SEATTLE — Exploding Kittens, a game that bills itself as “a kitty-powered version of Russian roulette,” spent years ranked as one of the most popular card games on Amazon’s store. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, sales doubled week after week, as families looked for distraction while hunkering down.
But just as orders came flying in, Amazon began prioritizing products like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The retailer stopped ordering more supply of Exploding Kittens, and the most popular version of the game soon fell out of stock. Tens of thousands of customers a day were searching for the product but couldn’t buy it.
The topsy-turvy nature of those sales points to the chaos behind the scenes of Amazon’s store.
Since the coronavirus outbreak reached the United States, Amazon — a company built on the promise that people will always want more items, more quickly — has struggled to respond to a surge in orders. Sometimes products are in stock. Sometimes they aren’t. Its popular page featuring Deals of the Day, once a prominent feature, has been buried. The company is even trying to tamp down demand.
Amazon has had to adjust to sales growth in one month that usually would take years, said Guru Hariharan, whose company, CommerceIQ, advises large consumer brands with their Amazon business.
“It is almost like a run on the bank,” he said, “when there is a rumor you can’t get your money out and everyone runs to the A.T.M.”
For consumers, the changes have generated confusion just as people have turned more than ever to online shopping to help protect themselves from the virus. The company tells customers that some products will arrive in weeks, rather than hours or days. And the sense of endless bounty on the site has eroded.
Jennifer Burns, who lives near Detroit, said she used to consider Amazon essential, placing 48 orders in the last six months. But in the last couple of weeks, she said, she has had to change how she shops.
She ordered toys for her son’s eighth birthday on Amazon earlier than usual, and still some presents have not arrived. After she got exhausted from wading through the hodgepodge of Amazon listings for Easter treats, she shopped on Target’s website instead.
“I don’t know the logistics of running a warehouse,” she said, “but it does make me rethink what I do need to order.”
Adding to the confusion is that not every product is available to all shoppers. For some items, like toilet paper, Amazon has given priority to people with recurring orders. It has earmarked supplies for Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods delivery, which do not use Amazon’s main warehouses. With more demand for those grocery services than it can fulfill, it has started a wait list for new customers.
Other items, like medical gloves and Purell, show up in searches but are largely available from Amazon’s warehouses to organizations like hospitals and local governments.
In recent weeks, Amazon has run fewer ads on Google that drive customers to its site when they search for products. It is paying less to media sites that review products that refer customers to its listings. On its own home page, Amazon removed the prominent “Shop Deals of the Day” button and for weeks has featured streaming video and book downloads rather than product promotions.
“They are trying to reduce demand, which is borderline insane, but I guess that is where we are,” said Juozas Kaziukenas, chief executive of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse. “This event has broken everything.”
“This is an exceptional situation,” Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said in an interview in late March. “So in response to that, we had to make exceptions to our normal approach to serving our customers.”
Kate Scarpa, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company was one of many playing a critical role in the crisis. It is regularly updating its processes “to ensure we can provide a vital service to people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable,” she said. “We know that people are depending on us.”
She said the company this week was letting more kinds of items into its warehouses, though “products will be limited by quantity to enable us to continue prioritizing products and protecting employees.”
Amazon’s systems began buckling by mid-March. Orders were up almost 16 percent in just two weeks, according to the market research firm Rakuten Intelligence, and attendance among workers at Amazon’s warehouses had fallen, making it more difficult to fulfill orders. In addition, Amazon, like other retailers, had trouble getting enough critical products. Amazon’s top executives had begun meeting almost daily, a group including Jeff Bezos, its chief executive; Jeff Wilke, who runs the consumer business; and Dave Clark, who heads operations.
On March 17, Amazon told suppliers to stop sending in many items so that it could prioritize having workers and drivers handle household staples, medical supplies and other “high demand” products.
Mr. Carney said Amazon wanted to help customers stay home. “To the extent we could get the items that people wanted,” he said, “we wanted to get them through the system as quickly as possible because they were core to the customer’s ability to feel that they could rely on us in this case.”
A different team at Amazon worked on another change: showing customers that products deemed to be a low priority would take many weeks to arrive.
Amazon knows shoppers are sensitive to exacting and quick delivery times. Almost a year ago, when it began investing billions of dollars to move from two-day shipping to next-day delivery, the growth in the numbers of items people bought on Amazon doubled within just months.
By showing long delivery estimates, Amazon would have more flexibility to fulfill orders and would suppress demand.
Which products Amazon considered high priority was unclear to customers and suppliers, and even some employees.
Fahim Naim, a former Amazon employee who now runs eShopportunity, an e-commerce consultancy, said he had asked the account managers he knew at Amazon to help him understand it.
“They say, ‘It doesn’t make sense to us, either!’” he said. “‘It’s the way of the algorithm.’”
Aaysia Shelton looked to buy Exploding Kittens on Amazon to play with her family while they were stuck at home in San Diego. The version she wanted was in stock, but the delivery was longer than she was used to.
“Amazon was a bit uncertain since they have been having a high volume of orders,” she said. She checked out Target, which had curbside pickup available for the next day, and ordered the game.
Carly McGinnis, who runs operations for Exploding Kittens, said that at first, “I panicked — this is the first time I have ever dealt with a pandemic.” When it was clear the game-maker could not get enough supply into Amazon’s warehouses, she scrambled to find an outside logistics company that was open and able to ship some orders to Amazon’s customers.
Problems that have long plagued the site, like third-party sellers who try to game Amazon’s software, continue as well. Some of the tricks are more visible than normal because they appear among so many items that are out of stock.
Hand sanitizer listings have been categorized as “box wrenches,” “outdoor clocks” and “cupcake toppers” to try to game Amazon’s systems to get the “best seller” label that can boost sales. Consultants who work with sellers say Amazon has been more aggressive about policing the system, particularly after the early rush for hand sanitizer, masks and other items caused a rash of price gouging. The fake listings are often taken down quickly, but new ones pop up.
“Sellers are using all the dirty tricks they always did,” Mr. Kaziukenas said, “but now the demand is so insane, if they can squeeze their product in, they can get crazy sales.”
Where name-brand products sell out, off-brand products sold by third-party sellers have filled the void. Many of the top search results for toilet paper with regular Prime delivery were novelty rolls with zombies or the faces of politicians like Hillary Clinton.
In early April, Arielle Ogletree and her mother, who live near Tampa, Fla., were almost out of toilet paper when they turned to Amazon. They found a 16-pack of the large commercial toilet paper rolls found in public restrooms for $42. A few days later, it was at their door.
“It was the only one they had, and we figured it would last a while,” Ms. Ogletree said.
The roll, too big for a regular holder, sits awkwardly on their bathroom counter. Though the single ply feels “like sandpaper,” Ms. Ogletree said, it was better than nothing.