinese sellers on Amazon.com's marketplace has caused all sorts of problems with U.S. merchants, who see counterfeits and manipulative tactics creeping into their listings.

Sometimes things just turn weird.

Within the last week, Amazon sent emails to a number of U.S. sellers, whose accounts were suspended for one reason or another, telling them they can resume business.

But there's a problem: The emails were in Chinese.

When put through Google translate from Chinese to English, with a little cleaning up, the e-mail reads:

Hello:

Your account information you provided was reviewed and we decided to allow you to re-sell on Amazon.com.

That was followed by a line telling the merchant where to find a list of best practices.

A seller of mobile phone accessories forwarded the email Amazon sent to him on Aug. 18 to CNBC.com on the condition that he and his company not be named. His account was suspended in late July after a few buyers of phone chargers complained the products were defective.

Amazon, which now counts on outside sellers for almost half of its retail volume, routinely shuts accounts after mounting customer complaints without giving sellers a chance to fight the claims. To get reinstated, merchants have to take measures that can take weeks.

Suspensions can be tied to slow delivery times, alleged rights infringements or selling potentially unsafe products or expired items.

The phone accessories seller, based on the East Coast, dreads the punitive emails from Amazon, but he's grown used to them. He was in the process of putting together his plan of action asking for reinstatment when the Chinese email arrived.

Indeed, his account was turned back on after the email, but only for six days. It was then suddenly closed again, forcing the seller to restart the process of getting back in Amazon's favor. He sent in his formal appeal on Wednesday night.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

Chris McCabe, a former merchant risk investigator at Amazon, has seen about a half dozen such cases in recent days involving the same Chinese email. Since 2014, McCabe has worked as an independent consultant helping sellers get and stay compliant. Most of his clients have either lost a product listing or had their account restricted in some way.

But the Chinese email is a new one. And the problem was compounded when the sellers were again shut down after being reinstated.

"This is a colossal blunder, whether it's human or technical," said McCabe. "And making all of these sellers re-appeal and go through this all again is a nightmare for them."

McCabe has seen such an influx of demand from discouraged sellers that he's conducting a pair of seminars this week in Seattle, tied to a larger event called the Sellers' Conference for Online Entrepreneurs.

McCabe's first workshop was Thursday night, and he'll hold another on Saturday. He's expecting about 20 sellers total, and his goal is to provide resources and do-it-yourself tools so online merchants can better understand how to get reinstated without paying thousands of dollars for help.

As a former Amazon employee and someone who works closely to understand the policies, McCabe says he can help sellers eliminate the guesswork. His clients are generating millions of dollars a year on Amazon.

"There's only so much guessing Amazon tolerates before they cut you off," he said. "It's taking action against these sellers but Amazon doesn't have the staffing potential to manually review these things properly."

For Amazon, this is the cost of growth. CEO Jeff Bezos doesn't want consumers to have to shop elsewhere. With about 120 million square feet of fulfillment and data center space, Amazon has built out warehouses to stock practically anything you could want and, for prime members, it arrives in a day or two.

The seller of phone accessories said that in terms of reaching consumers Amazon is "the only game in town."

In 2015, Amazon's e-commerce revenue topped $100 billion, and the marketplace has been a big driver, with sales from Chinese merchants more than doubling last year.

Amazon annual sales

Year Sales (blns) Growth
2010 $34.2 40%
2011 $48.1 41%
2012 $61.1 27%
2013 $74.5 22%
2014 $89.0 20%
2015 $107.0 20%
Source: Company filings

Buyers love it. Have an issue with a purchase? Just call customer support and get a refund.

Sellers experience something very different. When they see another merchant selling a knock-off product, it's incumbent on them to go through a burdensome process to get it taken down.

At the same time, many are terrified of getting shut down due to a complaint from a customer or a brand owner.

Last week, Amazon held an invitation-only event in Seattle for about 300 women sellers. At one session, an Amazon executive told the audience that the company was testing enhanced seller support and inviting conference attendees to take part.

The service is called Seller Support Plus and it costs $4,800 a year. It includes access to a "seller success manager."

"For a monthly subscription fee of $400, you will be able to escalate important issues to your Seller Success Manager for advanced troubleshooting and time-critical resolutions," Amazon wrote in a follow-up email to attendees. "By understanding you and your unique business, the Seller Success Manager will seek to remove persistent technical barriers and offer coaching opportunities during the course of your escalations."

According to an attendee, who asked not to be named, the new service is a way for Amazon to make money off its sellers' headaches.

She won't be paying for it.