E-Commerce without a Website in the Age of COVID

TLDR; If you’re a small business, you can sell online fast and get access to millions of potential customers – without a website and without any real e-commerce infrastructure. 

I know this is probably too little too late. For people in the IT space this has been an incredibly busy year so far and I’ve been buried in work. Businesses and institutions everywhere have been struggling to adapt to the new reality of operating online with mixed success. Ironically, many of the small business owners I’ve spoken to are too busy trying to survive to get themselves online. They have reduced staff and have few technical resources. Some have succeeded and some have suffered greatly. This is an extraordinary time and I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but as someone who’s been involved in e-commerce for 20 years, I do have a few answers.

The Amazon in the Room

I’ve just placed another order on Amazon. It’s my 4th in the last few weeks as I’ve been trying to beat the Black Friday parcel rush and get my Christmas shopping done. Why Amazon? Where I live all retail stores are closed except for essential items (like booze, cigarettes and maybe food). In an effort to make sure everyone suffers equally, even businesses that carry both essential and non-essential items are barred from selling items deemed non-essential. I’ve tried ordering from local retailer websites and even some larger regional retailers, but for the most part their systems are clunky and awkward. And it seems like everything is out of stock. With Amazon I can usually find what I need and order it with a few clicks. I don’t have to register. I don’t have to re-enter my credit card information. I don’t have to factor in shipping costs since it’s almost always free.

So how can any small business expect to compete with an e-commerce juggernaut like Amazon? You don’t. You join them.

If you use Amazon, you may have noticed that much of the time when you order a product you’ll see a message showing that the item is “Sold by” and “Fulfilled by” someone other than Amazon. In other cases, the item may be “Sold by” someone else, but fulfilled by Amazon. What many small businesses may not know is that virtually anyone can sell products on Amazon. There are fees of course, but given the size of their audience, the cost is fairly reasonable. Individual sellers who sell less than 20 items per month can sign up on a pay-as-you-go basis and professional plans cost only $29.99 per month. Amazon also gives sellers the opportunity to pay for sponsored listings and give their product a boost in exposure. You have the option to ship the orders yourself, or pay a little more and have Amazon warehouse and ship your items. Essentially you can list your products on Amazon and instantly have access to millions of potential customers.

Many Amazon products are sold by smaller businesses.
Many Amazon products are sold by smaller businesses.

What’s the downside?

If you sell a well-known and popular product you will likely find that Amazon themselves sells the product and you have no hope of competing. Or you may find that the manufacturer of said product is selling directly through the Amazon platform. But for many small businesses that sell niche products, Amazon and other online marketplaces may be a good place to start. Even businesses that are local dealers for larger manufacturers may find success on these platforms.

It’s also worth noting that the customers you gain are not really your customers, they are Amazon’s. And all the business intelligence gained while transacting business is also shared with Amazon. Good reviews and good service will help your reputation and help you sell more, but ultimately there is no loyalty to be gained outside the platform unless your product is truly unique. If the rumors are true and your product is highly successful, you may also find in time that you are magically outranked by a knock-off product produced by Amazon themselves.

Despites these negatives, the sheer size of the audience and the elegance of the Amazon platform is hard to resist. There are opportunities to sell. A lot. In fact, a whole industry supporting Amazon sellers has developed and there are even third party marketplaces where Amazon sellers buy and sell their stores like real estate.

Other large companies like Walmart and Best Buy have online marketplace features for smaller sellers. I’ve included links to all these at the end of this article.

Selling on Social Media

While many businesses use Facebook for marketing, Facebook’s online shopping platform is a newer addition to their services. Facebook Shops allows users make purchase directly on Facebook or Instagram using Facebook’s platform. Fees are generally 5% per transaction. It can be a little tough to get noticed unless you have experience with Facebook marketing and social media in general, but if your business is already on Social media and has a decent following this can be a good way to improve sales.

Other On-line Marketplaces

If Amazon is not appropriate for your business you may still find opportunities for success on stalwart online auction site E-Bay. E-Bay is not just an auction site and the cost to get started selling is extremely low.

For sellers of vintage or handmade items, Etsy is another online marketplace where the barrier to entry is extremely low. It can be harder to be seen on Etsy since users may not be necessarily searching for your items, but as with Amazon, you can sponsor your Etsy store or product listings.

Local Classifieds

Lastly, if you are selling a product that can only be shipped or sold locally, or if the final transaction requires in-person contact you may consider placing a listing in local classifieds sites like Kijiji, Craigslist, or Gumtree. The trick here is to take the time to craft your ad and think about the words that people might be using to search for your product. Also be sure to include complete information in your ad. This is 2020 and no-one wants to “call for more information” unless they absolutely have no other choice. Boost your ad’s exposure on these sites is usually cheap and often worth the investment.

Links

Questions?

I’ve been developing and marketing online for two decades, which is like a century in Internet-years. If you have any questions, e-mail me at [email protected]. I may not have the answer, but I can probably point you in the right direction. I’m not affiliated with Amazon or any of the other companies mentioned.