Online shopping just keeps growing. Last year, U.S. consumers spent over $513 billion on the Internet, an increase of more than 14 percent compared to 2017, according to figures released in March from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Almost one retail sale in ten now takes place online.
Those changing consumer habits are a challenge for small businesses and not just because every seller has to build an ecommerce store. Do-it-yourself website building kits now make designing a retail site the work of no more than a few hours.
The challenge for small businesses is that, while more than half a trillion dollars may be changing hands online every year, some 40 percent of those sales take place on just one site.
Amazon dominates online retail. The $867 billion company is more than a store. It’s a complete retail center serving over 150 million unique visitors each month. Its own sales make up much of that retail space but through its Amazon Marketplace feature, Amazon also hosts the online outlets of around six million other sellers. They’re said to make up more than double the value of Amazon’s own sales.
Essentially, Amazon is the world’s biggest shopping mall.
The good news is that any retailer can take space in that mall. For professional sellers, there’s a monthly subscription fee of $39.99, as well as referral fees that are typically between 8 and 15 percent of the sales price (although they can reach as high as 45 percent.) Retailers can fulfill orders themselves or they can ship stock to one of Amazon’s warehouses and let the company do the fulfillment work for them. (I use Amazon to fulfil orders of my Kaching buttons.)
The challenge of online retail isn’t building the website. It’s finding customers and building enough trust to make them comfortable entering their credit card details.
That’s what Amazon’s fees buy. When someone searches for your goods at Amazon.com, your products will appear in their search results. They’ll appear at a place where customers are used to shopping. It’s likely that the customer won’t even notice that they’re buying from a third-party retailer instead of from Amazon itself.
For online sellers, Amazon doesn’t have to be a competitor. It can also be a partner, helping you to sell your products to the massive audience that it’s already created.
But it’s not quite that simple. Amazon’s benefits come at a cost, and those costs are more than financial.
First, the competition is tight. You won’t be the only seller in your space pitching your goods through Amazon Marketplace. To stand out, you’ll need to keep adjusting your prices to keep them competitive. You’ll also need to pick up positive reviews, and, while you can pay for a higher spot in the search results, that expenditure comes on top of your referral fees.
Second, you’ll be at the whim of Amazon’s bureaucracy, including a judicial system that has been described as “Kafkaesque.” Amazon is quick to suspend sellers while its appeal process can be difficult and unresponsive. That’s made the marketplace a battleground for dirty dealers whose tricks have included buying fake reviews for competitors, setting competitors’ products alight then telling Amazon they exploded, and reclassifying rivals’ products in the wrong categories. There’s an entire industry of experts and consultants helping businesses with their appeals. Amazon Marketplace can feel more like a Wild West town ruled by a despotic sheriff than the Mall of America.
But above all, selling on Amazon Marketplace gives your customers fewer reasons to come to your own website where you have complete control. There are no competitors on your own site. The customer loyalty you win is entirely your own, and you don’t have to deal with Amazon’s strange appeals process.
Amazon Marketplace is too big to ignore. But its size and power make it unlikely to be a reliable environment for small sellers. Use it if you believe it will bring you extra sales but make sure that it’s not the only way you reach customers.
About Joel Comm
As an Internet pioneer, Joel has been creating profitable websites, software, products and helping entrepreneurs succeed since 1995. He has been at the frontlines of live video online since 2008 and has a deep expertise in using tools such as Facebook Live, Periscope, Instagram or Snapchat to broadcast a clearly defined message to a receptive audience or leveraging the power of webinar and meeting technologies.
Joel is a New York Times best-selling author of 15 books, including “The AdSense Code,” “Click Here to Order: Stories from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs,” “KaChing: How to Run an Online Business that Pays and Pays and Twitter Power 3.0.” He is Co-Host of The Bad Crypto Podcast one of the top crypto-related shows in the world and has spoken before thousands of people around the world and seeks to inspire, equip and entertain.
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