Amazon Listing Variations Use and Abuse: Your Questions Answered

Amazon product variations are often used wrongly, sometimes by mistake and sometimes deliberately. Either way, suspensions can result.

Amazon listing variation misuse example - jeans and pyjamas

This post is by Leah McHugh, an ecommerce consultant for ecommerceChris.com.

Incorrect variation listings are rife on Amazon. Once you know what to look for, you’ll find them everywhere when you browse the marketplace.

Product listing policies are some of the least understood rules on the Amazon platform, and it’s easy to see why. They’re complicated. They differ for different categories, and the meaning of a policy often relies on how a specific word is defined. Sometimes, that special definition is not even provided to sellers in the available policy information.

In the last few months alone I’ve seen more product variation misuse cases than I have in the previous four years of working with Amazon sellers. Not because more people are abusing the listing variation policies, but because Amazon has taken more action to police these rules.

What are listing variations on Amazon?

Listing variations are product options shown within the same listing. Or, as Amazon defines it:

Variations (also known as parent-child relationships) are sets of products that are related to one another. Good variation relationship listings allow buyers to compare and choose products based on different attributes such as size, color, or other characteristics from the available options on a single product detail page.

More specifically, they’re products listed on the same product detail page that differ in only one (or two) ways.

For example, rather than having five separate listings for a pillow that comes in five different colors, you can group them together on the same detail page, with the five different ASIN variations shown as color choices.

Even though the ASINs will share a detail page, you still need to enter product information for each child ASIN, with a corresponding photo. You’ll notice that when a child ASIN is selected, the product info shown will be for that specific ASIN.

In search results, only one product from the variation group will show. Which product that is depends on the category. In Clothing, Accessories & Luggage, Sporting Goods, and Beauty categories, the parent ASIN shows in search results. In other categories, the bestselling child ASIN shows in search results.

What are the main terms or jargon for variation listings?

Parent

The parent is the main detail page that the product options, or child ASINs, are grouped under. The parent ASIN is not buyable.

The parent ASIN should contain all the key product information that applies to all the ASINs in the group, or variation family, but shouldn’t contain information relating to the variation theme, a specific GTIN, inventory levels, or a price.

Child

The child ASINs are the buyable ASINs listed under the parent, which show on the detail page as available product options.

Variation Theme

This is the way in which the child ASINs in a variation family differ.

Different product categories allow different variation themes, and some allow for one or two variation themes. For example, fragrance would be a single variation theme, and size-color would be a double variation theme

Variation Family

You’ve probably figured out that this refers to the parent and child ASINs grouped under a variation theme. And yes, you do get weird looks from people when you talk about this in public.

Inventory File (or Flat File)

This is an Excel spreadsheet used to upload, update and delete product listings.

I recommend using a flat file rather than manually creating the listings in Seller Central because it gives you a paper trail if an Amazon team later changes your listings. It also makes it much easier to verify if your listing data is correct. You can use these to create standalone ASINs, as well as to create variation families.

Do variation listings increase sales?

If used correctly, yes.

Variations create an easier buyer experience, allowing the customer to see all product options on one page, instead of having to browse to see all the variations of the same product. It’s easier to buy a shirt when you can see all size options on the same detail page, rather than having to search for your specific size.

If used incorrectly, variations can cause confusion for the buyer. They can result in the buyer purchasing the wrong item, or misunderstanding what they are purchasing. For example, if your detail page says that the variations differ by color but they actually differ by color and quantity, the customer may expect to receive a different quantity than they ordered.

Can I choose whether to use variations or separate listings?

Yes… sort of.

Each product category has its own rules, which is why I suggest looking at the “Valid Values” tab in your product category flat file. Some categories don’t allow variations at all.

Some listing types aren’t allowed to be listed as variations. See When should and shouldn’t I use variation listings? below for more information.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon’s catalog team, retail team AND Brand Registry can override your listing contributions, and can create or split up variation families.

What is a variation theme?

A variation theme is the way in which child products differ, for example by color, size or quantity. The allowable variation themes differ by product category.

Sometimes you’re allowed to use two variation themes. For example, in Apparel you can choose the variation theme “SizeName-ColorName”, so you can list all of the colors and sizes of the same item on the same detail page. This allows the customer to select their color and size preference without having to search for the individual listings.

Whichever theme you choose, make sure that the child products ONLY differ in that way. And make sure you use the correct variation theme. So, don’t use the “color” variation theme to then list children which actually differ by material or size, or that differ by color AND material or size.

When should and shouldn’t I use variation listings?

You should use variation listings when:

  • The product category allows for variations.
  • Your products differ in a way that fits into the permitted variation themes in your category.
  • The products in your variation family do not differ in any other way than the variation theme that they are grouped under. So if your variation theme is color, your child ASINs can ONLY differ by color.
  • You are listing manufacturer-created multipacks of different sizes.

You shouldn’t use variation listings when:

  • The product category doesn’t allow for variations.
  • Your products differ in a way that is not an allowable variation theme in your category. You can’t just pick any theme, and put whatever value you want in there.
  • Your child ASINs differ in some way other than the allowable variation theme.
  • You are listing bundles.
  • You are listing multipacks that are not created by the manufacturer.

Amazon’s policy on multipacks is complicated. Multipacks that are not created by the manufacturer (where they are allowed at all) cannot be listed as variations of a manufacturer-created multi-pack ASIN.

Note that a multipack is a pack containing multiples of the same product, such as six pairs of socks. It’s not the same a bundle, which is multiple different items sold together under one listing. Don’t include bundles in variation listings.

What mistakes are commonly made with listing variations?

In my experience, most sellers who are misusing ASIN variations don’t know that they’re misusing them. Often when I work with sellers they’re adamant that their listings are correct, until I dig into their Seller Central account, and show them exactly where they’ve been going wrong.

Amazon also likes to fix listings before they tell you that you’ve violated their listing policies. When they do finally tell you, they often don’t say what they have changed. Without a flat file for reference, it’s difficult for anyone to identify what went wrong.

Expert tip: Use a flat file to create and update your listings. And SAVE all your uploaded flat files, so you have something to refer back to should there be a problem later. You’ll also have a backup if you ever have to delete your listings (it happens more often than you’d think).

I have seen sellers do everything that I said you shouldn’t do when creating product variations. More often than not, if I’m investigating their listings, it means they’ve received a policy warning, had listings blocked, or had an account suspension for ASIN variation misuse.

A year ago, the most common mistake I saw sellers make was accidentally turning child ASINs into parents, or listing children under the wrong parent ASIN. A lot of those cases involved Amazon’s catalog team making listing changes on behalf of the seller, at the seller’s request.

Cases like this have decreased over the past year. Now the most common issue we see is sellers incorrectly using variation themes.

Examples

Sometimes, this is clearly accidental, like this:

Colors labelled as sizes

Above: What size is black?

Sometimes it’s an attempt to get as many variations under a parent as possible:

Multipack labelled as color

Above: OMG Charcoal 2pk is my favorite color!

And sometimes it’s similar products that differ by more than just the variation theme:

Hats vary by more than color

Above: These differ not only by color, but also by knit type, and some have pompoms. Child ASINs can ONLY differ by the variation theme.

For the record, these aren’t client cases. I just clicked on a few listings from Amazon’s homepage. That’s how easy it is to find ASIN variation misuse, and how prevalent an issue it is.

How are variations deliberately abused by some sellers?

Certainly there are some Amazon sellers misusing variation listings on purpose. Some of the more aggressive abuse includes:

Hijacking a variation family

This is finding a popular variation family and adding completely unrelated children to it, to take advantage of the other products’ rank and reviews.

Using an old variation family for new versions of a product

We see sellers adding newer versions of a product as children of the old version. Again, this is to take advantage of the existing rank and reviews.

Recycling child ASINs

This is taking an existing child ASIN, and changing the product info and pictures to a different product, keeping the old reviews. It’s listing hijacking, just with child listings rather than standalone listings. The latest tactic is using a “dead” ASIN that hasn’t been sold in a while, to avoid detection by other sellers.

If you’re thinking of using any of these black hat tactics, you should know that we are seeing more cases of Amazon enforcing listing policies, and also more sellers reporting their competitors for this abuse. Coincidence? Probably not.

Listing abuse is one of the easier violations to report, as the evidence is right there on the detail page for everyone to see.

What can happen if you don’t use variations correctly?

If you don’t use variations correctly, the first thing that happens is usually a policy warning, where Amazon informs you that they have corrected the violating listing. Sometimes they skip the policy warning and go straight to blocking the violating listings.

If you continue to misuse ASINs, or if ASIN variation misuse is a systemic problem on your account, Amazon will suspend your seller account pending a viable appeal from you. If they don’t deem your appeal to be acceptable, they may decide to permanently close your account.

So don’t ignore policy warnings. They’re your chance to head off the problem before it results in blocked listings or an account suspension.

What should you do if you are suspended for variations misuse?

The first thing you need to do is look at your listings. You need to figure out what went wrong yourself. Amazon won’t tell you, and they won’t reinstate your listings or account until they’re sure you’ve identified and fixed the problem.

We call this the four-step plan of action:

  1. Check Yourself: How did you misuse variations? Are ALL of your listings now compliant? Make sure you fix all of your listings before you submit your appeal.
  2. Root Causes: What caused you to misuse variations? For this kind of suspension the root causes are generally a lack of supervision on listing creation, or a failure to understand listing policy. But you can’t identify the root causes without identifying what went wrong, so make sure you take the time to fully understand how you misused variations. Remember, Amazon won’t tell you!
  3. Plan of Action: What have you done to fix the problem AND make sure this never happens on your account again? You need to be specific about the steps you’ve taken to correct and maintain the quality of your listings going forward. Again, you can’t do this until you’ve identified what went wrong.
  4. Formatting Your POA. Amazon’s investigators have to get through many appeals in an hour. For best results keep your appeal on-point, easy to read and under a page in length.

Note: You should also do this in response to policy warnings, asking Seller Performance to annotate your account with the actions you’ve taken.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to plans of action, so make sure you’re using a proven method like the one above.

Variation education

Variations, if done right, are a great way to improve the customer experience on your listings.

But we’re seeing more and more sellers losing their listings and accounts to ASIN variation misuse. You can’t assume that because a listing is live, or even because Amazon itself is selling the product, that it is correct.

It’s incredibly important that you take the time to study Amazon’s policies yourself. Create standard operating procedures, train your employees, and supervise their work. At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to get this right

This post was written by Leah McHugh, an ecommerce consultant for ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.

Want to suspension-proof your account? Join Leah McHugh and former Amazonian Chris McCabe for their Prosper 2019 workshop, From At-Risk to Top Seller: How to Use an Amazon Account Review to Protect Your Business.

Cover image includes Just Love Women’s Plush Pajama Pants, for illustration purposes only.

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