This is a story about a problem at Amazon. It's about something that people don't want to admit, and what it could do to Amazon if it ever truly got out of hand.

Meet Kevin Williams and Glenn Archer. They were on Shark Tank a while back. While they didn't get a deal, their product--the Brush Hero hose attachment--became hugely popular.

Great news, right? Unfortunately, it also attracted knock offs--blatant counterfeiters, as my colleague Jeff Bercovici recounted recently--who started selling wildly inferior copies of their brand on Amazon.

That led to a slew of 1-star reviews, and nearly existential problems for their startup. (A key giveaway: the real Brush Hero products were assembled in Utah; the knockoffs came from China.)

It's not an isolated case. In fact, Amazon acknowledged it has a counterfeiting problem in an earnings report earlier this month. And it's no fun from the customer's side either.

My former coworker Deborah Copaken, who now writes for The Atlantic, shared a similar story in January. Last year, she had her eye on a new winter coat: a pricey but highly rated option by Canada Goose, but it was sold out everywhere.

Then, she found a listing on Amazon, and ponied up something like $925. As she recounted, things went awry:

I got the confirmation email with the tracking information. My new Canada Goose coat was on its way from Singapore, by way of Hong Kong. Wait, what? Wasn't the whole point that the coats were made in Canada

...

When the coat arrived, it was army green instead of the forest green I had ordered. It was heavy, not lightweight. It didn't fit. It smelled of chemicals. And the white Canada Goose patch? It looked off...

Sure enough, knock off. 

So, what's Amazon doing about it? The big news yesterday was that the company announced Project Zero, a pilot program that for the first time lets Amazon sellers flag and even remove counterfeits.

It seems promising. If anyone has incentive to flag this stuff, it's the brands whose products are being ripped off. But will it be enough? Time will tell.

I'm old enough to remember the days when Amazon and other online retailers were just starting out. Some people were skeptical. Iif you can't see and touch what you're buying beforehand, they said, how can you trust it?

Now, we think we're past that. Maybe we are.

And maybe you're reading this and thinking: Weird, I've never bought a product online and had it turn out to be a knockoff.

But then again, maybe you just don't know.

And maybe, if it gets out of hand, it will turn into a real problem.

Here's what else I'm reading today:

Published on: Mar 1, 2019
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