Amazon and SMEs

Alex Sobel Excerpts
Wednesday 27th March 2019

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Amazon and the treatment of SMEs.

It is Kevin Brennan, actually, Mr Chope. I was once briefly knighted in the Mail Online by a journalist making exactly the same mistake, but I always consider myself more shovelry than chivalry.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate today about Amazon. I will tell a story about my constituent, Roland Brana, who this year should have been celebrating 20 years of his successful and growing family business, selling motorcycle protective clothing. He spent 11 years as a sole trader, then eight years as a limited company, and in each year he achieved continued growth. It was a successful, viable business with quality products that were competitively priced and in demand.

In 1999 his business, Bikers Gear, began importing self-designed own brand motorcycle clothing from a factory in Pakistan and sold it online via his own website and on eBay. In 2001 he opened a high street shop in Barry, south Wales, and in 2002 he accepted an invitation from Amazon to become a merchant on its newly launched non-video and book UK marketplace. His business continued to flourish. In March 2010, Bikers Gear UK was incorporated as a limited company and in 2013 the brand launched across Europe via Amazon’s European platforms.

In 2013 Bikers Gear registered for VAT in both Germany and France, and in 2014 a German and French speaking customer service team was launched, based in Leipzig. In 2015 Mr Brana completed EU-wide registration of the Bikers Gear trademark logo. This should be the story of a lad from a council estate and a single-parent family who made good. Instead, it is the story of a small businessman who finds himself having to start all over again, having had to close his business, because of the way that his small company, Bikers Gear UK, was treated by the global conglomerate Amazon.

The real problems started when Amazon approached Mr Brana in May 2016 for a retail manufacturer partnership. He accepted that as an opportunity for the business to go to the next stage. He would concentrate on expanding the manufacturing of the product and Amazon would concentrate on selling. Amazon forecast great potential for growth. He was aware that one of his manufacturers in Pakistan had a family relative trading in Australia, who sold similar motorcycle garments, so in 2010 he created an image user agreement to protect his online images from any potential infringement by this Australian brand.

Following the agreement, during 2017 Mr Brana began to receive offers of orders for more than €1 million from Amazon. To begin with he could not accept many of the orders because of delivery windows and not holding enough stock in south Wales. The problem lay with his main supplier in Pakistan, which was refusing many large purchase orders. He took action to drop this supplier. Because of this and complaints from Amazon regarding poor order acceptance rates, Mr Brana travelled to Luxembourg twice in 2017 and met Amazon buyers. Mr Brana reassured them that he would increase the stock in the south Wales warehouse to improve the order acceptance rate for 2018. He explained to Amazon buyers that the low acceptance rate was due to the problem at one particular factory, and explained that, to resolve the supply issue in 2018, he planned to introduce another supplier. He informed them that he would personally be investing £75,000 to increase his holding stock as he was fully committed to the Bikers Gear UK business, and that he would do so by re-mortgaging his home.

In 2018, Mr Brana approached Barclays Bank, obtained the mortgage and, as promised, began increasing the stock in his south Wales warehouse. All should have been well but, at the same time, he noticed that the Amazon order had by now almost stopped. He started investigating and noticed that the Australian brand had started selling its brand on the Amazon UK platform. At that point, it appeared to be offering different garments from the Bikers Gear UK garments and not selling products with his barcode or European article number—now known as the international article number—that delineated the product on websites. With the exception of the new 2018 range, however, no orders were being received from Amazon by Bikers Gear UK. Even its best-selling garments were not being ordered.

Mr Brana presumed that Amazon holding stock would run out and he would be able to return to selling the garments successfully, as he did prior to the 2016 Amazon agreement. He started checking the website stock level, which is clearly visible when someone makes a purchase on the Amazon website. It would state things such as, “Four left in stock—more on the way.” He checked back days later, and the stock available had gone up on his product from four to 18. It was clear that, even though Amazon had not purchased any new stock, its inventory was going up, not down. Something was clearly wrong.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
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The experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent is not uncommon. Many people who allowed Amazon to take the business end away found that Amazon started to sell on their behalf and their business was squeezed. In Germany, a company called Cancom said:

“To team up with Amazon is like to team up with the devil. We team up with Amazon but not in a transactional area.”

This is a common business practice of Amazon’s.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan
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I can only say that I know my constituent would entirely endorse the view of that German company given his personal experience. As I outline the rest of the story of what happened, I think it will become clear why.