Consumers continue to turn to Amazon to shop, particularly for essential household goods and groceries, during the coronavirus pandemic. But shipping delays and Amazon marketplace fulfillment restrictions are hurting sales for some Amazon sellers, who are now looking for alternatives.

Amazon.com Inc. marketplace sellers are adapting to the changing retail landscape as the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, becomes more widespread in the U.S. and worldwide. The impact of the pandemic on marketplace sellers varies based on many factors, including what categories the merchant sells in and how dependent the seller is on Amazon’s fulfillment services.

36% of retailers say they are making adjustments to their marketplace strategy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Digital Commerce 360 survey of 107 retailers during the last week of March. Based on a number of interviews Digital Commerce 360 has had with retailers, brands and Amazon experts the last several weeks, merchants have to—and will continue to—make adjustments to their Amazon business as Amazon’s restrictions on shipments change.

On March 16, Amazon announced it will temporarily suspend shipments of “non-essential” products to its Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) warehouses from its third-party marketplace merchants in the U.S. and EU. With FBA, Amazon stores sellers’ products in its warehouses and delivers the products to consumers. When sellers use FBA, their products are a part of Prime, Amazon’s loyalty program that offers 2-day free shipping, free streaming of TV shows and more.

Shipments to Amazon fulfillment centers were suspended through April 5, and Amazon was only accepting new inventory of products that fall in household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand categories. As of April 6, Amazon has not fully lifted the freeze on shipments of non-essential items to FBA warehouses. However, Amazon has told some marketplace merchants that Amazon is selectively allowing more products to their facilities where there’s capacity, Amazon told Digital Commerce 360. This applies to both merchants that sell on Amazon’s marketplace (third-party merchants) and brands that sell wholesale to Amazon (first-party merchants).

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Here’s Amazon’s statement to Digital Commerce 360 on April 3:

“We understand the impact that COVID-19 has had on many of our selling partners and appreciate their understanding as we implement extensive health and safety measures across our network and focus our available capacity on high-priority products that customers need and want at this time. We know this is a change for our selling partners and are working hard to help them during this difficult time, including waiving certain fees, pausing loan repayments, providing regular updates and guidance via direct communication channels, and relaxing our policies around shipping-related performance metrics to mitigate impact on their account health. As we begin to selectively bring in more products to our fulfillment centers while maintaining health and safety measures, we have launched new tools for sellers to check which products are eligible on an item-by-item basis.”

Amazon home page COVID-19

Amazon hasn’t explicitly announced shipment delays of non-essential items to consumers; however, there’s a banner on Amazon.com that says, “We are giving priority to items that our customers need the most. You may experience shipping delays.” For a number of non-essential items, Amazon is quoting delivery guarantees of a few weeks, much longer than its usual 2-day delivery window.

How Amazon sellers are responding

MPO Global, a retailer and Amazon seller that sells products across different essential and non-essential categories, has made a number of strategic shifts in the past month, says CEO David Rifkin. The merchant sells products such as disinfectant sprays, microfiber products, anti-aging facial creams and pet odor sprays.

Around March 9, Rifkin turned off the automated repricing software that changes the prices on Amazon products based on competitor products; stopped shipping to countries outside of the U.S. and Canada; converted FBA items labeled as Prime that would run out of stock from Amazon warehouses to merchant-fulfilled (so the products are fulfilled from MPO Global’s warehouse); and updated product listing pages to remove any language that made any FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) claims.

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“We are FDA- and EPA-approved and have all the documents to prove it,” Rifkin says, but he wanted to avoid Amazon removing MPO Global’s products that make such claims. In his experience, Amazon does this to kick off the sellers selling fake goods, knowing there’s a big demand from consumers. “Amazon just removes listings without telling you and then it could take days or weeks to send them proof to get your listing back up, resulting in lost sales,” he says.

MPO Global typically uses the repricing software so its products are priced in-line with competing products. Now it is manually checking competitors’ pricing multiple times a day and updating prices. Because essential items are in high demand, he predicts new competitors will join Amazon to sell those products and many sellers will run out of stock. Both instances could lead to MPO Global’s pricing to spike up or drop down too low if it were to use its automatic repricing software. Not relying on automatic repricing software gives MPO Global more control over its prices since competitor prices are unpredictable during this time. Prices on MPO Global’s products were not changed compared with pre-pandemic prices, even with the higher demand, Rifkin says.

For catnip and cat toys brand Meowy Janes, which primarily sells on its own website and Amazon, sales are down about 30% on Amazon compared with an average day. The company expected to lose more by now, owner-operator Carly Hendra says. They are averaging 175 units per day sold versus the typical 250 this time of year.

The biggest shift the brand made in the last month was converting its product listings to seller-fulfilled shipping from FBA, or Fulfillment by Amazon. Meowy Janes made the shift as a result of Amazon freezing shipments of non-essential items to its warehouses. Prior to the pandemic, 95% of Amazon sales volume was FBA and now more than 75% is fulfilled by the merchant.

“We as the [husband and wife] owners have taken on all of the duties of order processing and shipping for the time being to keep the business going,” Hendra says. “We are lucky that our products are small and we are careful setting the quantities available so that our local post office can handle the packages going out daily.”

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Data trends on Amazon since the coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many retailers to shut down store operations and push consumers to their websites. As a result, even more consumers are turning to Amazon for essential and non-essential items. Between March 5 and March 31, total daily visits on Amazon.com were up 9.4% from the beginning of the month to the end of the month, or 6.50 million visits, to 75.51 million visits, according to traffic data source SimilarWeb Inc. During the same period in 2019, traffic remained steady at 69 million.

Amazon cited “increased demand” as a reason for delayed shipping times of some items, but this elevated traffic is still a lower number of visits compared with other peak periods where there’s increased demand, such as the holidays. Data shows that Amazon’s traffic during its peak periods of Prime Day and the 5-day period starting Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday is still much higher. During Prime Day 2019—its annual 2-day global sales event, which spanned July 15–16 in 2019—total visits were 119.60 million and 104.93 million, respectively. During the Cyber 5, total daily visits on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday were 102.52 million, 124.82 million and 120.98 million, respectively. SimilarWeb’s data only includes site traffic and does not include app shopping.

A look at sales of products broken down by categories shows clear winners and losers, according to data from marketplace technology vendor Feedvisor. During the week of March 16 compared with the week of Jan. 6, Amazon.com sales of grocery products increased 103%, beauty and personal care items increased 47% and apparel products decreased 28%. Grocery increased at a faster rate compared with March 9 (85% increase from the week of Jan. 6), while apparel sales declined less during the same time (16%).

Feedvisor’s data is based on 7.5 million products on Amazon, which account for more than $2 billion in annual sales, according to the company.

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When looking at the top search terms on Amazon.com, the majority of the top 50 falls in the household products/personal care categories, such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, according to data from Marketplace Pulse, a research firm that tracks data on marketplaces. Some other terms that have cropped up include products consumers may be looking for to fill their time at home, such as puzzles, Nintendo Switch and resistance bands.

Quick tips for Amazon sellers during the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Daven Brodess, co-founder and managing partner of DTC Retail, a consultancy that helps retailers and brands sell on Amazon, advises sellers to evaluate ad spend and promotions. “If your inventory is constrained and starting to run low, it might be worth pausing any promotional programs you are offering and turning off or reducing ad spend to focus on profitability for the inventory you do have,” Brodess says. If supply isn’t an issue, this could be an opportunity to increase ad spend and gain market share in that product category.
  • Additionally, Brodess says to be extra lenient on customer service. “Many people are under lockdown or stay-at-home orders, so making trips to the post office to return products can be a hassle or even dangerous,” Brodess says. “Where appropriate, offering and giving refunds without requiring a product return is something buyers appreciate and can help your brand stand out.”
  • Sellers that rely on Amazon for fulfillment are facing a tough obstacle. Multiple experts suggest sellers look for other options, such as partnering with a third-party logistics company to store inventory. And be ready for when Amazon opens the gates and allows shipments to FBA warehouses again from all sellers. “You should see my warehouse right now. We have boxes stacked, packaged and ready to ship once Amazon lets us,” MPO Global’s Rifkin says.

Amazon is No. 1 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, a ranking of the largest online retailers in North America.