Is Amazon selling you trash?

The WSJ presented Amazon examples of dumpster-sourced listings

Just about anyone can open a store on Amazon.com and sell just about anything. Just ask the dumpster divers.

Continue Reading Below

These are among the dedicated cadre of sellers on Amazon who say they sort through other people's rejects, including directly from the trash, clean them up and list them on Amazon.com Inc.'s platform . Many post their hunting accounts on YouTube.

GET FOX BUSINESS ON THE GO BY CLICKING HERE

They are an elusive lot. Many The Wall Street Journal contacted wouldn't give details about their listings, said they stopped selling dumpster finds or no longer listed them as new, didn't respond to inquiries or stopped communicating. Some said they feared Amazon would close their stores.

So the Journal set out to test whether these claims were true. Reporters went dumpster diving in several New Jersey towns and retrieved dozens of discards from the trash including a stencil set, scrapbook paper and a sealed jar of Trader Joe's lemon curd.

The Journal set up a store on Amazon to see if it could list some of its salvaged goods for sale as new.

It turned out to be easy.

Amazon's stated rules didn't explicitly prohibit items salvaged from the trash when the Journal disclosed the existence of its store to the company last month. The rules required that most goods be new and noted that sellers could offer used books and electronics, among other things, if they identified them as such.

"Sellers are responsible for meeting Amazon's high bar for product quality," an Amazon spokeswoman said. Examples the Journal presented to Amazon of dumpster-sourced listings "are isolated incidents," she said. "We are investigating and will take appropriate action against the bad actors involved."

She declined to comment on the Journal's store.

Late last week, Amazon said it updated its policy to explicitly prohibit selling items taken from the trash, adding to its list of unacceptable items any "intended for destruction or disposal or otherwise designated as unsellable by the manufacturer or a supplier, vendor, or retailer."

Control issues

Amazon exerts limited control over its third-party marketplace, which connects buyers with millions of merchants around the world. The company has said it isn't liable for what these merchants sell, saying in court cases Amazon itself isn't the one selling the products listed by third parties.

"We had an internal saying: Unless the product's on fire when we receive it, we would accept anything," said James Thomson, who helped oversee the Fulfillment By Amazon program -- under which Amazon handles logistics for third-party sellers -- before leaving in 2013. He is now a consultant to brands with Amazon accounts. In his view, he said, "Ultimately consumers are the police of the platform."

The Amazon spokeswoman said Thomson's "statements are demonstrably false." Thomson said he stood by his assertions.

Wade Coggins, near Beaverton, Ore., said he finds items to sell on Amazon and eBay in store clearance sections, abandoned storage units and dumpsters. He said he has salvaged cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and peanuts from trash bins to package his orders.

Blemishes need to be cleaned off, he said, adding that some people shrink-wrap items to make them look more legitimate. "When you send stuff in to Amazon," he said, "it needs to look brand new."

Coggins identified one Amazon store and said he had another that he declined to disclose. The Amazon spokeswoman said the company couldn't find evidence of a second store.

To list items under Amazon Prime -- the subscription service offering quick, free delivery -- third-party sellers send them to an Amazon warehouse where the retailer handles packaging, delivery and returns. Shipping boxes or labels often include Amazon branding. Sellers can also ship directly to customers from their homes and warehouses, qualifying for a Prime designation if they enroll in a program called Seller Fulfilled Prime.

Amazon merchant David Gracy, 49, who among other things resells new merchandise purchased from stores and brand closeouts, said his business partner in 2016 salvaged items from dumpsters including a batch of humidifiers and keyboards in Austin, Texas. Gracy's Amazon store sold such items for more than a year under Amazon Prime, he said. He said he hasn't sold dumpster finds since then.

He said he wouldn't be comfortable selling certain salvaged items, such as food, on the site, but "Amazon's not going to ask 'Where'd you get it from? Did you get it from a dumpster?' "

'DJ Co' opens shop

Amazon said it requires sellers to provide government-issued identification and uses a "system that analyzes hundreds of unique data points to identify potential risk" and "we proactively block suspicious businesses."

The Journal applied to open an Amazon store in September by submitting a reporter's driver's license and bank statement. Two days later, "DJ Co" was open for business.

An email arrived declaring: "Welcome to Fulfillment by Amazon." The Journal signed up for a $39.99-a-month account and paid additional fees, such as for storage.

Late one night several days before the store opened, reporters with flashlights and blue latex gloves visited Clifton, Clark and Paramus, N.J., scouring dumpsters behind outlets such as a Michaels craft store and a Trader Joe's grocery.

The bins were a humid mess of broken glass and smashed boxes, a stench of rot in the air. Several products were in original packaging, some soiled with coffee grounds, moldy blackberries or juice from a bag of chicken thighs.

Among items the reporters retrieved were a stencil set, a sheet of scrapbook paper and the lemon curd. The curd jar showed an expiration date of May 2020.

The Journal cleaned and packed the three items -- bubble-wrapping and taping the curd jar -- and mailed them to an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania in September and October. The Journal completed Amazon's documentation requirements by specifying the items' universal product codes, the numbers next to bar codes on most products.

Amazon didn't ask about the inventory's origins or sell-by dates.

The Journals' dumpster finds were soon up for sale with an Amazon Prime logo, available to millions of shoppers, including the listing for "Trader Joe's Imported English Authentic Lemon Curd 10.5oz" at $12.00.

FEDEX FIGHTS AMAZON INTRUSION ON ITS HOME TURF 

After a later dumpster dive, the Journal was able to go through almost all of the listing process with salvaged breath mints, sunflower seeds, marmalade, crispbread, fig fruit butter, olives, a headband and a Halloween mask -- stopping just short of shipping them to the Amazon warehouse, which is required for an item to appear for purchase on the site.

To list a sunscreen lotion, Amazon asked for a safety-data sheet. Attempts to list a protein powder, a pea-powder dietary supplement and a face sheet mask -- all from the dive -- elicited a request from Amazon for proof of purchase.

A Trader Joe's spokeswoman, Kenya Friend-Daniel, said the grocer doesn't approve of its products' sale on Amazon and that its policy is to discard an item only if it isn't fit for sale. Michaels spokeswoman Mallory Smith said: "We do not approve of the sale of Michaels products by unauthorized third party sellers."

'Broken things'

Amazon uses warehouse workers to identify problematic products, and computers direct workers to make spot checks. Some former employees said the daily volume is often too large to handle, with workers charged with scanning sometimes hundreds of items an hour.

"I myself ignored broken things more often than not," said Chris Grantham, who held several roles in Amazon's fulfillment center in Ruskin, Fla., until 2017, including quality-assurance inspector.

Amazon urged speed over precision, penalizing workers who didn't hit productivity requirements, he said. Workers sometimes changed expiration dates for expired products in the computer, he said, so they wouldn't be expected to perform a complicated disposal process -- a shortcut noted by several warehouse employees in a discussion reviewed by the Journal in a restricted Facebook group for Amazon workers.

The Amazon spokeswoman said workers have the authority to sideline unacceptable products and that Amazon employs "multiple checks and balances in the inventory and picking process to ensure quality control standards are upheld." Regarding worker-productivity requirements, she said "performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time."

Jesse Durfee said he has used Amazon to sell toys, videogames, electronics and trinkets from dumpsters including bins behind Michaels and GameStop stores. The 26-year-old in Torrington, Conn., said one of his favorite places to find things to list on Amazon is his town dump. He said he lists his dumpster finds as used and declined to identify his storefront, saying he fears other sellers might try to sabotage him.

In a 2017 YouTube video, he tests out television remote controls he said he found in a dumpster and tells viewers they can wash off corroded battery compartments with baking soda and water.

He said he opened his Amazon store six years ago after realizing it was more lucrative to resell inventory than work as a photographer. "I started with dumpster diving because I had no money to buy inventory," he said, and branched into buying at thrift stores and discount-store clearance sections for items to sell on Amazon.

"I'll go to pawnshops, I'll go dumpster diving," he said. "I'm one of those people who does everything."

Negative comments

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON FOX BUSINESS 

Some sellers on Amazon's internal discussion boards have voiced concerns about garbage showing up on the site. One, in a post titled "Dumpster Divers Overrunning Beauty Category," wrote of items in bad condition that resulted in complaints directed at the poster and other sellers in the category.

The Amazon spokeswoman said the seller's characterization of the category as being overrun "is wrong and baseless."