6 Aug 2018
Slime and Punishment: Why it's Time for a More Accountable Amazon
With two major toy scandals under its belt before the year was half-over, how long can the mighty Amazon, the world's number-one online store, emerge unscathed from the kind of furore that would surely sink any conventional retailer?
It's perhaps something of an understatement to say that the online purchase of toys has skyrocketed over recent years. In the US, back in 2011, online sales accounted for just 15% of the total toy market. By 2017, the corresponding figure was 40%. Nor does it seem that online sales have peaked, with some observers confidently predicting the figure will soon top 50%.
Amid all this, one player in particular has emerged as by far and away the dominant force in the global online sales arena – Amazon. Through a combination of direct sales via its proprietary Amazon.com platform and third-party vendor sales courtesy of Amazon Marketplace, this giant of the e-commerce sector has made itself the one truly indispensable retail partner for toy companies across the world.
However, as they say in the all the best Marvel licensed-character movies, with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, this is one area where Amazon, time and again, has been found to be notably wanting. Indeed, it has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to take responsibility for things that any other retailer would have no choice but to address – whether that be the glut of counterfeit products carried on its portal, its infamous large-scale tax-avoidance policy or just the grim and unrelenting working conditions many of its employees face on a day-to-day basis.
Of late, in the UK at least, Amazon has again found itself the subject of lurid headlines, with many calling its failure to comply with a number of toy industry safety regulations wholly unacceptable. This particular incident was spurred by a report by Which? magazine – a campaigning product-safety publication produced by the UK's Consumer Association – that found that many of the 'slime' products Amazon had for sale were in clear breach of EU safety regulations. More specifically, each of the offending products contained a far higher level of boron – a potentially toxic chemical element – than permitted under EU toy-safety standards.
The subsequent media frenzy was as unsurprising as it was misplaced. Rather unfairly, it was the toy industry as a whole that came under fire, with Which?'s Director of Research saying: "Parents will be shocked to find that the health of their children could be put at risk by this kind of slime. There must be fundamental changes to the product-safety system."
In this particular instance, though, the problem was not the slime. Nor was it the overall safety and compliance system. The problem was Amazon. Or, more specifically, the problem was Amazon Marketplace. Tellingly, all of the eight products that failed the Which? test were purchased via Amazon, while all the products stocked by conventional retailers passed the test.
Neither was it the first time Amazon has been caught selling unsafe products. In fact, it wasn't even the first time this year. Back in January, it was forced to stop selling several magnetic-putty products after tests showed they contained dangerously high levels of arsenic.
At the time, Amazon issued a bland non-apology, assuring customers it would remove the offending products from its site. Its 'sorry, not sorry' statement would perhaps carry more weight had exactly the same thing not happened just six months later. While, of course, things can slip through the net, to many, twice in six months seems beyond careless. Indeed, it more than suggests that there is no sufficiently rigorous process in place to stop the problem from recurring time and time again.
Merely removing the offending product, for many concerned consumers, was clearly a classic case of 'too little, too late'. It also begged one particular question – why were such clearly illegal products carried on its platform in the first place? Furthermore, does this mean there is no system in place to ensure the required safety certificates have been secured before any item goes up for sale?
In fact, the questions just keep coming. Why, when conventional high-street retailers would be fined a small fortune for such a breach, is Amazon seemingly exempt from any punitive measures whatsoever? How is it getting away without so much as a slap on the wrist, let alone the heavy fine it so richly deserves? Surely Amazon is shirking its duty of care by maintaining it bears no responsibility for its Marketplace vendors. At the very least, it should be morally responsible, as is any retailer when it comes to deficiencies in their stock. At the end of the day, pretending otherwise is nothing less than disingenuous.
Quite rightly, the toy industry's safety regulations are, arguably, tougher than those of any other consumer sector, obliging reputable suppliers and retailers to spend a small fortune on ensuring their compliance. All the while, many Amazon third-party vendors continue to ignore them free from any subsequent censure.
To further aggravate the issue, legitimate retailers and suppliers could now lose hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of sales as a result of parents across the UK mistakenly believing that there is a problem with all slime products, not just the dodgy ones Amazon saw fit to feature. Back in January, it was the same story with magnetic putty, with retailers having to try to convince their customers there was no problem with their particular stock.
While some have argued that the onus should be on the consumer to purchase only verified products, this is not a wholly reasonable expectation. How, indeed, are they to know if a vendor is a properly verified supplier with all the appropriate safety certificates or a rogue manufacturer working out of unlicensed premises in the depths of Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe?
It's an inescapable fact that some unscrupulous companies are listing untested products on Amazon Marketplace and then shipping direct, with Amazon looking the other way. It's a practice that clearly cannot be allowed to continue. It's time for the toy community to unite around one particular common goal – Amazon should be subject to exactly the same rules as all other retailers and face the same penalties when it manifestly fails to comply. It simply cannot be allowed to continually bring the toy industry into disrepute without having to face the consequences of its actions.
To be fair, Amazon is by no means the only culprit. A recent tweet from Isaac Larian, the Chief Executive of MGA Entertainment, the California-based toy giant, suggested that fakes can be found "in every mall in America and all around the world", going on to implicate Alibaba, Apple and even Chinese officials in the scandal.
For his part, Isaac has been fighting his own battle with TomTop, the Shenzhen-headquartered online marketplace. To his chagrin, even photographic evidence of the vendor's US operation caught red-handed trafficking in counterfeit merchandise related to L.O.L. Surprise – one of MGM's premium brands – was not sufficient to secure a conviction.
To complicate matters still further, it also appears that – despite what common sense would suggest – Amazon has the law on its side, with a recent ruling absolving it of any responsibility for the goods sold by individual vendors on its Marketplace platform. Given the apparent absurdity of such a verdict, it does raise concerns that the law is failing to keep up with the huge changes that have transformed the retail space in recent years.
With a legal challenge clearly required, there remains the issue as to just who has pockets deep enough to take Amazon on in court. Similarly, there is the question as to which UK parliamentarians would be brave enough – and have time enough – to embark on such a crusade, especially with Brexit consuming pretty much the entirety of UK governmental bandwidth.
Legality aside, it has been suggested by more than one media pundit that only a child suffering a serious injury (or worse) would force Amazon to properly address its moral responsibility, a development few would wish to come to pass. In terms of taking action, though, individual toy companies feel powerless, with many afraid of being singled out and bullied for adopting an unduly robust stance. The British Toy & Hobby Association, though, has started a dialogue with Amazon, as has the Toy Association in the US. Amazon, however, is nothing if not a slippery beast and few imagine that progress will be easy or quick.
That, though, should not deter the industry from making a collective stand. The online sphere is dangerously close to spiralling wholly out of control in so many areas and it's clear that an attempt needs to be made to rein in its worst excesses.
It could be that Amazon may be persuaded (or even legally obliged) to channel all transactions through its vendor scheme, giving it the facility to authenticate certifications and ensure regulatory compliance. While there are no easy answers, it's increasingly apparent that the current situation is wholly untenable. While many have yet to learn to live with the ever narrowed-margins occasioned by Amazon's keen pricing policy, no one in the toy sector is prepared to idly sit by while the e-commerce giant wreaks irreparable damage to the reputation of an entire industry, one that stands to lose so much if the trust of consumers continues to be eroded.
John Baulch is the Publisher of Toy World,
the UK's leading toys and games trade publication