Amazon launches Storefronts to give 20K small businesses a bigger spotlight

Amazon has had a complicated relationship with small businesses over the years: on one hand, it’s long been a channel for them to sell goods online to a wider audience; but on the other, some have lamented giving over too much customer “ownership” to it in the name of sales, and not being able to stand out and present their brand and products in anything other than Amazon’s format.

But today, Amazon made a move to counterbalance some of that criticism: it launched a new portal it’s calling Storefronts to celebrate mom-and-pop shops and other smaller merchants that sell through the platform. Amazon is starting this first in the US, focussing on some 20,000 merchants “from all 50 states” (note: none from other parts of the world). For some context, there are around 300,000 small businesses from the US selling on today.

Those getting highlighted on Storefronts are already merchants on Amazon’s platform, but you could also see this as a way for Amazon to try to lure more merchants to do business there. Amazon is huge, but those small businesses have other options, including other marketplaces like eBay, or building their own sites and using something like Shopify to power them, or foregoeing “traditional” e-commerce routes altogether.

The idea is to bring a little more personality to the process of transaction, not unlike what you might get if you shop regularly at a small businesses when it’s in a physical location, and you might know the owner by name or she or he would know you. Storefronts will highlight different merchants in the mix with videos that profile the owners, and highlight a selection of items that they sell via Amazon. It will also feature the small businesses in a marketing campaign.

No links, however, to a homepage of their own or their physical stores, if the SMBs happen to have either.

“We’ve created a custom, one-stop shopping experience for customers looking for interesting, innovative and high quality products from American businesses from all across the country,” said Nicholas Denissen, VP for Amazon in a statement. “Amazon first invited businesses to sell on Amazon nearly two decades ago, and today, small and medium-sized businesses are a vital part of Amazon’s large selection and commitment to customers. We’re championing their success with this new store and a national advertising campaign featuring a successful Michigan business selling on Amazon to customers across the U.S. and worldwide.”

The rest of the Storefronts experience is essentially a portal through to the wider catalog of goods that you will find on Amazon, curated by subject areas like Back to School, Halloween, Home, Kitchen, Pet Supplies and Books; or themes such as “women-owned businesses” or “family-focused businesses” or “artisans“; and with an emphasis on products being sold by Storefronts merchants, with the products ultimately shown off in the Amazon layout that you know very well already.

Storefronts is built on a template that Amazon has used before: in 2015 it opened another portal called Launchpad that highlights mostly tech startups and sells the hardware and other products that they are building. It later expanded that to other markets outside the US, so you can see how Amazon might develop Storefronts down the line.

To be clear and avoid confusion, today’s Storefronts launch is not connected to Amazon’s other Storefronts product — which is a way for sellers who are also the owners of a particular brand or trademark to take control of how its listed and whose products come up in searches first (or at all), downgrading unauthorised sellers and counterfeiters.

Despite some of those kinds of hiccups and challenges, online marketplaces — where smaller businesses sell items via third-party platforms like Amazon or eBay — have been one of the more enduring (perhaps the most enduring?) business models over the many ups and downs of the world of e-commerce.

You could argue that more traditional, direct-to-customer retail has partly died because of the rise of these marketplaces, but you cannot deny that they have also shown that customers continue to want to buy from these smaller producers and sellers, too.

“Since we started selling on Amazon in October 2016, our sales have nearly doubled. Due to our success, we have been able to hire new team members from our community, including full and part time jobs,” said Holly Rutt in a statement. Rutt is the co-founder of Little Flower Soap Co., which is featured in Amazon’s first ad (which we’ve embedded below). “We believe that customers like to know the story behind what they’re buying. When there is worry about creating jobs, it’s reassuring for customers to know their purchases are helping sustain jobs in the U.S.”

Amazon has long countered criticism of its impact on SMBs by highlighting its positive impact. A recent study it published estimated that small and medium-sized businesses selling on Amazon created more than 900,000 jobs globally.