But Amazon notified her in April that it had begun a review of her account and would not release her money until further notice. At the same time, it encouraged her to keep filling orders, which really infuriated her.
"If I sold all of these items, and they held all of my money, I'd be out of business," she said, surrounded by $10,000 worth of inventory.
Amazon soon emailed again to say that it had removed her selling privileges, canceled her listings and placed a 90-day hold on her money.
Belfry, who never found out what her specific transgression was, suspects she angered Amazon by directing a customer to a manufacturer's website for information about how to use a new scrapbooking device. (Amazon prohibits "the use of email intended to divert customers away" from its sales process.)
Three months later, and four months after she began selling on Amazon, Belfry finally received payment for $1,900.
Ousted sellers like Belfry have caught the attention of the Better Business Bureau of Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington. Last June, the organization noticed "a pattern" of complaints by Amazon sellers whose accounts were closed without explanation, said spokesman David Quinlan.
"Consumers claim that once their accounts are closed, their funds are not released within the dates specified, or their funds are held indefinitely," he said. "Amazon's aware of the pattern, and they're working with us on it."
If the issue isn't resolved, he said, Amazon could lose its A-plus rating from the BBB.
Eric Best, chief executive of Seattle-based Mercent, which helps businesses with their online strategies, says Amazon has good reason to be careful about its sellers.
"The whole company's reputation is at stake if shopping on Amazon through a third-party seller becomes a subpar experience," he said.
Amazon owes it to customers to weed out fraudulent or incompetent sellers, said University of Washington business professor Suresh Kotha. But he said the company must avoid making honest sellers collateral damage, noting that many small businesses fail because they don't maintain enough cash flow to cover their operational costs.
Amazon, in contrast, held $5.2 billion in cash and marketable securities at the end of September.
Belfry said she wonders if Amazon's real purpose is to use sellers' money as an interest-free float to prop up its balance sheet.
"They claim they have to hold our money for 90 days due to possible refunds. What a scam!" she wrote the AG's Office.
But Web marketing consultant Perry Marshall said Amazon errs on the side of caution to protect customers from online fraud -- and that tendency, along with a devotion to automation, can cause it to come down hard on even well-meaning sellers.
"You have people at these companies who look at spreadsheets and say, 'OK, this pattern matches fraudulent transactions. So, when we see this pattern, we're going to shoot first and ask questions later,' " Marshall said.
Scot Wingo, chief executive of e-commerce software company ChannelAdvisor, said Amazon provides the least "human interaction" among key online marketplaces.
"A lot of these sellers want to be schmoozed. At Google or eBay, you'll be given a dedicated account manager. If you have a question, you can just pick up the phone and call," Wingo said.
"Amazon doesn't have anything like that. If you have a question, there's a form to fill out, and then a robot responds to you in an email."
Marshall, who believes Amazon should be more discriminating with its holds policy, said many sellers use different names, credit cards and IP addresses to secretly set up multiple accounts as a hedge against possible closures.
"Ten years ago, everybody hated Microsoft. They were the big, bad bully," Marshall said. "Now, Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla. And they're creating a lot of ill will from the people who pay their bills."
Caruso, the New Hampshire businessman, mentioned that in the midst of his hold, a corporate salesman tried to get him to upgrade to a Fulfillment by Amazon account. That would have made his products eligible for free, two-day shipping through Amazon Prime, but Caruso worried about becoming more intertwined with the company.
He said his breaking point came in July, when he learned that Amazon dipped into his account to refund a customer who bought a vacuum cleaner from him in March and never returned it.
"The buyer gets a free Oreck Vac worth $170," Caruso said. "And J&J" -- the name of his business -- "a headache."
Caruso said he closed his account and plans to spend what he would have paid Amazon in fees on attracting more customers to his website, possibly through Google AdWords.
Since July, he said, Amazon has begun selling Oreck Commercial vacuum cleaners itself.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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