Why Vendor Central Account Invites in 2018 Are Few and Far Between

Lance Judd

Almost five years ago today, I wrote the (now infamous) “How Can My Company Secure a Vendor Central Invitation from Amazon?” article that you’ve likely seen archived here at Zanoma.com. Oh my, what a simple time it was way back then. Mostly kidding, but it is worth noting that just a few years ago, the process of obtaining an official vendor invite was much less of an ordeal.

While we try our best to be forward-looking here at Zanoma, it is worthwhile to reconsider some of the key elements of that earlier missive and to compare with the vendor landscape today, in the dog days of 2018.

When I penned (or more accurately “keyed”) that earlier article, Amazon was still in a massive land grab and many of the product categories were still actively in vendor and brand recruitment mode. At that time, Amazon Vendor Manager (VMs) often to referred to as “buyers” by outsiders, were encouraged to add as many SKUs and brands to the various categories and sub-categories as possible.

While Amazon was in that build-out phase, it was really a sink or swim formula for vendors. The sad truth is that many vendors went under quicker than the Titanic. Perhaps it was that sinking experience, multiplied by thousands of vendors and over several years, that encouraged the eventual development and 2015 launch of Amazon’s short-lived Vendor Express platform (which we considered to be sort of a Vendor Central Light).

While Vendor Express never really gained mass adoption, it was at the very least a place for manufacturers to begin their presence on Amazon while still adhering to the classic wholesale, direct model. In some respects, Vendor Express was like baseball’s minor league and the conventional thinking was that a brand who was able to prove their worth and create momentum on Express, could hope and dream that one day, they might be called up to the proverbial “big leagues” of Vendor Central.

Sadly, the build-it-and-they-will-come promise of Vendor Express failed to materialize and early in 2018 (March 19th to be precise) Amazon notified all sellers on the Express platform that they had “decided to retire Vendor Express in an effort to refocus the business toward other selling tools.”

As one could imagine, this news was not positive for the untold numbers of Vendor Express sellers. When the news broke, the sheer number of leads and interested visitors to our website at Zanoma went completely off the Richter scale, largely in thanks to our SEO team for their work in getting our 2013 article to rank on Google for the keyword phrase “vendor central invite.” Our collective inboxes were overwhelmed with panicked Vendor Express sellers bemoaning the fact that they were, and I quote: “being left high and dry.”

Again, and through the not-so-rose-colored lenses of time, obtaining a Vendor Central invite even just a few years ago, was not nearly the ordeal that it’s become now, in this post-Vendor Express world. And in case it’s not obvious, Vendor Express was never a top-shelf, premium experience for new vendors. Among the many complaints were slow or no payments from Amazon, significant lack of control with respect to pricing (both wholesale and retail) and virtually no oversight presence for inventory management or demand forecasting.

On top of this laundry list of complaints, is perhaps the most pervasive Amazon vendor concern we hear, “There is no human…no one that I can actually talk to on the phone at Amazon.” If we had a nickel for every time that we’ve heard that one, we’d have, well…. several thousand nickels. But having a human Amazonian to vent to or escalate concerns is not the focus of this article. Suffice it to say, human-to-vendor contact has never been Amazon’s goal, so while we can sympathize and commiserate, we try not to dwell on the areas when or where Amazon communication (or lack thereof) falls down flat, in fact, Amazon’s mysterious ways have provided our team with an enduring business model. In other words, if it were easy to support vendors, everyone would be doing it.

But I digress, obtaining a Vendor Central invite used to be a pretty straight-forward process. We’d essentially work with our vendor management contacts in Seattle to sort of help qualify the brand and then, assuming the brand in question checked the right boxes, we’d step out of the way so that the basic terms and deal points could be ironed out. We enjoyed a very good closing percentage and so when that article was written, way back in 2013, we were coming from a strong position of experience.

But as hinted in the title of this article, times have changed. Not only was the launch of Vendor Express a tactic by Amazon to curb or slow the invite requests, but it was also (no doubt) a laboratory experiment. When Amazon pulled the rug out from Vendor Express, they made it clear to impacted sellers that their only options for selling were Seller Central, or not at all.

Please don’t misunderstand us on this point, we’ve long been proponents of Seller Central, in fact, we see a great deal of upside in the “hybrid model” which leverages the best of both Vendor and Seller Central. The key challenge today is that the vast majority of new brands not already part of the Vendor Central landscape are being funneled or relegated to Seller Central first or only. At the time of this update, we were still waiting for any semblance of an “official” Amazon position on how/if new Vendor Central invites are being generated and if new invites are being created, what criteria factors in Amazon’s calculations to invite or not to invite.

Here’s what we do know:

    • Amazon (shocker!) is attempting to automate the vetting process
    • Prospective new vendor accounts are sorted by category
    • Having a warehouse in the US appears to be important
    • Registered trademarks are also important
    • Here’s the kicker, Amazon wants the “Email ID” used to register the brand with Amazon’s Brand Registry

Given that Seller Central is (for most brands) the gateway into Brand Registry, the fifth point above would suggest that account-level data analysis is likely a key part of this new and much more-automated process. Now, don’t read too much into this. We’re not trying to jump-start any conspiracy theories here, but it would stand to reason that Amazon would not want any new un-tested, or un-documented-without-sales-data brands taking up space on their platform. This is likely, even more, the case now that the “land grab” phase of Amazon’s global domination plan has largely been completed in the vast majority of product categories.

Since we wanted to put that theory to test, we dug deeper and got in touch with an Amazon Vendor Onboarding Specialist, who would neither confirm nor deny our potentially far-fetched ideas on how Amazon treats this whole question of who to invite. But we did learn several key points…

We were essentially told that Amazon’s team needs to verify several details related to the business operations of the prospective vendor. Of course, that makes perfect sense. However, included in that list of questions, most of which revolve around the primary point of contact, are a few that jump out at you. Here’s a quick sample of the pre-screening questions we’re referring to:

    • Do you have a warehouse in the US?
    • Does your brand have a registered US trademark that is eligible for the Amazon Brand Registry program?
    • What is your Amazon Brand-registered email ID?
    • What is your United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark number?
    • Do you have a US-based bank account?

So, in a nutshell, we can logically and without too much of a stretch, make the following assertions.

    • New-to-the-Amazon-platform vendors are out of luck if they ONLY want or are seeking a Vendor Central invite.
    • Brands need to have their legal patent and trademark game completely dialed-in. Intellectual property attorneys are not especially affordable, so a significant investment in that area should be a key component in any brand’s plans for an Amazon play that revolves around first-party retail direct, or Vendor Central.
    • If you’re a “shell” company or if you’re based outside of the United States, you’ll need to have a US third-party logistics partner in place and of course, a financial relationship in which you can easily document and prove the requisite details of your US-based bank account.

While most of these not-so-bold “assertions” on our part, do not constitute any wild or completely insurmountable obstacles for a brand with resources, they do present several challenges to those smaller brands just getting started. Also, brands that maybe, shall we say, just wanted to test the waters on Amazon, will need to consider another route. That other route…is, yes, you guessed it, Seller Central.

While many of those reading this article may indeed have a Seller Central account in place, we suspect that most brands and manufacturers do not have a 3P account in place. We respectfully ask, why not? The benefits of Seller Central compared to Vendor Central have been shared in many places, even here on our website.

The upside of Seller Central is that not only can you begin selling on Amazon relatively quickly and without a huge financial investment, but it also gets you and your brand acquainted with the mysterious ways in which Amazon operates. While you’re trucking along and taking notes (and selling lots of products) in your Seller Central account, you can also begin to create the infrastructure and foundation that Amazon is clearly seeking and as evidenced in their impressive list of vendor pre-screening questions. Yes, we’re talking about the warehouse, the trademarks, the brand registry and of course the bank.

Here at Zanoma, we go through a deep dive, super-involved and some might say “exhaustive” discovery process when we embark on a new client relationship. We realize that every business, every product category, and even every product sub-category is unique, so we try to never assume anything. We ask a LOT of questions and we carefully listen to the answers, before we prescribe any solutions or suggest a strategy. While we certainly understand the pull of Amazon and the desire for brands to get on board with Vendor Central, we would also caution against a stubborn or inflexible philosophy with anything Amazon-related. There is so much potential, and so much upside regardless of the sales platform.

We’re advocates of using any and all elements of leverage that Amazon provides (sales, reviews, operational proficiency, the list goes on…and of course as Bing Crosby once sang, the key is to “accentuate the positive”) so with that said, we encourage clients to embrace Seller Central first and to consistently deliver all of the effort and hard work to create the sales and customer-demand cornerstones that will eventually lead to and/or create a persuasive case to the Amazon Vendor Onboarding Specialist. Since it’s that person, who at some point, will be tasked with not only reviewing your “application packet” and materials, but he or she may also and ultimately have the power to recommend a new invite for Vendor Central.

If you have more questions or you’re still a bit confused, no worries. Our team here at Zanoma is always happy to help! As noted above, we’ll have a LOT of questions, to begin with, but once we’re through the often awkward, but always educational “getting to know you phase” you can rest assured that the team at Zanoma will be a valuable resource. Our team has vast experience helping brands, retailers, and private label manufacturers succeed on Amazon, and on both Vendor Central and Seller Central.

Please visit our website for more details about the work we do, who we are, who we are working with and/or to learn more Amazon Vendor Central and Amazon Seller Central.

Thanks for your time reading this article, we hope you found it informative! If you have specific questions or would like to see a deep-dive on other Amazon-related topics for a future blog, please contact us today.

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