How to Sell on Amazon: Does a Small Apparel Business Stand a Chance?

Last year That Way Hat listed some of its hats on amazon.com The process has not been easy at all, and we thought we would give a little advice to other apparel companies. We will break it down for you.

On Amazon apparel companies require special approval (as do automotive, jewelry, shoes, and luggage, among others.). And unlike with books, you can’t sell used clothing or jewelry on amazon. There may be a waiting period from when you apply to when you get reviewed. It may be long; previously amazon had banned all new apparel sellers, then later started letting them in again.

UPC CODES – A MUST on AMAZON
Update: for Possible Exemptions, Scan for New Section Below

It ain't as simple as it looks for small businesses - amazon & GS1

amazon.com and GS1 - See You at the Top of the Staircase

Unlike on ebay or etsy, anything that you sell on Amazon needs to have a GTIN code. That means a UPC code number or it’s international sister, an EAN code for foreign companies. They are both sold by GS1.org, a monopoly.

In case you don’t know, the UPC code is the number on the bar code attached to all those supermarket products that are scanned in at checkout. The codes are also on clothing labels. There are two ways manage this. Either find the product you want to sell already listed in amazon and sell a copy of it, or make a new listing of the product by yourself.

If you want to sell gap jeans for instance, you will surely find the exact product you have already set up. So you just copy it. But if you want to sell your own product or something not now already in amazon, you need to set the product up before selling it. To sell, you won’t actually need the printed UPC labels, just the numbers. If the product was manufactured by someone else, ask them for the UPC code. They may already have it. Also ask them for their own internal product code. You will need it too.

However if you made the product yourself or if the manufacturer has no UPC code, you will need to get one. More on this in a moment. First a word on fees.

Selling apparel on Amazon means that you will have to pay a monthly fee of $39.99. You will need to be approved and once approved, to keep your approval, you need to keep paying the fee. Therefore you need to sell enough each month to justify the $39.99 fee. That most likely means have many products. . . . or a few very hot ones. Of course you also have to pay a fee of 15% for each sale you make. But you will build that fee into the price. Now back to UPC’s.

NOTE: If you are selling other people’s products, get the bar codes from them. You don’t need to buy them yourself. And skip to the bottom of this section.

You can get a UPC code in two ways. You could either pay a high price per item to “lease” a UPC code from some professional companies that specialize in this, or you could go direct to the source: GS1.org. (I recommend this way). Since in apparel you will need to pay the “professional” $39.99 per month fee to amazon, you probably really need to get a lot of products out there.

If you want to try leasing, there are many companies that will charge you an one time or annual fee for your code. You can find them in google by searching for “buy bar codes”. I think there is risk that these companies will stop paying their renewal fees or that you will lose some brand identity if you expand your products, since the company name on the UPC code is theirs, not yours.

On amazon you will need a separate UPC code for every different color of each item you are selling. And for every size as well. So if you sell a hat in large and medium sizes and a choice of orange or pink, you will need 4 UPC codes. If you add a small size, you will need 6 UPC codes.

Gs1 offers you limited choices on how many bar codes to buy. 100, 1000 or 10,000. Oh, yeah, 100,000 too.

The fees charged by GS1 have changed in the past few years. For any company with revenues of $1 to $249,000 the rates are:

Quantity of Bar Codes
100
1,000
10,000
100,000

Initial Charge

$760
$1,575
$3,200
$10,165

Future Years Annual Charges
$158
$500
$950
$2,100

If the company’s starting revenue is $250,000 – $499,999, the initial price of 100 bar codes goes up to $1,575, but all the other prices stay the same.

Even if you are planning to slowly scale up the quantity of your products over several years, you might think about buying 1000. The extra 900 will cost another $815, and will also cost another $342 per year. But if you buy 100 and later decide to buy more, you won’t get any credit for your first 100 and will have to start all over by paying the initial charge again for whatever additional quantity you want. You would need to receive a second GS1 Company Prefix for your new codes; they won’t let you use the same one again, though you can keep the old one too. (I forewarned you so you are less alarmed in the future).

One thing that is quite clear is that GS1′s prices strongly favor large companies at the expense of smaller ones.

We have now reached one of the “Catch 22” moments in this process. Amazon will ask you about your UPC codes before they approve you. But you probably only want the UPC codes to get onto amazon. I am not sure what advice to give you here. You could try bluffing amazon. We had the UPC codes first, so didn’t have to.

  • Obstacle alert: Amazon wants to to already have an independent website of your own with a shopping cart before applying for approval in the apparel category.

UPDATE – EXEMPTIONS FOR UPC CODE REQUIREMENT

After reading a helpful comment below — and after a due amount of procrastination — we asked Amazon by email if we could get an exemption from the UPC requirement for certain hat makers. Below is our question and their encouraging answer:

QUESTION:

Hi – on our own website we are selling many hats from American (and some foreign) milliners who hand make their often expensive hats. They sell them in boutiques, high end department stores or directly to their individual customers.
But these milliners do not have UPC codes. Is it possible for us to list these hats on amazon? Do we need to get approval for each hat separately?

ANSWER:

Greetings Geoffrey,

Thank you for contacting us at Amazon.com Seller support. It is my pleasure to assist you.

I have read your query and understand that you would like to list hats from American (and some foreign) milliners and do not have an UPC. We appreciate your interest in adding variety to our catalog.

Yes, you can sell these hats on Amazon.com. In this case you could request an UPC Exemption under clothing and accessories category.

When you have UPC Exemption in clothing and accessories category, it is provided in general for the whole category. Any type of hat/clothing and accessories product and any quantity of them can be listed after approval. Therefore, there is no need to get approval for each hat separately.

You can request an exemption by clicking the “Request approval” button on the UPC Exemption Help page for your desired category and filling out the form. Please allow 7 business days for your request to be processed.

https://sellercentral.amazon.com/gp/help/help.html/ref=ag_200663400_cont_200426310?ie=UTF8&itemID=200663400&language=en_US

In the form, please be sure to include:

-Program Information and Company & Contact Information.

-In the “Company Description” box, a list of products you are interested in offering with the specific product brands and the total number of SKUs affected.

-The reason you are requesting the UPC exemption.

Your request will be passed on to Category Management for their review. You will receive a response via e-mail shortly afterwards regarding the category approval.

Hope this information helps.

Kindly write back to us if you have further concerns regarding this. We are available 24*7 and would be more than glad to help you.

The form that is linked above has — in addition to more general questions — a few questions about your relationship to the brand you want to sell. They ask:

Are You the Brand Authority? Choices are: 1. Yes, I am the manufacturer, 2. Yes, I have a private label brand, 3. Yes, I make a unique or custom product, 4. No

Do you have a Trademark?

Do you have branded packaging?

How do you uniquely identify your products for this brand?

PHOTOS – MUST BE JUST SO on AMAZON

The next thing to think about is photos. Amazon asked us to send them ALL the photos that we would use, for all of our products, as part of the approval process. They want photos with only a solid white background and without any objects except what is being sold. The apparel is allowed to be on a model, as long as the apparel takes up most of the photo area. The size of the photo must be at least 1001 pixels on its shorter side. But it could be bigger. It can be up to 3000 pixels. If it is over 2560 pixels, then the magnifying feature works.

SPREADSHEET TO UPLOAD TO AMAZON

Lastly you will need to fill out a complex spreadsheet with many, many confusing columns. This spreadsheet is used to upload the products to amazon’s database. The spreadsheet needs to be sent to them in tab delimited format which can be done with Microsoft excel or with the free open office calc by saving as text csv.

To fill out the spreadsheet you put in all the descriptive items about products, each product on its own row. Each description in its own column. You also need to know the category the product will be listed in on amazon. One of the more tricky parts is if you have several colors of the same product. If you do, each color needs to have its own UPC code. Each size may also need its own UPC code. Then you create one row that is the “parent”. There is a column for variations and you would write Color or ColorSize, if it varies by both. (Amazon has limited colors and if your doesn’t match their terms, you need to write your color(s) and theirs: like natural in one column and beige in another, or purple & green and multicolor, so their computers will understand). Each of your variations will go on a new row, so you will have a separate row for each color and size. If you have two colors and two sizes, there will be 5 rows altogether including the parent row.

You will also need to upload all the pictures (preferably to your own server or photo host) and include the links in the spreadsheet. The pictures should be named with the UPC code and a dot and MAIN.jpg for the main photo. You could also use FRNT.jpg , BACK.jpg , RGHT.jpg , LEFT.jpg , BOTT.jpg and possibly others, for additional photos.

Here a link to an example of a csv format spreadsheet we successfully used to list hats on amazon (right click to save as, then open after download. You will need to open as tab delimited). Amazon also has a clunky online interface that allows you to make changes to your products descriptions and in stock amounts, but you would not want to use it for new listings.

UPDATE: October, 2013
Amazon is no longer supporting CSV file uploads for inventory. Hard to believe! They want the files saved as TAB delimited text files. While this is similar, it is not the same as CSV because CSV includes some formating code you don’t see.

If you have Microsoft Excel, there is no problem, you can easily save as TAB delimited. However if you use free Open Office “Calc” software, then you have trouble. You may need to buy Excel just for this feature (at least $99). Searching for solutions on how to save as TAB delimited, you will find few alternatives. If you don’t want to buy Excel, one option called Delimit, may help, but it doesn’t allow you to add rows or columns to a file.

ONCE LISTED, NOW WHAT?

Once you list and sell something, amazon will ask you to ship within two days, but you can change the settings to say that you need more time. They have their own shipping service, however unless you are shipping large quantities of the same small items, you should ship yourself. We ship hats – they are big and would be much too expensive to store at amazon.

Does small business stand a chance? Maybe – but if you have lots and lots of products you are better off. Amazon has no listing fees, just the $40 monthly fee and the cost of the UPC’s if you are the manufacturer. If a small business could list 500 or 1000 products, they will probably do better than if they have only 50. But amazon does offer a good additional channel for sales exposure if you can overcome the technical listing hurdles.

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8 Responses to How to Sell on Amazon: Does a Small Apparel Business Stand a Chance?

  1. Owen Prescott says:

    Reading this has put me of selling on Amazon, I plan on screen printing my own designs and those codes are way to exspensive for me. I will just build up my buissnes from my own site and hopefully build up from there.

    • Geoffrey Mintz says:

      Owen, I emailed you and Ranvir below about the update (above) which should be more encouraging about adding products to Amazon without a UPC code.

  2. William Madison says:

    There is no governing authority so any retailer which does not mandate GS1 barcodes should really let vendors make up their own number. For example, Barcodes Talk has a prefix of 0799975. If I arbitrarily made up a number with a check digit of 799975546568, Barcodes Talk has no ownership of the number and CAN NOT DO A THING TO PROTECT THEIR CLIENT. These resellers are claiming to be the white in shining armour for small companies. They are just playing on online retailers’ ignorance on standardized identification. By not mandating a single global source, these retailers are opening themselves up to potential duplication.

  3. John says:

    I have been trying to get approved for over 3 months now. I’m at the stage where I sent the data feed to Amazon for data approval. I hope to hear form them soon. I will let you know if I am approved.

    John

    • Geoffrey Mintz says:

      Cool — tell us when it happens. Do you have any insights into why it has taken 3 whole months? Probably they will review the data feed fairly quickly.

  4. That Hat Girl says:

    I am happy to hear that I am not the only person who has had so much trouble with Amazon. I manage a hat boutique and have put much of our merchandise on Amazon. It took me 6 months to get approved to sell under clothing & accessories. Amazon technicians are the most troubling sort. Every time you call about the same issue you speak to a different person. None of these people know what your talking about and they all tell you to do something different that most likely ends up wrong. I have struggled for months with this website but with time and patience it has paid off. As much trouble as it is to sell on Amazon, we get more sales with them then on our website. I must say, however, that you do not have to have UPC codes on all items. You can get upc exemption on designers or brands that do not have upc’s. This isn’t that hard and works well. You just fill out the file template a little differently. Hope this helps!

    • Geoffrey Mintz says:

      Yes, it is so surprising that a company with such a good retail interface has such a bad one for sellers! Feel free to contact me to talk about hat selling any time. It’s a topic I love too.

      Thanks so much for explaining that you always need to have a UPC code. We will try to get some exemptions.

    • ranvir says:

      Hello, I can’t find out where to add UPC exemption? can you please help?