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How Amazon’s counterfeit problem reached a bird feeder manufacturer in Rhode Island
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In 2016, Trisha Torres, vice president of a small Rhode Island-based company, received a phone call from a customer.
Her company, Aspects, makes bird feeders, and this customer had bought what Amazon had listed as an “Aspects” hummingbird feeder.
“It’s a clear bowl that holds the nectar for the hummingbirds to feed from, and then there’s a red cover that kind of just snaps on the top,” Torres said. “And what happened was it just was not snapping on.”
Aspects products come with a lifetime guarantee. Torres told the customer to send the feeder back. She then sent it to her supplier in Massachusetts, who called Torres the following day.
“They came back to us with: ‘We didn’t make this,’” Torres said.
The hummingbird feeder was a fake, albeit a convincing one. It even had her company’s name and phone number on it.
“A lot of sleepless nights started with that phone call, saying: ‘how did this happen?’” she said. “And, ‘What do we do now?’”
Torres checked Amazon and realized there were a lot more fakes. She ordered some and could see the giveaways: a word spelled wrong, faded packaging. But customers would never know the difference — until the product started to fall apart.
When we think of Amazon, “we have in our minds the image of a giant warehouse, from which initially, books, and later everything we could possibly want in life, flows to us directly,” said Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University.
“But, in fact, any number of sellers are selling products on Amazon that Amazon never touches, has no control over.”
Even when these products are delivered by Amazon, the retailer doesn’t detect that they are fake.
Torres tried to figure out what to do next. Aspects has been in business for 40 years, and it holds multiple trademarks and patents.
She called in the company’s patent lawyer. Aspects went on to pay nearly $10,000 to file its existing trademarks in the databases for U.S. and Chinese customs.
A couple of months later, officials blocked a container of 3,800 counterfeit Aspects products headed from China to an address in the Bronx. Then another container.
Even so, Aspects kept getting phone calls from disgruntled Amazon customers who thought they had bought its products. They would complain, for instance, that the suction cups on their bird feeders stopped sticking.
“People will just be like: ‘Well, just send me the suction cup, just send me the suction cups,’” Torres said. “And I’m like: ‘OK, we can, but the problem is I’m replacing parts, now, for a product that I didn’t manufacture.’ You know, it’s like a snowball effect.”
Aspects’ customers service representatives would tell callers that the company didn’t make the product and that they should return it to Amazon. That didn’t go over well.
“Their knee-jerk reaction was that we were just being dishonest and not standing behind that lifetime guarantee,” Torres said.
Torres says the ordeal has done irreparable damage to Aspects’ reputation. She estimates that her company has lost about $1.5 million in sales to counterfeits on Amazon over the past few years — roughly 4% of its revenue in the same period.
The company has asked Amazon to intervene, Torres said, and the retail platform does take down listings of counterfeit products. But, she said, it’s a game of whack-a-mole.
“Joe Bad Guy can already have started another storefront by the next day,” she said.
Amazon declined an interview but said in a statement that it blocked more than three billion suspected “bad listings” from its site last year.
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