J&J, Amazon fight shows supply-chain weakness in online sales

When recalls of over-the-counter products like Tylenol leave consumers unable to find them on pharmacy shelves, they can sometimes search the Internet for a quick fix. But depending on the seller and its source, those products could be expired, defective, or even counterfeit. Now Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Amazon ($AMZN) are in a fight over how much the online giant should be doing to keep that from happening.  

J&J has sold many of its popular OTC products directly to Amazon for years, but some of Amazon's third-party resellers also hawk J&J goods. According to The Wall Street Journal, J&J quit selling Tylenol, Band-Aids and Johnson's baby products to Amazon this year because it felt the online retailer wasn't taking its complaints about some of those players seriously enough.

The third-party online marketplace makes it more difficult for companies to protect product quality and, therefore, their brand reputations. When they are not stocking shelves, they have less control. "The most important thing for us is that the products reaching our consumers' hands are the quality they expect and give them the experience they deserve," J&J spokeswoman Sandra Pound told the newspaper. Amazon did not comment.

The Wall Street Journal says both J&J and Amazon have gotten complaints about some J&J products. Mystery shoppers also received some defective J&J products from Amazon resellers. One online reviewer complained of receiving expired bottles of Zyrtec antihistamines. For its part, Amazon acknowledges that it can't guarantee its third-party sellers will deliver their products as promised but says it will reimburse buyers up to $2,500 for damaged or defective items. 

The online issued heated up even as J&J has been trying to mend its relations with consumers miffed over shortages of Tylenol and other OTC products after manufacturing problems at its McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit forced J&J to recall tens of millions of consumer products starting in 2009 and led to a consent decree at three plants. It said this summer that it is making good progress at resolving the problems and is getting more products back onto shelves.

The Wall Street Journal says the fight has been going on for months and that J&J only recently continued sales of some of its products to Amazon. Sources tell the newspaper that its mystery shoppers haven't found as many problems lately.

- here's the Wall Street Journal story (sub. req.)