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Source: Amazon

Amazon has been accused of making “a complete and utter shambles” of implementing HFSS regulations across its website, which has left many compliant brands unable to boost their products in searches and category pages.

Amazon’s efforts to meet the new rules, which came into force earlier this month, was likened by one brand to “taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut”.

The regulations restrict the placement of HFSS products online, meaning they cannot be promoted on the homepage of websites, appear under searches for non-HFSS items or as recommended basket additions.

To comply, Amazon has moved to suspend all additional promotional activity across swathes of grocery categories, including compliant products in HFSS-affected categories such as cereals, but also many seemingly unrelated to HFSS such as tea and oils and even non-food items, unless sellers prove the healthy credentials of every product.

Sellers have been asked to fill out an online form, and wait for Amazon’s approval, before they can book any product-boosting activity again. But several brands – and the agencies that service their Amazon stores – report being unable to select that a product is non-HFSS, are facing long delays on approvals or have been caught off-guard by the request given they sell non-HFSS category products. Any seller not completing the form has been blanket blocked from any advertising on the site, with attempts to launch campaigns met with the response: ‘Your campaign contains content or products related to a highly debated social topic.’

“The changes have been particularly challenging for our clients. There has been conflicting guidance on how the rules would affect Amazon advertising, and the change has been hugely impactful, especially in the run-up to the holiday season,” said Elise Jackson of Amazon agency This Is Unicorn.

Emma Bagley, Amazon growth expert and founder of Zeal said one of its clients, who sells household products, has had one of their food equipment products made ineligible for advertising. “I am assuming Amazon’s bots are trawling their database for keywords and making a blanket decision,” she said. “The challenge for brands is proving to Amazon the product is unrelated to HFSS regulation. This sounds easy, but we know how challenging Amazon seller support is to deal with. This will take time and resilience, which a lot of smaller brands do not have. And in the meantime, this is costing the brand in terms of ranking and lost sales,” Bagley added.

It is understood crisis talks were scheduled last week between agencies representing several household brands and Amazon.

Amazon told The Grocer it was aware the process had fallen short and was working to improve it.

“Our priority has been to ensure Amazon and our selling partners comply with the legislation, and we have erred on the side of caution,” a spokesman said. “It’s obviously a ­difficult one to apply. We are going to make changes because we were pretty cautious. We obviously want to be compliant, we don’t want to be breaching the regulations that’s our number one priority, but we recognise there’s a balance to strike, so we are going to make some changes.”

Asked how much ad revenue Amazon was missing out on as a result, the spokesman said: “It’s only been a few days so I couldn’t tell you the impact.”

Despite the over-cautious approach, several sellers say they have seen HFSS products promoted in places they shouldn’t be on the Amazon site, for example confectionery bundles appearing when ‘gifts for men’ is searched.

There is also confusion as to whether those not in scope of the regulations – such as small shops including specialist chocolatiers – who sell directly to customers through Amazon, should face the same restrictions as those for which Amazon acts as retailer.

Several have taken to Amazon’s seller forum SellerCentral to bemoan the unclear messaging from Amazon, and lack of support.

“We and many other businesses have made buying decisions coming into Q4 based on these regulations, which Amazon said they were following, and the correct application of them, which has not happened,” said Scott Goodspeed, director of food and drink hamper seller The Bundle Hut. “This needs to be fixed in a matter of hours, not days or weeks because by then it might be too late for many small businesses who won’t survive without the predicted cash flow they would be getting based on sales from advertising.”

The absence of several major brands from promotional activity on Amazon has been a boon for some non-HFSS brands already approved by Amazon who report they’re advertising spend going far further than previously.

The absence of several major brands from promotional activity on Amazon has been a boon for some non-HFSS brands already approved by Amazon who report they’re advertising spend going far further than previously.