October 21, 1999 5:15 PM PDT

Weapons, porn found for sale on Amazon

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Amazon.com customers now have access to illegal weapons along with a host of other controversial items on the company's auctions and zShops marketplace.

While searching Amazon's site, CNET News.com found retailers selling everything from nunchaku sticks and throwing stars--both martial arts weapons--to pornographic videos and sadomasochistic equipment. Not only do many of these items violate Amazon's policies, but the weapons are also illegal in many states, including California.

Amazon spokeswoman Sharon Greenspan said the site removed the weapons immediately after being notified of them this morning by CNET News.com. However, as of 4:00 p.m. PT, many of the items were still available.

"We're doing everything we can to catch this stuff," Greenspan said.

The presence of weapons and other controversial items on Amazon stands in marked contrast to the public image Amazon has worked to cultivate. In promoting itself as a wholesome place offering many benefits to shoppers, the company has done everything from limit the items it sells to handling all shipping and order fulfillment on its own.

But Amazon's zShops and auction areas allow just about anyone to sell goods, get listed in the company's shopping search engine, and gain access to Amazon's 12 million customers. The company tries to limit more controversial items from appearing on the site by prohibiting sales of pornography and illegal weapons, by policing the site, and by banning sellers for life if they violate its policies.

Although Greenspan says the company has "total control" over its auctions and zShops sites, she acknowledges that some items slip through the cracks. "No system is absolutely effective," she said.

Amazon is no stranger to controversy where products are concerned. Customers can find CDs such as 2 Live Crew's controversial "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" in the company's music store, and earlier this year Amazon and competitor Barnesandnoble.com were criticized for allegedly selling copies of Adolf Hitler's banned "Mein Kampf" in Germany.

However, such items represented a small fraction of Amazon's offerings and were part of the company's strategy to provide a wider selection of books and music than its competitors do.

That strategy has now been extended through auctions and zShops to offering a wider choice of any kind of goods. For only $9.95 a month, a customer can open up a zShop and list up to 3,000 items on Amazon. But that relatively low price may carry some unwanted byproducts.

"When the price of entry is so low, you find a greater disparity in the quality of things to sell," E*Offering analyst Andrea Williams said. "You do run a risk of running into seedy people or having products sold that you don't want. Clearly if you were presenting yourself as a family shopping environment, it's probably not a good idea to be selling bondage chairs."

Jonathan Adams owns the Tacoma, Washington-based Custom Leather Works, and sells such items as leather collars and wrist restraints through an Amazon zShop. Adams, who also sells through eBay and Yahoo's auction site, said he chose to sell through Amazon because of the company's broad advertising campaign. After beginning to sell online about four weeks ago, Adams said his Web site has already gotten some 1,500 hits.

"Online sales is a combination of getting seen and coming up in the right places," Adams said in an instant message interview. "Even people who you wouldn't catch dead in an adult store will buy things online if it runs past their nose."

Marketing experts say Amazon's zShops and auction areas threaten to undermine the company's image.

"I think to allow material like that is not good judgment," said Philip Kotler, professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "It's a high risk to dilute their brand equity. They have to take care of this quickly."

Amazon is not alone in national controversies over items for sale. Faced with similar problems involving weapons sales, eBay banned gun sales on its own site in February. More recently, the company also banned alcohol and tobacco sales.

Yahoo ran into problems last month when a security breach allowed auction visitors to easily access hard-core pornography being sold on the site. Yahoo normally places those items in adult-only areas.

 

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