Amazon launched a new section of its site called Amazon Storefronts on Monday morning, a space that looks remarkably like the handmade e-commerce giant Etsy and offers customers access to “over 1 million products” from 20,000 “small and medium-sized” US businesses.
Storefronts features “Curated Collections” including seasonal-themed sections like back-to-school and Halloween and very generic sections like home, kitchen, jewelry, pet supplies, and electronics. There’s also a “Meet the Business Owners” section which features shops owned by “artisans,” families, women, and “innovator makers.”
It’s a move to position Amazon as a friendly corporate giant, one which encourages entrepreneurship and the revitalization of small businesses. This is a delicate balancing act — trying to be everywhere, but not as a faceless $1 trillion company. Instead, as 20,000 businesses featuring literal faces that can connect to you on a folksy, personal level.
How does Amazon — a not-at-all-small business — define a small business?
Earlier this year, the company published a Small Business Impact Report, which was three slides long and claimed that “small and medium-sized businesses selling on Amazon have created more than 900,000 jobs.” (A representative from Amazon tells Vox this data is based on “internal metrics and research.”) The Storefront homepage banners claim “small and medium-sized” businesses make half of all of the products sold on Amazon, and feature the Michigan-based Little Flower Soap Company — an Instagram-perfect husband-and-wife business run out of a barn with the help of two full-time and five part-time employees.
However, Little Flower Soap Company is an interesting choice to be an example for Storefronts: A representative from Amazon tells Vox that “small” and “medium” businesses are defined by the number of employees a business has and the amount of revenue it brings in: small businesses have fewer than 100 employees and less than $50 million in yearly revenue, medium-sized businesses have fewer than 1,000 employees and less than $1 billion in yearly revenue.
So, Storefronts will be marketed with a colloquial understanding of what a small business is, but function using a definition that includes basically anything less than a publicly-traded global brand. One of the first recommended deals is for a ShowerShroom, a rubber hair collector for shower drains, which is not so romantic as barn-made soap but is an extremely popular Amazon product that often appears on (Amazon affiliate link-riddled) shopping guides published by places like Mashable and New York magazine.
The launch of Amazon Storefronts comes with a TV ad featuring Little Flower Soap Company owner Holly Rutt, who won a national competition to star in the one-minute spot. In it, the Rutt’s logo appears on the side of shipping containers, train cars, and 18-wheelers. So this ad works on two levels: It announces Amazon Storefronts, and it functions as a subtle reminder that Amazon has spent the last five years building out its own international shipping logistics system — with drones, planes, freight trains, and cargo ships — which will soon pose a legitimate threat to FedEx and UPS, if it doesn’t already.
When Bloomberg published details of those ambitions in April 2016, industry analyst Colin Sebastian estimated it could become a $400 billion business and told Forbes: “This is classic Amazon fashion. They take baby steps along a long path, which allows some companies that could be disrupted to remain in a sense of denial.”
Amazon has rolled out its challenge to Etsy slowly, over the last 3 years
With Amazon’s larger goals in mind, it’s worth noting that in October 2015, Amazon launched Handmade at Amazon, a much-smaller curation of 80,000 artisan-made products from 5,000 sellers in 60 countries. Almost all were fulfilled via Prime’s two-day shipping. At the time, media coverage portrayed it as an almost idle move to compete with Etsy — made personal only by the fact that Amazon sent invitations to individuals Etsy sellers inviting them to apply for the program.
Etsy had then seemed particularly vulnerable — it was just one month after controversial vendor policy changes, four months after a dramatic and public feud with its enormous witchcraft community, and exactly six months into a wild post-IPO share price slump. Buyers and sellers were intrigued by the reliability Amazon might offer, even as they expressed loyalty to communities they’d built on Etsy.
But Etsy appeared unshaken, given the stark difference between Amazon’s 12-percent cut of sales and its own 20-cent-per-item listing fee and 3.5 percent cut of sales. However, in October 2017, Amazon expanded Handmade with a section dedicated specifically to gifts, and sent Etsy shares down more than 3 percent by the middle of the day.
Now, Amazon Storefronts looks poised to take an even bigger piece of Etsy’s pie and steer IRL small business owners to an online presence that looks far less optional than before. It could be so easy, as illustrated in the Storefronts ad, to never shut your business down for the night, and to constantly be making money. It could also be easy, as shoppers, to do all of our buying on Amazon — from household staples and groceries in bulk to algorithm-designed clothes to cute, personal handmade gifts.
There was a time not so long ago when a small business that didn’t have a website or parsable information on its Google Map listing didn’t seem ridiculous, but that’s fully in the past. Soon, we might find ourselves asking: If you have a storefront, why don’t you have a Storefront?