Let's talk Amazon. Not the Caran d'Ache ink....I'm talking about Amazon.com, the 'Walmart' of the online retailing world. This blog is one I've spent a great deal of time writing and revising, so it's worth reading even if it's a bit 'wordy'.
We've had Amazon.com's commercial department contact us about setting up an Amazon store, and we've considered it for a few weeks now. But wait, we already have a good thing going with Gouletpens.com, right? Yes, we do. We're working that hard and enjoying it, and we've considered Amazon as 'another leg on the stool'.
I do have some very major concerns that are keeping me from pulling the Amazon trigger. I'll start small and get bigger as I go here.
Setting up an Amazon store is a whole other store, a diversion from our normal mode of operation at GouletPens.com. It's more web work for my incredibly overworked wife, a separate set of inventory, and a whole different merchant account and sales process that's almost like opening up a second store and running two businesses at the same time. I'm seriously concerned that juggling both GouletPens.com and 'The Goulet Pen Company on Amazon' would be difficult to manage at best. At worst it would consume our lives and deteriorate the great customer service we're known for.
A little bit bigger picture concerns where I see the potential for Amazon in the writing paraphernalia world as a whole. Let me explain a little bit about the goal I see from Amazon's point of view.
Amazon finds a niche retailer like me to give them money to sell on their site. It's almost no work for them, as I set it all up and then pay them fees. Okay, that's great for them.
Say I do well and sell a lot of things.....in order to provide 'better service' and faster shipping, they will want me to utilize their own distribution process called FBA (fulfillment by Amazon). With FBA, I have my products shipped from my distributors directly to them and they ship it to the customer (you). I never touch the product. This process isn't theoretical, this is already happening. Whenever you buy something that's 'Amazon Prime', it's coming from their distribution center via FBA. Every product on Amazon's website that's 'Free supersaver shipping' or Amazon Prime 2-day shipping eligible is coming from Amazon's 10 million square feet of warehouse space around the world.
So what role then do I, the retailer, play if I have my products hosted on Amazon and shipped via FBA? What's my value if they house my products, and they do all the shipping and customer interaction? None. Amazon then begins selling those products themselves, making me obsolete. Amazon has ingeniously found a way to get individual retailers like me to take the risk in finding valuable products, build the niche, direct loyal customers to Amazon (and pay them in the process), get all of the small online companies to compete with each other then squeeze small retailers (like me) out of the market by offering FBA products with faster shipping and lower prices.
It's like Walmart has done to mom-and-pops all over the country, except in the online world. Once Amazon learns what products sell, they purchase those products directly from distributors at bulk prices and sell at prices so low they can eliminate any smaller competition, creating a monopoly on their website. They can become the largest retailer for whatever niche distributor there is for the given product and then begin dictating what products are imported by putting pressure on the distributor. It's sort of a scary thought, really. But since Amazon alone represents 20% of all online sales, they have the power to do things like this. Reading in forums I've heard of other niche online sellers that have experienced this for themselves firsthand, and I see the same potential for it to happen with fountain pens (and related writing products).
The whole idea of it quite honestly makes me feel sick to my stomach because Amazon markets this service as such a 'benefit' to retailers. And retailers are tripping over each other to get their stuff on there! I won't name names, but I know several of the larger fountain pen retailers (that have been around for years) are rushing to build their Amazon stores. The problem I see is that they will become more or less faceless entities through the Amazon mask, until eventually their only distinguishing characteristic will be price, which they will ultimately lose out to Amazon once Amazon begins to carry those products in their own warehouses (competing with the very retailers that generated interest in those products). That or the retailers will become so busy fulfilling Amazon orders (for pitiful margins) that their customer service will crater and they'll implode.
So okay, enough of being a Debbie Downer about the whole thing here. It's pretty obvious I'm talking myself out of selling through Amazon as I type this. But what is it that's going to make me different where I will outshine Amazon (and other competitors) in the fountain pen paraphernalia world?
It's service and education (aka, value). That's what I'm all about. I've been striving since day one to know my products better than anyone else, share the knowledge I gain, talk with the writing community every step of the way, and get constant feedback (and more importantly, make changes as I get that feedback).
I have this blog, I do video and pictorial reviews, I have the Ink Drop club, the Swab Shop, GPC newsletters, live weekly broadcasts (we call it Write Time), and an Ink Nouveau Podcast. Where I want to shine is to do the work that a large company like Amazon simply can't do, which is to have a personal and intimate connection with the products I sell. It's the very same connection that you have with your pens, ink, and paper when you're spilling your soul while you write. Having that passion makes a difference.
The part I love most about running GouletPens.com and working specifically in the fountain pen paraphernalia business is the incredible people and loyal customers and fans I interact with on a daily basis. Though many large companies view customer interactions as time consuming distractions, I view every order I receive as a customer with a passion and a story behind why they love to write. I value every person that follows my blog, watches my videos, and purchases from my website, and it would kill me to give up the interaction like I would have to do if I sold on Amazon.
So while many other retailers will look at Amazon as a great way to get more customers or sell depersonalized commodities in greater volume, I'm doing the opposite. I'm going to turn away from going to Amazon to bring customers to me, and look to spend more time reviewing products and educating the writing world through blogs, videos, and pictorial reviews. That is where I see myself best serving the writing community and where I feel will benefit my 'mom-and-pop' website in the long run. I am of the philosophy that if I put sharing product knowledge, insane customer service, and crazy fast shipping as my top priorities that your shared enthusiasm for what I do will help to spread the word about me more than any other website could.
Here are a couple of online articles too that explain the mentality of Amazon's fullfillment services: 10 Crazy Rules That'll Get You Fired From Amazon, and Inside The Lives of Amazon Employees