Last month, US federal authorities indicted six e-commerce consultants and former Amazon employees in a $100 million bribery scheme in which insiders allegedly accepted payments to help certain Amazon merchants on the platform and hurt others. In the close-knit world of top Amazon sellers and consultants, this was big news. But it was not a surprise. Rumors of such behavior are common in industry circles, and Amazon itself admitted in 2018 that it was investigating employees for reportedly leaking internal marketplace data to outsiders in exchange for cash.
In the weeks since the indictments, a half dozen top-earning Amazon sellers told Recode that the consultants and former employees indicted should face the legal consequences if they broke the law. But these same top sellers also argued that the problem is much bigger than a few bad apples and that Amazon deserves scrutiny for creating the fertile ground for bribery schemes to blossom. The reason? Amazon’s inability or refusal to consistently offer adequate support to its 1.7 million sellers when they have issues, especially when it comes to suspensions that Amazon hands down with little explanation and sometimes no warning. On top of these issues, it’s not uncommon for sellers to languish in Amazon purgatory for weeks or months trying to reinstate their business, either on their own or with the help of an ecosystem of consultants — some of whom prey on merchants’ desperation.
“With Amazon, you are guilty until proven innocent,” said Eytan Wiener, the co-founder and chief operating officer of the large Amazon seller Quantum Networks, who was once suspended by Amazon in the UK and has helped other suspended sellers in the US.
This reality — that Amazon sellers can have their livelihood snatched from them at any time — can benefit Amazon, too. The company introduced a premium seller program in 2018 that charges thousands of dollars a month to assign a dedicated Amazon representative that a seller can easily contact. While these reps do not oversee account suspensions and can’t directly reinstate a merchant, some large Amazon sellers pay the fee mainly so they have a person they can get on the phone in the event of a suspension or other severe penalty.
Amazon often boasts that the small and mid-sized merchants who help stock the virtual shelves of The Everything Store account for 60 percent of the company’s e-commerce sales worldwide. It has emphasized this as the company’s treatment of its sellers has come under scrutiny in the past few years, most recently during Jeff Bezos’s congressional testimony in July and in the wake of a House antitrust investigation report that followed. The tech giant has certainly created an efficient way for small merchants to build global e-commerce businesses with small teams and little overhead in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago. At the same time, as Amazon has aggressively recruited more sellers to its platform, it has been plagued by complaints about the support it offers them — most notably, the company’s penchant for suspending sellers from doing business on the site with no warning and nary an explanation.
This was the situation that Jacqueline Tatelman, the co-founder of the backpack brand State Bags, faced earlier this year. Her startup brand does most of its business through its own website but decided to start selling on Amazon earlier this year in order to expand its online presence before the back-to-school shopping season this fall. The company’s plans were delayed when the pandemic hit the US in March and Amazon prioritized essential goods in its warehouses. Then, as the company prepared to finally start selling on the platform in May, a shocking email from Amazon landed in its inbox:
“We have discovered information that indicates your Amazon seller account has engaged in deceptive, fraudulent, or illegal activity. … As a result, we have closed your Amazon seller account to prevent harm to our customers, other selling partners, and our store.”
The email ended by saying that the brand should email Amazon if they thought the decision was an error. And State Bags did, repeatedly. The only thing that had changed between the time the company set up its Amazon storefront and when it received the suspension notice was a change of the business credit card on file, which was information Amazon had requested.
Amazon responded once more with a generic note saying that an internal case had been opened. Then silence, for months. No reason given, and no updates, as State Bags inventory with a retail value of $60,000 sat unsold in Amazon warehouses, with no guidance from the tech giant on if or how the brand could get the inventory out.
“It’s not ethically okay to do these things to these small brands who are in the middle of the ocean, in a storm, with a tiny boat and a broken paddle,” Tatelman told Recode. “That’s how small brands feel.”
After Recode notified Amazon of the State Bags suspension, Amazon spokesperson Cecilia Fan said the company would reach out to the brand “to address their concerns.” A day later, Amazon granted State Bags access to its storefront for the first time since May.
And the State Bags story is not a one-off. Talk to any Amazon seller that does significant business on the site and there’s a good chance they have a similar tale or know a peer who does. Just this August, a LinkedIn post detailing a similar suspension problem that was written by the founder of a car dashboard camera retailer was widely read in the Amazon seller community. Titled “Please Help! An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos, Amazon Leadership, and the Seller Performance Team,” it described how Amazon had suspended the seller out of nowhere and for six months had claimed that the seller forged documentation. Two days after the president of The Dashcam Store, Andrew Aboudaoud, posted the cautionary tale, Amazon reinstated his selling account with a boilerplate email. No explanation or apology was given.
“The way Amazon currently handles their relationships with third-party sellers is fundamentally broken (in a variety of ways),” Aboudaoud wrote in a message to Recode, “although it does appear Amazon is slowly taking steps to overhaul this system.”
Fan, the Amazon spokesperson, emailed Recode a statement that read in part: “Amazon’s Selling Partner Support team handled more than 51 million contacts from selling partners in 2019, and we strive to respond to and resolve every contact expeditiously.”
“Selling Partner Support responded to more than 90% of emails in under 12 hours; answered more than 96% of phone calls in under 90 seconds; answered more than 90% of chats in under 90 seconds; and fully resolved more than 85% of all seller issues in under 24 hours,” the statement added. Using that 85% figure, if every one of Amazon’s 1.7 million sellers has an issue at one point, that still means 255,000 of them — or 15% — could have to wait more than 24 hours for a resolution. I’ve been interviewing Amazon sellers for years, and it’s not uncommon for these cases to remain unresolved for weeks, if not months.
Amazon sellers acknowledge that scaling seller support at Amazon’s size is a challenge, and some say the seller support experience has gotten modestly better in recent years.
“They’ve done better and are a bit more explanatory, but still have a long way to go,” Wiener, of the Amazon seller Quantum Networks, told Recode. “But they should get some credit for what they’ve done because it’s a very hard task.”
Still, sellers argue that Amazon’s platform is so big, even a few percentage points of cases that slip through the cracks or are the result of technical errors can wreck many small businesses and the lives of the people who run and work for affected merchants.
Some sellers have turned to the paid seller support program that Amazon offers as a type of insurance against unexpected problems. Amazon charges a monthly fee of between $1,600 and $5,000 for the program, depending on the size of the seller’s business. Fan, the Amazon spokesperson, said the optional paid program provides sellers with “business guidance on topics such as inventory management, merchandising, and global expansion,” but “does not provide expedited account resolution” when Amazon suspends an account or takes other serious action against a merchant.
Sellers who use the program or are familiar with it agreed that the paid internal Amazon reps do not directly resolve suspensions or other major account issues. But these sellers said many merchants pay the fee simply so they have a specific person they can get on the phone to point them in the right direction when something big goes wrong.
“They’ve set up the exact same business model as Tony Soprano: pay us to help protect you … from us,” said one Amazon merchant whose business sells more than $10 million of goods annually on Amazon. “It’s messed up.”
This seller doesn’t pay for the program today but said he probably would in the near future as he hears more firsthand stories of merchants getting penalized or shut down for reasons they say are unfair or unclear. Referencing one claim in the recent indictment of Amazon consultants, which alleged a large cash bribe delivered via an Uber, the seller added:
“If my business got shut down overnight and I could send $100,000 in an Uber to fix it, I’m probably not going to do it but I’m certainly going to consider it.”
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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year
Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.
Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.
So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.
Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.
Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)
During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.
Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)
Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.
Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)
Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.
Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)
This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.
Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)
If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.
Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)
With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.
Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)
The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.
Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)
Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.
Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.
The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.
The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.
The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.
Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)
We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.
Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)
The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.
Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)
The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.
Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)
Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.
Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)
Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.
Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.
Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)
With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.
Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)
Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.
Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)
The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.
Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)
The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.
In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.
Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.
It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.
Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.
Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.
Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.
The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”
At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.
On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.
From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.
“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.
The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.
Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.
Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.
Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
Calls for urgent reduction of violence
Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.
Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.
There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.
1/4 I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.
But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.
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