Read time: ~14 minutes (yikes)

Oh hi, it's me Lauren standing in front of my favorite arcade game, Galaga, in a thrifted 90's patterned sweater and red button up skirt.

As the mornings get darker and the sun sets earlier we find ourselves coming down upon the first few days of fall. Fall will quickly turn to Halloween then Thanksgiving AKA Colonizer’s Gonna Lie Day, Black Friday, Christmas, and then New Year’s after which the rush finally dies down and you can breathe. 

Those of you toying around with conscious capitalism will be buying only what you need and thinking of creative gifts your loved ones can put to use. But when it’s time to go make your purchases, prioritize shopping locally with small businesses near you.

I am a small business owner, the child of a small business owner, and a friend of other small business owners; I feel very confident telling you that small businesses can tell when you ditch Amazon and shop with them instead. 

I won’t be highlighting any specific businesses in this post, there are plenty of others that do that based on your location but I am hoping to get across how much your business means to a small, creative shop and how much damage your easy two-day shipping actually does. 

Thanks for sticking around! 

Why Are Small (Sustainable) Businesses Selling On Amazon?

Photo by Mitul Sha/Burst

When you go on a trip to a new city, what are you excited about doing? Exploring the cool restaurants and local eclectic businesses? Or visiting that chain that looks exactly the same as the one in your city? 

We all have an investment in seeing local businesses thrive. 

You’ll often see sustainable and small businesses encouraging you not to shop on Amazon. But then you turn around and find their products listed there. It’s particularly common in the sustainability world. 

  • Does it make you feel like they’re being shady or hypocritical? 
  • Does it cause you to lose a little faith in them? 

In our increasingly disconnected world, it can be easy to let that first emotion (anger) take control when we feel like we’re being deceived. But as someone who gets to talk with sustainable business owners often, the real answer is a little more nuanced.

Amazon has a monopoly over small and medium-sized businesses (officially determined by the House Judiciary Committee). That allows them to: 

  • Raise fees as they desire.
  • Undercut a business’s prices with their own product.
  • Prevent businesses from growing a loyal customer base.
  • Control the algorithm and therefore a company’s visibility.
  • Create (and sell) competing versions of its third-party sellers’ products.
  • Punish a seller for offering cheaper prices on other sites.
  • Force businesses to sell their products at a rate that harms a business. 

Any single or combination of these options is enough to put any small brand out of business. 

While Amazon Flourishes, Small Businesses Struggle 

Photo by Samantha Hurley/Burst

If the above section doesn’t convince you, let’s go back a little further.

Small businesses helped to make Amazon the company it is today. When Amazon first launched its digital marketplace for third-party sellers, it allowed small businesses around the country to have access to millions of Amazon users (hooray!). 

But what it really did was allow Amazon to grow exponentially as access to each seller expanded Amazon’s selection of items. 

Because they were able to grow so quickly under this model (and others of course) they quickly took control of the e-commerce market. Currently, Amazon owns 38% of all online retail sales.

When Amazon launched FBA, Fulfillment by Amazon, in 2006, it allowed third-party sellers to store their products in Amazon warehouses. For a fee, Amazon would store it, pack it, and ship it, and in return, these products were available to Amazon Prime members. 

This increased the number of products available on Prime, which kept people coming back, which kept incentivizing sellers to pay for FBA.

If people are getting everything they need from Amazon like toilet paper, toothpaste, cat food, and plants, small businesses have to go where the traffic is. The bigger Amazon gets, the more reliant small businesses become on it, and the more control Amazon has. 

Sure, they’ve helped usher in a new age of e-commerce, but they’ve also set (ridiculously high) expectations. Amazon has 1,132 fulfillment centers in the U.S. with that number frequently increasing. How is a small 5-person company based out of Portland, Maine or Oregon, supposed to match them in prices, shipping speed, shipping cost, and customer service?

So, If They Don’t Like Amazon, Why Do Small Businesses Stay? 

Photo by Matthew Henry/Burst

In a nutshell? Sometimes you kind of have to. I think about it like a storefront. 

Before the internet, how many small business owners had physical stores in an area they didn’t like or didn’t want to live in? My guess is a lot. But they did it because that’s where the foot traffic was; that’s where the money was; and/or that’s what they could afford. 

A small sustainable business selling on Amazon doesn’t mean they’ve sold their soul forever. It means for the time being it’s helping them get exposure and sales (to help them continue to do more good things for the planet) with the goal of ultimately not selling on Amazon one day.

Most small businesses I’ve spoken to dislike being on Amazon but acknowledge that it’s the most convenient way for people to buy. We’ve become so reliant on Amazon and two-day shipping, we don’t want to break away from it. Small businesses are meeting their customers where they are.

Why else might find small businesses on Amazon?

  • Pay What You Can
    • A small business can sell on Amazon without having to market, advertise, or use any of Amazon’s products. Now, if they want to increase their traffic and visibility, and beat out competitors, well yeah, marketing and advertising are necessary. But it’s not required to start!
  • Millions of Viewers
    • There are 150 million Amazon Prime members, bringing in 223 million visits per month with more people signing up every day. Access to that kind of reach and viewership as a small business is insane
  • Support
    • Depending on what type of seller you are, Amazon does most of the grunt work. They store, they pack, they ship, they provide technical support, they even provide customer support. That takes a lot of work off the plate of a small business owner and lets them focus on growing their business or managing their storefront.
  • Modern Day Convenience

Small businesses have their own incentives for selling on Amazon just as you have your own incentives for shopping on Amazon. 

You know it’s not great for the planet, you know there’s some shadiness going on with unionizing and unfair labor practices, and yet you still have your reasons for shopping with them.

So the next time you see a post for ‘Small Business Season’ or ‘Shop Local’ and it comes with a request to buy directly from a small business, keep this in mind.

Supporting Small Business Season Is More Important Than Ever

Photo by Shopify Photos/Burst

Let me set the stage. 

As of 2022, Jeff Bezos is the second richest BILLIONAIRE IN THE WORLD with a net worth of $151 billion. Because that’s such an absurd amount of money, let’s put the difference between millions and billions into perspective. 

  • 86,400 seconds equals one day.
  • 1 million seconds equals 12 days (casual).
  • 1 BILLION seconds equals 30 YEARS (10,957 days).

Amazon paid 6% of its taxes (from profits) and avoided paying $5.2 billion in corporate federal taxes in 2021

That small business you’re buying from might be struggling to stay afloat (and they’re probably paying their taxes). They might also be doing very well but I can (almost) guarantee they’re not anywhere in Forbes’ richest people list.

Focus on What’s Truly Important:

  • Shopping Small Is More Sustainable And/Or Ethical 
  • Shopping Small Helps Them Stay In Business
    • Amazon takes a commission for each sale (for having facilitated the connection).
    • There are fees for warehouse storage.
    • Fees for all that packing and delivering they do for you.
    • Advertising fees (if you opt-in).
    • Logistics fees (if you opt in which you will because it’s cheaper/easier than the alternative).
    • Amazon has made it increasingly harder for independent businesses to find success without them.
  • Health of the Local Community
    • Supporting locally-owned and small businesses keeps money within the community
    • Small businesses are responsible for employing almost ½ of the American workforce.
    • Small local businesses are a lifeline in the community; they bring people together and keep things moving forward.
    • Small businesses are owned by your neighbors, your friends, your family. They take the same public transportation, they use the same roads, they buy from the same stores. They are your community. 
    • When money leaves the community (aka a large corporation), the community doesn’t benefit in the long run. 
    • Customer service is a top priority for small businesses because they want to engage with and support the community.
  • Shopping Local Breaks The Monopoly

Amazon has become a Monopoly albeit a very trendy and fun one that gives us everything we could ever want so no one really questions it. However, Amazon controls 66% of e-commerce sales for Books, music & video in 2019.

  • 45% of e-commerce sales for computer & consumer electronics.
  • 45% of e-commerce sales for toys & hobbies.
  • 42% of e-commerce sales for office equipment & supplies.
  • 34% of e-commerce sales for furniture & home furnishings.
  • 30% of e-commerce sales for apparel & accessories. 
  • 29% of e-commerce sales for health, personal care & beauty.
  • 23% of e-commerce sales for food & beverage.

Yet the small businesses that make up Amazon’s third-party sellers often face fees that total up to 50% of each sale

  • Shopping Small Let’s Small Businesses Set Their Prices

As of 2019, Amazon no longer prohibits third-party sellers from listing their products on competing sites. However, if one of Amazon’s price bots detects a seller listing their prices cheaper on a site other than Amazon, the item is demoted in the search results, making the product less visible (or invisible), and ultimately resulting in the seller losing sales.

  • Amazon Competes Against Small Businesses

Have you ever searched for a specific brand on Amazon only to have to scroll through pages of “sponsored results” just to (maybe) find what you searched for? 

Despite increasing pressure to do so, advertising with Amazon never guarantees your spot. They’re loyal to the dollar, not to your brand, and will serve higher-paying competitors’ products with, beside, near, or instead of, yours.

  • Amazon Steals Ideas

Similar to serving competitors’ products over your own, Amazon has taken data from its independent sellers, created similar or identical products, and rigged the results to give their own products higher placement than the third-party sellers’ products.

Not to mention the huge problem of sellers stealing other people’s designs, uploading them, and profiting from them. 

  • Shopping Small Fosters Better Connections

When you make a purchase with a small business through Amazon, your purchase goes through Amazon and your information stays with Amazon. 

  • That small business is never able to reach out to you to see if you enjoyed your product.
  • To let you know about similar products you might enjoy.
  • To develop a relationship with you.
  • To get an honest review from you.
  • Or anything else. 

That all stays with Amazon. 

Your first thought might have been “Good, less junk mail for me” but really what they did was take that choice away from you. 

This might not seem like a big deal to you as a consumer, but it’s a big deal to us on the marketing side and it’s an especially big deal to me in the sustainability world. 

The brands I work with are regular-schmegular people who are trying to share what they love with the world while trying to leave a smaller footprint on the planet. Building a connection with you, their audience, the people who love, buy, and recommend their products is a huge part of that. 

You may not want to receive emails or communication from a brand — which is totally fine — so you opt out. No biggie.

But that should be a choice you make. These small businesses are working hard to not only sell this amazing product/service they have, but to find the people who want to buy it, build a real, genuine connection, and make sure you love your experience with them and the product/service. 

I hate to tell you this but a lot of that happens through email, blogs, social media, and other direct forms of communication that they lose out on when selling on Amazon.

Believe me, I know it sounds cheesy, but your information is valuable. Give it to the people trying to do the right thing. Not to someone who thinks humanity should leave Earth so we can turn it into a giant park… (I’m not kidding).

How You Can Support Small Business Season

Photo by Sarah Pflug/Burst

  • Don’t Judge

You never know a brand’s reasoning. If it really bothers you that they sell on Amazon reach out to them! NICELY ask them why and I’m sure you’ll get a response back that is full of mixed emotions. This blog post was actually inspired by a conversation I had with a client who was so torn over the fact that they sold on Amazon. I’ve had similar conversations with other sustainable businesses and many of them are afraid to speak out too much in fear of backlash from Amazon. So I’ll do it. 

  • Shop Directly With A Small Business Instead

If it’s possible at all, go directly to the brand’s website and shop directly with them. This way they’ll get to keep a much larger percentage of your dollar and you can sign up for their emails, blog, or socials. If it’s a large brand that’s in a physical store near you, that’s also a better option than Amazon. 

  • If You Like Them, Show Your Support

Sign up for their email list if that’s your thing, follow them on Instagram, share it with a friend you know would love them, or bookmark the site and come back to it. As a small business owner myself I can’t tell you how important the support of every single person is (and the referrals from every single person). 

  • Remember They (People) Can’t Compete With Amazon (A Machine), Show Them A Little Grace

Not to start with “I remember…” but I remember when you would order books on Amazon and wait 3-4 weeks for them to come. Shipping got faster and faster until we had 2-day and then 1-day shipping, and it was very easy to get used to. Today, it’s not uncommon to expect things the same day! (Almost like going to a store, huh?)

But smaller brands don’t have the manpower (and exploitation) that Amazon does so be a little patient. Whether that be for shipping times, email response time, or order mistakes. I’m not saying let them mess up big time, but I am saying, let them show you how great they are at a slower, more reasonable pace. 

A pace that allows everyone to take lunch, bathroom breaks, and earn fair wages.

Amazon (and Jeff Bezos) can seem to embody the American Dream that’s making everyone’s lives easier, but let’s not forget he got there by stealing from his own employees, avoiding millions(+) of dollars in taxes, and union-busting when employees fought for safe working conditions and fairer pay. 

Let me be very clear: I’m not perfect, I still shop on Amazon on occasion although I try not to. But I hope this helps you think about things a little differently. The next time you see something encouraging you to shop during small business season don’t head straight for Amazon. Remember why Amazon is actually bad for small businesses and hurts many of them on its endless ascent to unexplored territories.

Let’s make every season a Small Business Season! 

You might also be interested in other personal pieces…

Support small businesses by ditching Amazon