Season 1, Episode 10

Studying Amazon Sellers

Moira Weigel, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center/ Harvard Law School and Harvard Data and Society researcher, joined us for a far-reaching discussion of technology’s impact on behavior, and in our case, how Amazon’s expanding influence is taking over the lives of so many business owners, globally. She’s looking to talk to sellers about their Amazon experiences, both with their competitors and with Amazon itself. That may mean you! We discussed her writing project in-depth and the various kinds of seller situations she’s already pored over in the course of her work. She’s covering a lot of ground, as we discovered, in this conversation. Looking forward to having her back!

Show Notes

Transcript

Chris: [00:00:07] Hello, Amazon sellers. This is Chris McCabe once again, with the Seller Performance Solutions podcast. I am here with Leah McHugh, who is an ecommerceChris consultant like myself. Leah, how are you doing today? 

Excellent. Glad to have you with me to speak today with our special guest Moira Weigel. She is a researcher at Data & Society and a faculty associate at the Harvard law school. 

I know at Data & Society you’ve started a new project and you’ve done some data centric project and written work in the past . This time you’re covering e-commerce and how it interacts with people’s business lives, how technology impacts their lives in general. I thought I’d just give you a few minutes to talk about what you’re working on and the kinds of sellers you’ve been talking to.

Moira: [00:00:59] Yeah, for sure. Thanks so much for having me on. So as you sort of more politely alluded to, I have a kind of interesting background I’ve written on a bunch of different topics over the years. All the different things I’ve researched have to do with digital platforms and sometimes I like to say, how we live with technology.

So sort of like how changes in technology shape practical aspects of our lives,  from dating to disinformation, which are different things I’ve written about in the past. And then also how, in my view, they shape how we understand ourselves, you know, in a somewhat more of an abstract or fuzzy or human way.

The Data & Society Institute where I am doing this Amazon e-commerce research is an Institute that looks at the impact of technology on society, as the name would suggest. And I got into this Amazon seller research there because, I could tell the whole story about that, but I don’t want to go on too long, but I think it’s a totally fascinating space,

that is actually pretty unknown, other than to the people who are in it. It feels like, um, I sometimes joke like I’m in Oz or something. It’s like, I’ve wandered into this whole, this whole new world under the hood. 

Chris: [00:02:12] Yeah. It’s known for being kind of, I mean, Leah and I talk about this all the time. It’s a community, it’s a strong community, but we tend to have kind of tunnel vision of Amazon, Amazon.

And it’s interesting to see that academic institutions or researchers or Harvard, whoever is taking an interest in this area because the marketplace impacts so much of business and so many lives as it is now. And it’s just growing and growing and Amazon’s spreading into more parts of your life. Right?

Moira: [00:02:40] Totally. And I think I sometimes joke cause people ask me how I got into this. And I say there’s like a fancy pants, academic answer. But the real answer was just being a new homeowner and parent of a small kid during COVID that I’m like I interacted with Amazon marketplace constantly. And I’m more mindful than I used to be about what exactly I’m buying from and that kind of thing.

So it is, I think exactly, as you’re saying, becoming clearer and clearer to everyone, how much  in the fabric of almost everyone’s day to day life it’s now woven. 

Leah: [00:03:10] You’ve been talking to a lot of industry experts, but you’re also looking to speak to sellers as well. Are you looking for a specific kind of seller or any seller? 

Moira: [00:03:20] Thanks for asking. It’s been interesting because as I started to learn about the space, I designed the study and the nuts and bolts are that I’m trying to do what I think will be the first large scale qualitative study interviewing Amazon sellers, with a couple of different business models and from a variety of places, about their experiences.

And I have been talking to experts like you and Chris, but also seeking out sellers . I think, you know, that line can be blurry, cause a lot of people in this world do in one way or another do education or do consulting and you know, there’s, there are these different community aspects.

So most of the experts I’ve talked to have also been sellers at some point or are still sellers. 

Chris: [00:04:00] I mean, my getting into consulting stemmed from my work for Amazon itself. I mean, I came in from that Avenue as opposed to selling, because it was sort of the controversial part of the marketplace, right. Who’s suspending me. Who’s sending me this warning? What does the warning mean? Who took my listings down? I just launched this product. We’ve got containers full of this stuff coming in from China, you know, like the urgency and the anxiety around selling is what I was dealing with as an employee there, and of course now as a consultant. So I’m imagining that you already, even in the early stages of your research, had those kinds of conversations where sellers are at their wits end, either on the communication spectrum with Amazon, just communicating, not even about an account suspension, but about anything at this point.

I mean, you’re an outsider. So we love your opinion on this, these types of questions, because we know what people will say and we know how they feel about Amazon. I mean, do they feel like they’re just in the trenches all the time, just trying to communicate or resolve problems, do they feel like it’s an adversarial relationship? Are they scared? Are they like, we’re making too much money so we can’t get away from them, but we just God you know, this is so hard. I mean, what are you hearing from people? 

Moira: [00:05:12] I was struck yesterday, I did three long interviews yesterday with experienced sellers. And all three of them said something, which I then realized a high percentage of the people I’ve interviewed so far say, which is made some comment about not being able to sleep at night or sleeping poorly or sleep.

What’s so interesting to me is I hear all of the above. It’s like, there are people building, sometimes even to them, it seems surprisingly successful businesses on marketplace.

And I think of the title of that book, the accidental billionaires about Facebook, but it’s like the accidental millionaires, you know, model or something. Not quite accidental. It takes a lot of work, I know. But it does seem like talking to people who have real success stories who still don’t sleep well at night, according to them anyway, hearing a lot about all kinds of headaches from stuff with trademark and IP complaints to black hat tactics, to, arbitrary delistings and suspensions that folks can’t figure out too. I was just hearing from someone about some issues that came up around the lending, Amazon loans, like around COVID when they stopped taking stock into FBA. And so I really, part of, what’s fascinating to me about this community is how it’s like everything all at once.

So this sort of full gamut. I’m always really interested in the question of how platforms influence our behavior sort of indirectly or what in, again, at an academic context, I’ve called algorithmic governance, but it’s sort of like how do platforms use these automated tools to shape behavior without forcing people to do things.

It’s not like we’re employees of these companies. And I’m always really interested to hear kind of nerdy, nitty gritty details too, about specific metrics or practices or techniques. And how people manage them and also have people game them, you know, different ways of, of dealing with keywords or bundling or using your listing.

Chris: [00:06:58] It’s interesting because you’ve in the past, you’ve studied and written about the data of dating And now the data of selling, like selling on a major e-commerce marketplace. I mean, it all comes down to data. For Amazon, they’re going to look at it that way, if you ask people at Amazon. Do sellers look at it the same way too? 

Moira: [00:07:17] And that’s one thing that’s been really interesting when I first embarked on this project, I thought I would be talking to a lot of folks who had brick and mortar businesses who had a product that they had designed or invented that under the pressures of COVID or sort of just the pressures of

the digital economy were trying to migrate from retail to online. And what I’ve found is that’s actually been a pretty small percentage of the people I’m talking to, and a much larger percentage it seems of Amazon sellers are people who got into this as a new thing. But it’s like to be successful in this space you kind of have to turn yourself into a mini Amazon in a lot of ways.  You have to learn to do all the things with sourcing and learn how to I don’t know, do different kinds of data-driven research to manage it. But one of the things that I should have known, but did not know when I started was that there is this kind of new kind of entrepreneur it seems to me. Or someone with a sort of slightly different set of practices and skills and self understanding so you can succeed in this space. And that actually, while I have interviewed sort of mom and pop brick and mortar people who migrated, that’s actually a lot harder. It seems a lot harder to do. I don’t know. You both will tell me if that’s correct, but that’s my impression. 

Leah: [00:08:26] I think you’re right. I think it’s a lot more difficult if you’re used to the brick and mortar environment to then go to Amazon. It’s a totally different experience. And in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s harder.

Like  the barriers to entry are a lot lower than  opening a store from scratch, but you’re also growing a lot faster. So things that some businesses wouldn’t necessarily have to deal with until  five years down the line you’re potentially dealing with in your first month of selling on Amazon.

And you’re suddenly dealing with millions of dollars. Which again in a regular business, you probably wouldn’t be dealing with that soon. 

Chris: [00:09:03] If you talk to enough of these brands that have grown like doubled and tripled in one year or two consecutive years doubled or tripled their revenue. Which you will, I think in the course of your research, you’ll hear that,

like, we couldn’t believe it. It was such a rush. Like we almost didn’t know what to do next. Should we keep growing? Should we hire more people? Can we get more product launch, more SKUs create new product launches. I mean, sometimes they’re going in so many different directions simply because they didn’t expect it to take off, even though that’s the reason they got into it in the first place was because they wanted to launch a product that would sell well on Amazon when it actually happens, and it happens quickly, there’s surprise. 

Moira: [00:09:40] That’s interesting. It’salmost like startled by success or something it’s like, by the scale of it.

Chris: [00:09:45] Sort of like that, yeah. 

Leah: [00:09:47] Yeah. And I think they don’t understand and necessarily just how much work is involved in that or the risk. I mean, if you open a store and your landlord raises the rent or kicks you out, worst case scenario, you find another location.

Amazon can kick you off and keep your money and keep your inventory and you can’t find another Amazon. So. A lot higher risk at that point, too. 

Moira: [00:10:09] Interesting. Yeah. 

Chris: [00:10:11] Are there any stories or conversations you’ve had that really stand out either for what they didn’t say that you expected them to say, or they were afraid to say, or just anything that hasn’t really been what you expected thus far from what you knew of Amazon before you started.

Moira: [00:10:25] Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s funny, cause I feel like I have two answers, which are almost the opposite of each other. 

Chris: [00:10:33] Sounds perfect for a podcast. So just roll with it. 

Moira: [00:10:37] You know, in the past I’ve written about social media influencers and personalities. And those people, or startup people in Silicon Valley are usually really happy to talk to you. They want attention. They want a VC to read about them in Tech Crunch, whatever it is. Right. And so I had thought, you know, I’ll just identify a whole bunch of people and build a sample and I’ll like call them at the phone number that I find associated with their address, I guess. And then they’ll, I’m sure they’ll talk to me. And it’s like, why wouldn’t they talk to me? And that led literally nowhere. 

Leah: [00:11:05] We are a secretive society. Yeah. 

Moira: [00:11:09] Well, I really, and I joke about this, but I like, I’ve interviewed all kinds of people like I’ve interviewed, because I wrote about dating and some of the shadier sides of dating. I’ve interviewed people about intimate life.

I’ve interviewed people about like sex work, like criminal things. It’s like, and I’ve never, I get them for a few months. I was like, wow, I’ve never met people, more reticent to talk than sellers 

Chris: [00:11:29] The sellers listening are not shocked to hear you say this. 

Leah: [00:11:32] Yeah, no,

Moira: [00:11:34] I think it’s really part of, what’s so interesting about the sellers because, you know, we have.

I think in society in general, we have this big story about the attention economy and that everyone is now putting their private lives all over Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or Tik TOK or whatever, and the kind of big story in the culture about attention and how, like what digital technology does is make us all try to get likes and clicks and attention all the time.

And I was really struck and I’m like, well, for sellers, it’s kind of the opposite of that. Like actually, I mean, I know there are ways it’s useful to build your brand and it’s complicated, but I just having in the past written a bit again about influencers and startups, where their publicist was only too happy to call me and  bend my ear for ages.

Not that I don’t know very nice people at startups, but it’s, but it’s like, it was very striking to me. 

Chris: [00:12:23] It’s a different world. 

Moira: [00:12:24] It’s a very different world. And I think it actually says something about what Amazon is, how it’s a different kind of company and a different kind of digital platform, obviously, because it doesn’t seem like in many cases it’s advantageous to draw attention to yourself.

Chris: [00:12:36] There’s a couple of reasons. I mean, initially it was just competition. Like I don’t want to give away my secret sauce. I don’t want to help my competitors by being public about my success. Then it morphed into something more sinister, which is what Leah and I work on a lot of, abuse prevention or abuse reporting cases, where competitors that learn more about, you know, how to attack you and they know how to report you, report you for bad product condition or quality.

Moira: [00:13:03] And I don’t blame people at all. I think it was my naivety and lack of understanding of the space.

Chris: [00:13:10] It’s changed over time. It’s not just the competitor concern because they’re going to lose revenue to a competitor. They’re afraid of being attacked, where they’d have to try to involve Amazon itself and report it to Amazon and get them to care and to get them help you protect or defend your brand. Which is, Leah and I are doing a workshop at a conference this year, just on this one topic. A couple of years ago, we would never have spent what, two and a half hours talking about how to defend or protect your listing or your brand.

Leah: [00:13:39] It’s funny. Cause you go to these conferences and everybody’s there to learn about Amazon, but no one will talk about what product they sell. Some won’t even tell you what category they sell in And so people are asking you questions, but keeping the information very, very, very vague, really. And you have to try to advise them. Without the details because no one wants to share that. 

Chris: [00:13:59] Right. Coaching them in secrecy. 

Moira: [00:14:02] And again, I think to be clear, like I’m not criticizing these sellers. I think it was my cluelessness about the space starting out. But what was interesting to me is like, that’s my first answer to what it surprised me.

But then my second answer is  once I started to actually meet in various ways, some folks who’ve been in the space for a long time, I’ve been really amazed how generous some of them, including you have been making introductions and connecting me to people.

And I feel like maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that these two things are actually related, That it’s like, because there is so much secrecy and mystery in the space that once you form a personal connection with someone that there is this real commitment, it seems to like seller education and certain kinds of knowledge sharing, at least in certain networks of people.

And so I sort of had this whiplash or rapid change experience where I went from being like, Oh literally no one will talk to me to being like, Oh gosh, I’ve talked to like 12 people last week, you know? And, and people are really generous with their time. So I think. I dunno. I also am really impressed by that.

Like by how willing and ready, um, people, once they don’t think you’re trying to screw them over or steal their secrets or something are to share all kinds of things about their journey or their business and how it works 

Chris: [00:15:18] A lot of the content in our space, I mean, we do feel an obligation to educate sellers, not just have them hire us to fix their problems, but for them to learn how to fix things themselves.

And we are definitely pro-education, that’s another reason why I wanted to connect as many people with you that want to share their stories with you, but also vent a little bit what their concerns are in terms of like the health of their business or whether it’s going to continue. Is Amazon going to stop them?

Will competitors stop them? So, yeah, I mean, we’re happy to help you pair you off with anyone who’s willing to talk to you about it.  If you can also describe just the types of conversations you’re looking to have kind of on that point, what you’re looking for that you think will help you with your research study, then maybe it’ll help sellers kind of filter out what questions they might have about, about what you’re doing or figure out what they want to talk to you about.

Moira: [00:16:08] Like I  was saying Amazon’s in the media all the time. They’re different kinds of controversies about Amazon all the time. I think that, for the most part, people outside the seller community do not hear from sellers in those conversations, except very occasionally. And so what I’m trying to do is just really build up a body of like oral histories or people talking about their experiences, who are sellers.

So I went through something called institutional review board, which is an ethics review which is usually designed for like medical research. But we also do for social science research, you know, to make sure that I have thought of every way in which someone who wants to be anonymous could have their anonymity betrayed.

This is part of why I didn’t just use Amazon to contact sellers. Cause obviously then Amazon would figure out who I talked to if they wanted to. And I haven’t, you know, I don’t publicly contact people through social media or that kind of thing. So yeah, I’ve gone through a whole procedure, which I’m happy to share details about with anyone interested in, to try to make sure that I can keep folks anonymous.

I know it’s not very much money, but I can offer people a little bit of money for their time for taking time to talk to me. I do can give them a gift certificate or whatever form of that is useful to them.  And so I’m trying to build up a cohort- I’ve interviewed about 30 people so far. I think, you know, seller is such a big category and includes such a wide range of people. 

I’m interested to hear from  people who’ve been doing it for a bit, about the opportunities and pain points, and what are the specific things about Amazon that either let you scale such that you’re doubling or tripling your in a year, but also maybe causing you a huge headache.  I’m just interested in hearing about people’s experiences. With all different aspects of being on, on marketplace. Like I said, I’m always interested in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and how we make sense of them and how technology impacts that.

And so I’m really curious about things like anxiety or also like the, I imagine exhilarating-ness but also stress of scaling in a certain way. Or if you were someone, and I’ve talked to folks like this, who had a brick and mortar chain, that your father started and your family works in, and then now the locations have closed down and you’re selling on Amazon.

How does that feel? I mean, I think that it’s, again, I think there are positives and negatives, it seems from the people I talked to. But some people get into it because they have an attachment to a place and a product that doesn’t seem like that it’s different to be selling on Amazon.

And then at the same time, there are data geeks who probably wouldn’t have been so into the day to day of being in a street, in a brick and mortar store, but can love being sort of the, the hustle and the game of being on Amazon.  I’m always curious to hear about those. Like. Human. I don’t know, feelings and elements about what it feels like to be on this platform where you can grow so fast. But also there are all these anxieties and. Yeah. So fair warning. I may ask some of those therapy questions about feelings after asking about business models and metrics and data and that kind of thing.

Chris: [00:19:04] That makes sense. There’s a lot of people put a lot of passion into their businesses. There is a lot of emotion and sometimes anxiety caught up in it. Right. So 

Leah: [00:19:13] I think particularly e-commerce, it’s like 24/7. So the line between work and life is skewed 

Chris: [00:19:20] Yeah. Separating the work-life balance hasn’t really been something that exists in the Amazon space and a lot of sellers that we talked to.

Moira: [00:19:27] Yeah, I’m super curious, how many times a day people look at certain things.  I know people do it on Tinder, so why shouldn’t they do it on, uh, on seller central? If they’re, if they’ve remortgaged the house to buy this stuff, it makes sense. 

Chris: [00:19:38] Yeah, well, we’ve talked to a lot of sellers. Their lives have changed because they’ve hired a bunch of people. And then if something bad happens to their account, they’re looking at furloughing or laying people off until they get re-instated. Those are the conversations, Leah and I are having all the time.

I mean, they’re small business owners. They’re not all large, large brands. Some of them are smaller, low seven figure gross revenue a year. And they’re carrying a lot of responsibility, not even just for themselves or their families at that point. They’ve got several different families that they were employing one or more people in that family as part of their business.

So Amazon expects you to shoulder this entire burden because they’re very go, go, go. They’re like that in the warehouses, I can attest to the fact that it was like that as an employee in the seller performance team I worked on, but they’re also like that with sellers, right? Expect only the best. I mean, they don’t necessarily bring their best to the table every time, but they expect everyone else to be in like optimal performance mode all the time.

And that’s, I mean, not really how life works, right. 

Moira: [00:20:42] I do think that as much as these companies are so big and it can feel like , it’s like who can change anything about these companies that I do think that raising awareness in certain ways can make a difference.

When we’re seeing that in the policy and law realm. I’ve talked to many sellers who, a journalist wrote a story about their particular issue around counterfeits on the listing or suspension, or I was mentioning this lending, the Amazon loans got, and it’s like, it didn’t make a difference to draw some attention to it.

So I think, I mean, I’m of course going to be biased this way as a researcher and a writer. But I do think in the long run that drawing more attention to how marketplace works, and some of the pain points, maybe some things that are unfair about how it, how it currently works can do some good. I think I said in the past, I’ve done some work on disinformation and social media harassment and that kind of thing.

And as much as that’s a really hard issue, I do actually think there’s more public awareness about that than there was like four years ago or five years ago . So I do think, I do hope that in addition to a gift certificate and a free therapy session to complain about Amazon headaches that , hopefully doing this study will contribute to that longer-term project of building up knowledge about this area and how it could work better.

Leah: [00:21:59] I think so. I mean, we found historically that a lot of times things don’t get fixed until there’s a negative media story about it. So unless attention is drawn to it, nothing’s going to change. So yeah. We’ve been begging people to write these stories for years.

Chris: [00:22:14] I mean, a lot of times they know that something’s a problem and they might even know it’s widespread, but their solution isn’t scalable or they don’t tap the right resources in a timely manner to deal with it.

And it kind of goes on the back burner. It only gets pushed to the front burner because there’s widespread awareness. I mean, I don’t think the larger buying public understands all these pain points of Amazon sellers. So it’ll be interesting to see the fruits of your labor and research. And after your hundredth conversation of the type that we have every hour of the day. How do people reach you? 

Moira: [00:22:47] Yeah. So the best way to contact me would probably just be by email. My work email is Moira, [email protected] . Yeah. If you’re interested in talking and also if you’re think you might be, but aren’t sure want to talk more about what it would involve. Uh, Please ping me. I am like all of us always online.  

Chris: [00:23:08] Yeah, we’ll include your email with the post and the email that goes out with this podcast episode. But once again, Moira Weigel, thank you so much for joining us and thanks everybody for listening. Any questions on her research or project or anything we’ve covered in the past episode, obviously reach out to us that ecommerceChris.

Hosts & Guests

Chris McCabe

Leah McHugh

Moira Weigel

 Resources

Data & Society

Contact Moira at [email protected] 

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