Updated on September 8, 2017
When it comes to convenience and low prices, it doesn’t get much better than Amazon. Like many other shoppers, I shell out the $100 per year for a Prime membership, because once you’ve had free two-day shipping, anything longer is an agonizing wait.
I really like what Amazon has done in some areas of e-commerce. The retail giant has been a gamechanger, and its product selection is unmatched. But that massive product selection is a double-edged sword.
When you let almost everyone sell their products on your site, of course the quality of these products will go down and there’s a higher risk of counterfeiters. That has been the case with Amazon, and it’s starting to seem like every other item is some cheap Chinese knockoff.
Now, that’s not a big deal for many types of products. If a customer gets a t-shirt from China or somewhere else and the quality turns out to be terrible, it’s not the end of the world. They can probably get a refund, anyway.
But for gun enthusiasts like myself, Amazon’s lack of quality control is a serious problem. If I buy eye and ear protection for shooting, I need to know that it’s going to do its job. Otherwise, it could have lifechanging consequences.
How much of an issue is this, and how much risk is there in getting shooting equipment on Amazon? First, it’s important to understand how Amazon sells products and why the number of low-quality products is growing.
Even if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you’re probably still familiar with shopping on Amazon. But if you haven’t sold products there or read about how that works, you may not know the ins and outs of selling on Amazon.
Amazon is part retailer, part marketplace. It has its own inventory of products that it sells on its site, but it also allows third parties, including individuals and companies, to sell their own products or existing products. Let’s say that you have a new pair of headphones you want to sell on Amazon. If these headphones are on Amazon, you would sell them through its current product page. If they aren’t, you would need to create a new product page.
You don’t need to ship anything to your customers, either. Amazon also offers a Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA) program, which allows sellers to send their inventory to Amazon’s warehouses before they’ve sold anything. Your products then qualify for Prime shipping and Amazon ships them out every time a customer makes a purchase.
This is all good in theory, but here’s what ends up happening – Chinese manufacturers undercut everyone with cheaper, lower-quality products. Many American Amazon sellers source their products from China, and Amazon itself registered with the Federal Maritime Commission so that Chinese companies can send goods by sea to Amazon’s warehouses here in the United States.
It can happen with any product. One Amazon seller, Jamie Whaley, patented a product called BedBand and sold it on Amazon for $13.99 per set. In 2013, business was booming. Two years later, many Chinese manufacturers had their own cheaper versions of her product, and they racked up scores of inauthentic reviews to outrank her in the search results.
That’s a big blow to the seller’s revenue, and Whaley is far from the only seller to have this happen. The proliferation of cheap Chinese goods isn’t just a problem for sellers, though. There’s also the possibility of a customer purchasing counterfeit goods.
There have been Facebook groups with hundreds of Amazon sellers reporting that their own products and deigns were copied by other sellers and sold at much lower costs. To customers, these products seem completely legitimate, especially when they’re part of Amazon’s FBA program.
If a customer notifies Amazon that a seller sent them a counterfeit product, Amazon can ban the seller, but the company isn’t actively policing its listings to find counterfeit products. Its system is entirely reactive, not proactive, and that can be hazardous to its customers.
The most recent example of how dangerous counterfeits can be on Amazon came with the August 21 solar eclipse. The experts warned us all to avoid staring directly at it without wearing a special pair of solar eclipse glasses, and of course, Amazon was selling plenty of those.
The problem was that only glasses certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) were safe to wear. Many of the options listed on Amazon as “solar eclipse glasses” didn’t have this certification. And even among those that didn’t, some sellers listed their glasses as “ISO-certified” anyway.
On August 10, Amazon emailed any customers who purchased potentially unsafe solar eclipse glasses to warn them and offer refunds. It also ended up blocking any sellers of solar eclipse glasses that weren’t on an approved list.
But again, this was solely a reactionary measure, and by that time there had already been plenty of orders for potentially unsafe glasses. One couple claims that they used solar eclipse glasses purchased from Amazon and have dealt with headaches and vision issues after the eclipse. They said they never received an email warning them not to use their glasses, and because of what happened, they’ve filed a class-action lawsuit.
The solar eclipse was a major event with plenty of media attention, which is one reason that Amazon was able to provide at least some notice regarding counterfeit glasses. What if you’re purchasing everyday products that need to be up to a certain standard, though?
No gun range will let you shoot without your eyes and ears. You need eye protection, either with goggles or glasses, in case a shell casing or anything else comes flying towards your eye while you’re shooting. You need ear protection to prevent hearing loss, which can occur from the noise of just one gunshot.
You can get eye and ear protection shipped right to your door with Amazon, but just like with those solar eclipse glasses, there’s the possibility that you’re getting products that aren’t up to snuff.
When it comes to ear protection, ear muffs that provide the proper level of protection for shooters must be certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Many of the ear muffs on Amazon don’t have an ANSI certification. Even if you find ear muffs that say “ANSI-certified,” that may not be accurate. Remember, there were sellers slapping “ISO-certified” on solar eclipse glasses even though it wasn’t true.
Laura Harvsey confirmed this issue with her research, and stated “There are many ear protection products marketed to shooters on Amazon that have no ANSI certifications, and in some cases, sellers stamp on illegitimate certifications to deceive customers.”
Eye protection for shooters must meet ANSI and ISO requirements for certification, and this is another area where the products on Amazon fall short. For civilian shooting glasses like these, the eyewear must be compliant with ANSI Z87.1 high impact and ANSI/ISEA Z87.1 industrial safety standards. Military glasses must meet even stricter requirements, and only those that can do that end up on the Authorized Protective Eyewear List (APEL).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a marking system for ballistic eyewear, which makes it difficult to separate the legit eyewear from the knockoffs.
This isn’t to say that all the shooting-related products on Amazon are bad. There is effective eye and ear protection available. No matter what you’re shopping for on Amazon, you should know how to spot counterfeit products, low-quality knockoffs and biased reviews.
The first thing you should do is research the seller before you buy a product. A quick search can often tell you all you need to know. Is this seller only using Amazon? This is far more common with sellers who only offer cheap, low-quality products. When you can find a website for the seller or, even better, an actual brick-and-mortar store, it’s far more likely that they care about the quality of their products.
When it comes to reviews, it’s tough to tell who actually liked a product and who got paid to write a fake review. Companies often pay customers to write positive reviews, or they’ll even set up dummy accounts, purchase their own products and write positive reviews themselves. With that method, all those reviews will also be verified, which means they look more trustworthy because they show that the customer really purchased the product.
The easiest and quickest option is plugging the Amazon product into Fakespot. The site conducts an analysis of the product’s reviews and provides its opinion on the validity of those reviews.
I’m not looking to scare anyone away from Amazon, and there are plenty of products you can buy there without worrying about counterfeits, such as books and movies.
However, when it comes to any type of safety products, make sure you do your homework. It’s not worth getting the best deal on a pair of ear muffs if you end up with permanent hearing loss. Research the seller before you get any shooting safety products on Amazon, and when in doubt, go with a product that has a certification you can verify.