Disruption for Sellers Who Use Amazon Repricing Tools
By Kenneth Corbin
With no fanfare or warning, Amazon in June began enforcing a long-standing policy prohibiting screen-scraping tools from harvesting listing information directly from its marketplace, a favorite tool for providers of repricing services for merchants, according to a third-party developer.
Amazon also apparently began shutting down access to the Product Advertising API (PAAPI) for some third-party marketplace services that had been using the tool to reprice listings on Amazon's own pages.
"The guys who were affiliates, they (were) allowed to keep using it," said Clark Hale, vice president of strategic relationships at ecommerce services provider Monsoon Commerce. "Folks that were flagged as third-party integrators were no longer allowed to use the PAAPI."
The abruptness of that crackdown created significant alarm among sellers, adding to the confusion surrounding Amazon's impending transition to its Marketplace Web Service (MWS) API at the end of August.
"It played out practically that Amazon would randomly dial way back on throttling for certain requests, and people would find that their products just didn't work," said Zee Mehler, chief marketing officer at Appeagle, a provider of repricing software. "Random Tuesday and my repricer didn't work. Random Tuesday and their inventory management didn't work."
Amazon declined repeated requests for comment for this story.
Appeagle, which experienced a glitch earlier this month associated with its transition to the new MWS API, said it was unaffected by Amazon's June enforcement activities. But Appeagle does not use a scraping tool, Mehler explained.
The new MWS API will soon be the only option for sellers and third-party services once the Product Advertising, SOAP and AIM APIs are discontinued Aug. 31.
Hale said that Monsoon was also not affected by Amazon's June enforcement activities, adding that he said he was unaware that Amazon had been targeting screen scrapers as well as third-party services using the Product Advertising API. He said that Monsoon, which does not use a screen scraper, had completed its transition to the MWS API earlier this year, and thus avoided any service disruptions last month.
"The Product Advertising API was always intended to be used by affiliates," Hale said, describing the June enforcement as a "hard stop" for third-party services using the tool to adjust prices on Amazon's marketplace.
Mehler acknowledged that repricing services are "a bit of a clandestine industry," and that scraping tools are commonplace. He related an internal estimate from Amazon, which declined to comment for this story, that 90 percent of the traffic on the site's listings pages comes from scrapers.
According to Appeagle, Amazon is primarily interested in cracking down on the offending tools, rather than waging war on the repricing sector at large. "There's this fear that Amazon has some kind of fear about the repricing industry. That's not true," Mehler said.
"We drive sales and Amazon loves us for it. But you have to work within their terms of service, and so many of the repricing tools out there don't," he added.
MWS Well Received But Lacks Certain Repricing Features
As for the new MWS API, Mehler and Hale both see it as a positive step forward, once Amazon finishes building out its features. Mehler acknowledged that Amazon's first consolidated set of APIs is "underpowered at the moment" and "needs further development," but that it will ultimately provide for a tighter integration for third-party marketplace services that adhere to Amazon's terms.
"MWS Products API is very, very different from the PAAPI API in terms of the calls, in terms of the data it provides," Hale said. "The response is a lot more predictable."
A third developer, Paul Das, founder of ChannelMax.net, was more blunt. "MWS Products API is pretty robust and sellers will not miss it, except critical price points along with the missing seller names and their stock." He said Amazon has been very receptive to feedback, "but at this current stage of the API, the change-management will not be easy for us."
He said, "As a developer, with reduced information, it will be challenging to embed desired intelligence into pricing management, and as a seller, it will be hard to get into the mindsets of the buyers easily. I would like to believe that Amazon would appreciate our concern sooner or later with positive/constructive feedback from developer as well as seller community. We need to request Amazon that there should be no information gap between sellers and buyers, a catalyst for an efficient marketplace."
One notable feature that will drop off is the featured seller application, which has enabled merchants to calibrate their pricing strategy to target a single competitor.
"Amazon believes that is a legal violation," Mehler said. "They don't want you singling out individual merchants."
Additionally, Amazon will be capping the frequency of requests that can be issued through the API. Appeagle offers a continuous repricing service that updates sellers' listings every 15 minutes, which raised the concern that longer intervals between API calls could undermine the timeliness of that service. Appeagle representatives met with Amazon to discuss the issue, and Mehler said that they came away with a technical workaround that should preserve the existing service standard.
Ultimately, Mehler sees the new MWS API and strengthened enforcement of the prohibition of screen-scraping tools as a sign of a maturing market in the repricing sector, a sort of taming of the Wild West that has characterized Amazon's marketplace to date.
"The Product API was terrifically abused. And they know it. Amazon knows it," he said. "Their goal is not to dial back. Their goal was to create a better product for third-party tools."
"There's a tremendous amount of flux right now," he added. "I think that there's a lot of unnecessary anxiety among ecommerce merchants as a result."
See also, Amazon Asks FBA Sellers and Developers to Migrate to MWS from September 30, 2011.
About the Authors
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects for more than four years, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here .
EcommerceBytes Editor Ina Steiner contributed to this story.
About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
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