Keri Cusick, Head of Amazon’s Small Business Empowerment team

Courtesy of Amazon

Many entrepreneurs have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. On the one hand, Amazon’s success has contributed to the transformation of the retail industry, making it increasingly challenging for small business retailers to compete. At the same time, Amazon’s store has made it possible for entrepreneurs to sell their goods globally, without having to create and maintain their own web presence.

Amazon first opened its online shelves to small businesses in 2000 and has invested in supporting entrepreneurs, handmade artisans and small businesses selling in its store ever since. In 2018, the company doubled down on that support and created an internal Small Business Empowerment team, currently led by Keri Cusick, an Amazon veteran since 2014. Keri’s motivation to help small companies succeed arises from her childhood, watching her parents, and a grandparent, grow their own businesses.

John Greathouse: Thanks for taking the time, Keri. Let’s start with Amazon’s definition of “small business,” which can vary widely between companies. Also,  I’m curious as to the relative impact these small companies represent within Amazon’s overall store? 

Keri Cusick: Thanks for having me, John. First, it’s critical to us that we define small businesses in the same way our customers and business partners do. In the U.S., we follow Gartner’s definition – small businesses are those with fewer than 100 employees and total annual revenue of less than $50 million.

There are over a million independent businesses selling in our store worldwide and they account for over half of all products sold. Actually, their sales continue to outpace our own retail sales which is exciting to see. We know that customers value a wide selection and the opportunity to discover local small businesses. Our selling partners play a key role in that for us and offer products across all categories.

Greathouse: Obviously, some sectors outperformed others, but in general, how have small businesses fared on Amazon during 2020?

Cusick: While COVID-19 has created many challenges for small businesses, we’ve seen smaller companies continue to grow with Amazon, despite the crisis. In 2020, the number of U.S. SMB (small and medium businesses) sellers that surpassed $1 million in sales grew by more than 20% and more than 3,700 surpassed $1 million in sales for the first time. And, SMBs selling on the Amazon.com store have created an estimated 1.1 million jobs.

That success and growth continued through the holiday season, which was the best ever for our selling partners, with worldwide sales growing over 50%, compared to the same time period in 2019. The impacts of the pandemic have touched every one of us, but it’s inspiring to see how our small business partners have pivoted and found success.

One story that exhibits the passion and ingenuity these small business owners have displayed this past year is the impact Sheets & Giggles, a sustainable bedding brand out of Denver, Colorado, has had in their community. They sustained their business on Amazon through the pandemic and they were able to donate $40,000 in cash to COVID-19 emergency relief in Colorado and thousands more in sheet sets and comforters to homeless shelters, emergency shelters, and healthcare workers across their state.

Greathouse: I’m a small investor and advisor to CLIQ Products – which created a bottle-sized chair that became an Amazon category leader during 2020. Because of our sales growth, Amazon proactively reached out and helped us optimize our Amazon store.

Given the help Amazon has provided CLIQ, I’m curious as to what other programs or services are available to entrepreneurs using your platform.

Cusick: First, congratulations on your small business success with Amazon. We have a number of programs and initiatives that help guide small businesses on how to successfully sell and grow.

We offer free education and resources through programs like Seller University and Amazon Small Business Academy. The academy’s free educational webinars and events take place throughout the year and are available online. They’re open to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs to give them resources to learn more about strategies to help them be successful. In fact, in 2020, we hosted over 1,000 educational events for SMBs around the world, with more than 150,000 attendees. Topics include learning how to become a seller on Amazon, how to publish your book through Kindle Direct Publishing and tips for launching business-to-business sales through Amazon Business.

Examples of paid services include Strategic Account Services, which pairs sellers with a designated account manager to provide coaching and advice in key areas like fulfillment and inventory, account health, selection and conversion growth, merchandising and advertising, and global expansion.

We also have programs like Amazon Launchpad that provides sellers with resources, expertise, and global support to help them jumpstart and accelerate their business and Amazon Handmade which is an artisan-only community of sellers who sell their handcrafted goods in Amazon’s store.

Greathouse: Good to know. In addition to helping us sell more on our store, someone (from Amazon) reached out to CLIQ about participating in Prime Day, as part of a small business initiative. What were the mechanics of this past year’s campaign – are there plans for similar campaigns that smaller ventures can leverage in 2021?

Cusick: This was one of my favorite projects in 2020. We designed this last Prime Day to support small businesses and committed more than $100 million to help their growth over the shopping event and through the holiday season. This included holding our biggest small business promotion yet, during which customers who purchased $10 in products from a participating small business selling on Amazon earned a $10 credit to spend on Prime Day.

In the two-week lead-up to Prime Day, small businesses included in the promotion generated more than $900 million in sales. Overall, Prime Day 2020 was the biggest two days ever for our SMB partners. They surpassed $3.5 billion in sales, which was a nearly 60% increase over 2019’s Prime Day. We are looking at additional opportunities to highlight and promote our small business selling partners again in 2021.

Greathouse: A common concern I’ve heard from entrepreneurs, especially those who have successful crowdsource campaigns, is that pirates knockoff their products before they have time to meet the demand they’ve created. I was pleased to see that Amazon recently issued a high-profile lawsuit against some alleged bootleggers.

What should vendors do to mitigate counterfeit sales of their products on Amazon? Are there specific programs they can turn to?

Cusick: Yes, we are focused on preventing counterfeits from ever being listed in our store. We’ve created many ways to help brands protect their intellectual property through programs like Brand Registry, Transparency, IP Accelerator, and Project Zero to ensure only authentic products are sold in our stores.

Our IP Accelerator helps businesses more quickly obtain intellectual property rights by connecting businesses with a network of law firms who charge pre-negotiated fees, making it easier for SMBs to obtain trademarks. Since the program’s launch, we have connected SMBs with participating law firms, resulting in more than 6,000 trademark applications. Additionally, businesses using IP Accelerator get access to our wider brand protection services months, or even years, before their trademark registration officially issues. We also investigate any claim of counterfeit thoroughly, including removing the item, permanently removing the bad actor, pursuing legal action or working with law enforcement as appropriate.

We established the Counterfeit Crimes Unit in June 2020 to work with brands and law enforcement to pursue bad actors and hold counterfeiters accountable to the fullest extent of the law. In 2019, we invested over $500 million and had more than 8,000 employees fighting fraud and abuse, including counterfeit.

Greathouse: Wow, those are huge numbers. I realize it’s an ongoing arms race with the crooks, but I’m glad to hear this is a major priority.

Another fear entrepreneurs have shared with me is that their success on Amazon might lead to Amazon producing its own version of their bestselling products. What would you say to an entrepreneur with this concern? 

Cusick: Sales from our SMB selling partners account for more than half of everything sold in our store. The products they sell are very important to us and to customers. We have no interest in limiting the performance of our selling partners in any way, and we strictly prohibit Amazon employees from using non-public, seller-specific data to determine which private label products to launch.

Amazon does offer its own store-branded products, as all retailers do, but they make up a very small portion – around one percent – of sales in our store and do not replace the incredible selection of products offered by our selling partners.

Greathouse: Many of my Forbes interviews focus on entrepreneurs from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. Does Amazon have specific programs to assist minority and/or women led small businesses?

Cusick: Yes – this is a top priority for us. For example, we are actively invested in supporting minority-owned businesses. We have partnerships with the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency and the National Business League to help Black-owned businesses accelerate their growth by selling online.

Late last year, we launched our Support Small store which is a collection of small business sellers. It gives customers the opportunity to meet small business owners, including Black-owned business, woman-owned business and family-owned business storefronts. We are also actively recruiting and onboarding minority-owned businesses to sell in our stores and exploring new solutions we can provide to help these businesses grow and thrive.

Greathouse: Good to hear, all around. In addition to helping minority-owned businesses, the impact of COVID has caused many of us to focus on supporting our local businesses. Does Amazon have tools to facilitate buying local? Is it possible for small vendors to ensure they are highlighted locally?

Cusick: Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities and our economy, and we are committed to supporting them. Our Support Small store helps small businesses reach customers. The dedicated shopping experience helps customers shop products from tens of thousands of local small businesses by region or category.  

Greathouse: Nice, I wasn’t aware of the Support Small effort.

What is your elevator pitch to entrepreneurs who have created a successful online sales model, but are not utilizing Amazon’s platform? 

Cusick: Great question, John. While selling on Amazon may not be a fit for all entrepreneurs, it is a great option for many businesses. First, it creates access to an awesome global customer base – we have more than 300 million active customers worldwide. That is a powerful business driver, especially when paired with the hundreds of programs, tools, and support services we offer to business owners at every phase of their entrepreneurial journey.

Selling on Amazon also unlocks opportunities for business-to-business sales with customers that include Fortune 100 companies, some of the biggest U.S. hospital systems and many local governments across the U.S. I can’t get enough of the stories of business owners who grew their great ideas into amazing businesses in partnership in Amazon, whether they simply had a business idea, had just started a business, or were longtime business owners looking for ways to grow.

As small business owners plan to adapt for the future, for many, selling online will be a critical component of recovery and sustaining over the long term.

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

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Roland Millaner