Three U.S. Senators are demanding that Amazon "immediately stop selling any AmazonBasics products that are defective, notify consumers that are in possession of these products, and work with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to conduct swift and thorough recalls to remove these dangerous products from homes."
The letter from Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ed Markey of Massachusetts follows a CNN report last week detailing fires, burns and other safety hazards and injuries from the brand’s battery chargers, microwaves and other products.
Amazon responded to Retail Dive's questions in an email, saying in part, "Safety is a top priority at Amazon and we know customers expect Amazon’s products to be safe and high quality," and noting several quality assurance steps it takes that are also outlined in a blog post published the day after CNN's report.
The hazards from AmazonBasics products shown in CNN's report include sparking and fires that caused second-degree burns and property damage. The details emerged after speaking with former Amazon product managers, combing through warnings in customer reviews and taking some of the items to be tested at third-party labs.
The private label has been a bestseller and Amazon has expanded from its early success in batteries and phone cords to develop appliances like microwaves.
The Senators leading the probe cited not only several consumer protection regulations that they say have been breached, but also their own year-old demands that the e-commerce giant "take further steps to protect consumers from defective products that persist on its online marketplace."
The problems demonstrate that quality and safety issues aren't limited to Amazon's Marketplace, according to Michael Hanson, senior executive vice president of public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and a spokesperson for the group's Buy Safe America Coalition.
"If you look at the comments by Amazon about AmazonBasics, they match up with how they talk about counterfeit and stolen goods on their Marketplace," he said by phone. "Our issue is that there needs to be more accountability and visibility into products."
The trouble also demonstrates how difficult it is for any retailer to develop private brands, especially in categories like electronics that are highly specialized, according to Matt Sargent, principal at consultancy Sargent Up North.
Amazon has a lot of information about what customers buy and what they're willing to pay, which Sargent calls "a product manager's dream."
"I can't speak to what they have or haven't done, but it's likely very enticing to Amazon to look at their sales, and their ability to look at people's behavior," Sargent said by phone. "But as you get into more advanced product categories, if you're going to slap your name on something, what is your investment?"
In one key way, Amazon is very transparent about its products and any troubles customers may have with them, in that it publishes reviews, good or bad. Still, CNN found that more than 1,500 customer reviews "raised serious safety concerns about electronics branded with Amazon’s own name, reporting that AmazonBasics products are exploding, sparking and bursting into flames."
Without stores and attentive store staff to field such complaints — something the likes of Apple or Samsung have had to contend with whenever their products are found to be faulty or even hazardous — Amazon has little opportunity to address the problems in a personal way, Sargent also said.
"Retailers are trying to become brands, and brands are trying to become retailers, and it's not easy," Sargent said. "If you are a retailer — and let’s be honest Amazon is a really, really good retailer — that means from a brand perspective you also have to be good at the relationship side, and I'd put someone like Apple or REI at that end of that spectrum, being really good at being a brand."
Still, the fallout is unlikely to ding Amazon much overall, according to Sargent. "If Apple or Samsung had an issue like this and didn’t deal with it directly it would be a bigger issue for their core brand than it would be for Amazon."