If you’re looking to buy a new USB cable, wireless charger, or that fast-charging USB power brick that didn’t come with your new $1,000 phone (but definitely should have), there’s a typical process many people go through. You open Amazon’s site in a new tab or the app on your phone, type in the thing you’re looking for, scan some review scores, and click Buy It Now.
Except now, some of the very best chargers, cables, and wireless pads have disappeared — products that reviewers like us independently recommended and that you could buy at more attractive prices than other brands.
Today, a search for USB-C or wireless chargers on Amazon will still turn up products from Anker, Apple, and AmazonBasics, as well as many obscure brands with alphabet-soup-style names. But you won’t find options from a bunch of popular brands that were there just a few months ago. Numerous brand lines have been wiped from Amazon’s storefront, leaving fewer, sometimes less-desirable options for consumers looking for these products.
It’s a weird situation to be in, given that Amazon has been referred to as “the everything store” for years. (Journalist Brad Stone titled his first book about the company exactly that.) And with Amazon’s dominance in the e-commerce world and status as the default shopping location for many, bolstered by its Prime service that guarantees fast delivery and has over 200 million subscribers, it means that the average person buying these things has fewer options than they did just a few months ago.
Earlier this week, Amazon pulled Choetech’s products from its store. That followed the removal of Aukey and Mpow in May and RavPower, Vava, and TaoTronics in June, and likely others that we’re just not aware of. Amazon confirmed that it removed most of these companies’ listings, but it declined to elaborate why. Logical reasoning points to a response to reports that these brands were violating Amazon’s rules by providing incentives for positive reviews. If you’ve ever bought something on Amazon, you’ve probably seen the little cards inserted in the box offering gift cards or refunds if you post a review of the product. (If you have, my colleague Sean Hollister is collecting pictures of them for another story; you can send them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Gaming the Amazon review system is certainly a problem, and it’s not an activity that I’m condoning. Many shoppers rely on the review scores of products when deciding whether or not to buy something. For smaller, commodity products like cables and chargers, the Amazon review rating is often the only judge of quality you might have before putting your money down.
Most people would assume that companies engaging in shady activities to promote their products are doing so because the product isn’t any good in the first place. But, in a peculiar twist, that’s not the case with any of the companies I mentioned above. By and large, these companies sold good, competitive products, and put price pressure on other companies making similar devices. RavPower, Aukey, and Choetech make countless versions of the USB chargers, wireless chargers, and cables that are necessary for today’s phones, tablets, and laptops; Vava is known for its line of multiport USB-C hubs; TaoTronics and Mpow sell inexpensive headphones and earbuds that perform surprisingly well for their price. We’ve tested and recommended products from these brands here on The Stock Market Pioneer, as have many other publications; I’ve personally purchased numerous products made by them and have had great experiences.
These brands differentiated from the rest in a number of ways, including by offering unique designs and port configurations; packing in useful add-ons like a cable with a charger, or a charging brick powerful enough to make a wireless charger work well; or by selling the same effective thing at a lower price. The reasons we specifically called RavPower’s wireless charging pad and stand the best ones to buy were because it performed well, came with the cable and charging brick you needed to use it — a rarity among the field — and was priced better than the competition. I personally bought Choetech chargers because they came with long, high-quality USB-C cables, which you don’t typically get in the box from Anker. A two-pack of compact RavPower 20W USB-C chargers cost me less than a single, bigger one from Apple and less than the similar option available from Anker.
These brands were also around long enough to have established a reputation for quality — I’m more likely to buy a charger from a brand that I’ve got experience with already than to take a flyer on one I’ve never heard of before. These were far from fly-by-night companies.
Amazon’s removal of these listings is notable because unlike Anker, Belkin, Apple, and other larger brands, you can’t buy products from these companies outside of Amazon or their own websites. They don’t exist in wireless carrier stores or on Best Buy’s or Target’s virtual or in-person shelves. They are, effectively, companies that solely exist because of Amazon’s dominance in the e-commerce world. (The exception here is that you now will find these brands sold by third-party sellers through Walmart, which has turned its website into a marketplace, much like Amazon. But you won’t find them at retail stores.) Some of them, like RavPower, were so reliant on Amazon that they sometimes used the retailer as a fulfillment partner for the listings on their own sites.
With that much of their business dependent on Amazon shoppers, it makes sense then that these outfits will do whatever they can to succeed on the platform, where an increasing number of people are searching for products to buy and bypassing other stores and search engines directly. The companies paying people to post reviews of their products are trying to get more people to see what they have: By getting more positive reviews on their products, these companies will rank higher in Amazon’s search results, which will lead to more sales. A positive star rating on Amazon can make or break the success of a product.
But instead of examining why these companies are attempting to manipulate its system and making adjustments to its platform to discourage this activity, Amazon has taken a heavy-handed whack-a-mole approach to just banning those that get caught breaking its rules.
Amazon doesn’t seem to be interested in changing the incentives on its platform, preferring to just remove sellers it deems to be bad actors. In its June blog post, the company pointed blame at social media companies for not better policing groups that collaborate to game the Amazon reviews system, and boasted that it reported over 1,000 groups in just the first three months of 2021. The company’s position is that this is how it protects shoppers from getting scammed or having a bad experience.
But as long as sellers on Amazon are incentivized and rewarded for high star ratings and positive customer reviews on their products, there are going to be those that use tactics that Amazon doesn’t like, and come off as less than scrupulous to those buying the products. Those companies are more likely going to be smaller outfits that don’t have other retail channels or brand recognition to fall back on — even if their product is good enough to stand on its own. That is the reality of the system that Amazon has built.
An even more cynical take on this is that Amazon is just going to supplant these retailers’ products with more of its own AmazonBasics-branded gear. The company has been caught in the past using data from what’s popular on its store to inform its AmazonBasics product roadmap. Amazon could be in the process of rolling out lower-priced versions of what Anker and Belkin are selling with its name on it, taking the place of the RavPowers and Choetechs that used to be there. I’m not convinced that this is what’s happening here, but in the service of teasing out all possibilities, there it is.
I also don’t have a handy answer for how Amazon could fix this, nor is it really my job to find a solution for one of the richest companies on the planet. Authorities in both the US and the UK have started putting pressure on Amazon to fix its fake review problem, but the tactics the company has taken so far seem to lay all the blame on the sellers bending the rules, not evaluating the flaws inherent in the system itself.
At the end of the day, Amazon’s policies and platform, while ostensibly protecting shoppers from fraud, end up giving consumers less choice than they would otherwise have. Until the company fixes its platform, shoppers are going to be the ones left holding the bag.