Some junk for sale on Amazon is very literally garbage, report finds

Some days it seems like searching for an item on Amazon just brings up endless pages of junk with no clear pattern. There’s a reason for that, it turns out: dumpster divers are, in fact, literally reselling discarded junk.

Resellers hunt through trash to find and repair treasures, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

Those sellers, for understandable reasons, mostly didn’t want to talk to the WSJ, so reporters for the paper tried it themselves.

Writers went digging through the trash in New Jersey and came up with dozens of items to sell, such as “a stencil set, scrapbook paper, and a sealed jar of Trader Joe’s lemon curd.” Setting up a storefront and listing the items for sale was “easy,” the WSJ said.

Amazon’s screening process seemed to be haphazard, the paper added:

After a later dumpster dive, the Journal was able to go through almost all of the listing process with salvaged breath mints, sunflower seeds, marmalade, crispbread, fig fruit butter, olives, a headband and a Halloween mask—stopping just short of shipping them to the Amazon warehouse, which is required for an item to appear for purchase on the site.

To list a sunscreen lotion, Amazon asked for a safety-data sheet. Attempts to list a protein powder, a pea-powder dietary supplement and a face sheet mask—all from the dive—elicited a request from Amazon for proof of purchase.

Nothing in Amazon’s rules prevented “salvaged” items from being resold, at the time. The policies do require that most goods be new, but the rules also allow for certain product categories to be sold used, including books and electronics, as long as those listings are clear about those items being used.

Amazon updated its seller policies after the WSJ contacted the company about this story to include a prohibition on items “intended for destruction or disposal or otherwise designated as unsellable by the manufacturer or a supplier, vendor, or retailer.”

“Sellers are responsible for meeting Amazon’s high bar for product quality,” a company spokesperson told the WSJ, adding that the company was investigating and such stores were “isolated incidents.”

Not so high a bar

The Amazon sellers who find and repair or clean and sell usable goods from the trash are not a new phenomenon. Any flea market, secondhand shop, or closeout store features “found” items, some of which genuinely are surprisingly high-quality, like-new finds. These sellers are just taking the business model online.

But consumer expectations at a flea market are very different from consumer expectations at Amazon. Most shoppers are going to expect that an item “fulfilled by Amazon” (as many third-party items are) is delivered by an Amazon Prime-branded van, dispatched from an Amazon warehouse, and actually new—especially when it’s described that way on a product page.

Amazon consumers, though, are increasingly having to get used to shopping at their own risk. Counterfeit items, especially imported ones, are rampant on the site, as are listings for recalled, unsafe, or defective goods.

The WSJ analyzed about 45,000 shopper comments left on product listings in 2018 and 2019 and found 8,400 comments on 4,300 food, makeup, and over-the-counter drug items making reference to “unsealed, expired, moldy, unnaturally sticky, or problematic” goods. Of those 4,300 products, 544 had “Amazon’s Choice” flags promoting them to consumers in search results.

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