How Amazon Lures ‘Artisanal’ Sellers and Hangs Them Out to Dry
This is Handmade’s tale
Dave Stencil was puzzled when he noticed his Amazon sales spiking in mid-May.
The San Diego-based carpenter had been selling his handmade cutting boards and coasters on Amazon since 2015. That’s when Amazon recruited him and other Etsy sellers for the launch of its Amazon Handmade business. Since then, a small number of orders had trickled in each month, usually fewer than 10. But suddenly, business was booming. Stencil says he made more sales in May alone than he did in the whole year prior.
It was Stencil’s wife who figured out why: Amid the global pandemic, with news about local businesses struggling to stay afloat prominent in headlines, Amazon created a new “local shopping” feature on its homepage. It highlighted Handmade sellers, grouping them by region and state — Stencil’s listings could be found under California.
Other Amazon Handmade sellers were experiencing a similar bump. Jodi Kostelnik, who sells screen-printed food-themed gifts under the brand The Neighborgoods, says the month she was featured prominently in the regional promotion, she had to reorder packing supplies three or four times, selling out of several items. “We just packed orders all day long for a month straight,” she says. “I was grateful.”
The promotion, which featured a handful of sellers with Amazon-commissioned photography — and hundreds of others within region-specific product lists — ran prominently on Amazon homepages for about a month. The sudden boost in sales showed what Amazon could do for businesses it decides to put in the spotlight. But for sellers who weren’t featured, Handmade was operating as normal: They were competing, without special placement, against Amazon’s vast database of mass-produced merchandise.
Though Amazon promotes its Handmade category as a haven for small businesses, sellers say that in reality, they must navigate the company’s opaque system more or less like those selling factory-made products.
Amazon has consistently promoted its Handmade category as a separate section of its platform that allows small sellers to play by different rules. At launch, it positioned the brand in contrast to Etsy, which in 2013 began allowing manufactured items to be sold on its site. “You can think of [Amazon Handmade] as a factory-free zone, a mass-produced-free zone,” an Amazon executive told the New York Times. He added that the new Amazon Handmade section would have a totally different look and feel from the rest of the Amazon empire.
Highlighting itself as friendly to independent, crafty businesses made sense for Amazon when Handmade launched in 2015. Evidence was mounting that consumers valued the cachet of buying artisanal items, and Etsy’s IPO filing that year had revealed that annual revenue from sales of handmade-branded goods on the platform had reached $108.7 million. Amazon was, meanwhile, fighting its image as a destroyer of small local businesses, including a call from local booksellers to investigate Amazon for anti-competitive practices. For the Amazon Handmade launch, Amazon sent photographers to a handful of its new sellers’ workspaces to take photos for the homepage and press materials.
Five years later, Handmade sellers say that Amazon’s catering doesn’t go much further than occasional spotlight campaigns.
Though Amazon promotes its Handmade category as a haven for small businesses, often pointing to sellers in promotional campaigns, sellers say that in reality, they must navigate the company’s opaque system of search algorithms, sponsored search results, and fulfillment fees more or less like those selling factory-made products. Amazon customers who purchase from their stores, they say, often don’t realize they’ve shopped on a part of Amazon reserved for Handmade sellers and have the same expectations for quick shipping, unquestioned returns, and invariable products as they do for any Amazon product.
To become an Amazon Handmade seller, individuals or businesses apply and are sometimes asked to submit photos of their workspaces or works in progress. (The application page insists that Handmade is “Artisan only” and that the company will audit sellers to “ensure we’re building a shop of genuinely handcrafted goods.”) Once approved, sellers pay Amazon a 15% commission fee on each sale, which is comparable to the 8% to 15% commission Amazon typically takes from third-party vendors. For sellers in the Handmade category, Amazon also waives the $39.99 monthly fee it charges professional sellers. Amazon did not respond on the record to a question about how many sellers have registered for its Handmade category.
“Functionally, vetting does not really make any difference because in Amazon search, handmade sellers compete head to head with mass-produced items,” says MaryAnn Montour, who has been selling her one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry since 2008 and says she joined Amazon Handmade in 2015.
Despite Amazon using Handmade as a promotional opportunity, Handmade products are difficult to find or identify on the site. Amazon shoppers who wish to search specifically for handmade items can start their search at Amazon.com/Handmade, manually navigate to the “Handmade” section by choosing from a list of 40 options in the menu button nested at the top-left of Amazon.com, or add a “Handmade” filter to their search. Montour says that in her experience, few do. “Do you ever use the filters when you shop on Amazon for anything?” she asks. “I never do.”
Shoppers who navigate to the Handmade homepage can search exclusively for Handmade items. But unlike Amazon’s Whole Foods, Fresh, and Basics categories, Handmade generally does not appear at the top navigation bar of the Amazon website or iOS app — though its branding sometimes appears as an ad on the company’s homepage.
Other than a “Handmade” logo in the upper left corner, a small profile picture below the “add to cart” button, and a decal showing in which state the item is made, the listings look like any other product page. The product’s star rating is shown at the top of the product description, and ads for other products are served above and below the listing. In some cases, there is a logo to indicate that the item offers Prime shipping and free returns.
“Do you ever use the filters when you shop on Amazon for anything? I never do.”
“I feel like not many customers know about Amazon Handmade,” says Courtney Hamill, who sells porcelain vases made in her backyard since shutting down her Atlanta studio due to the Covid-19 crisis. “People buy stuff and don’t realize they shopped on a different part of Amazon.”
A New York-based crocheter who sells through Handmade told OneZero, “I don’t necessarily feel different or set apart from other sellers on Amazon,” adding that Amazon customers often have the same expectations of convenience for her made-to-order items as they do with mass-produced items elsewhere on the site.
“They expect very easy returns,” she said.
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Ranking in Amazon’s search algorithms can be difficult for even the largest of businesses (like Google, Amazon sells vendors sponsored listings that put them at the top of results). One Amazon Handmade seller said that, at times, she cannot find her own store using Amazon’s search feature. Montour says that artisanal, one-of-a-kind vendors are put at a particular disadvantage by the search feature since it is impossible to get a good ranking on Amazon for items that don’t have repeated sales. “When buyers go to Amazon, they may know they want to buy a pearl necklace, but they don’t necessarily have it nailed down that they want a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pearl necklace,” she says. “They will be presented with all of the pearl necklaces that sell over and over and probably will never see the one-of-a-kind necklaces.”
Sheila MacMullen, who sells hand-knit hats and scarves on Amazon Handmade, pays Amazon to fulfill her orders, which gives her listing a “Prime” designation that she believes makes them more competitive in search rankings. She usually pays around $2.50 to have Amazon ship one of her $29 hats to the customer, plus fees for storage in Amazon’s warehouse and about a $4.50 sales commission. In order to surface in search, she buys Amazon ads. “The fees do add up, but it’s still great [sales] volume,” she says.
Even shoppers who do intentionally navigate to the Amazon Handmade homepage or use the Handmade search filter will find that the marketplace is not the “factory-free zone” Amazon promoted at launch. That’s because Amazon surfaces promoted listings from non-Handmade sellers next to Handmade products. In a recent search of Amazon Handmade for the term “necklace,” for instance, the first result was a $14.99 necklace from the jewelry brand Pavoi. The brand’s founders in a Forbes article described flying overseas and hunting “for factories and suppliers who would work with them at the right price” in order to charge competitive prices. Under Stencil’s listing for handmade coasters, which he makes from reclaimed lumber to look like books and sells for $19.90 each, I was served an ad for a set of six silicone coasters that sell for $16.99. Under a listing for Kostelnik’s kitchen tea towels, $18 a piece, I was served an ad for a pack of 10 “sweedish dish towels” for $19.
While the distinction between Amazon Handmade sellers and Amazon sellers may not be very significant in practice, Amazon has repeatedly highlighted its Handmade offering in its own communications and advertising campaigns. In addition to the coronavirus campaign, Amazon has featured Handmade sellers in physical holiday pop-up shops in Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center and in a 2015 collaboration with Martha Stewart.
In 2018, Amazon announced it had created a “storefront” section where users could search specifically for products from small and medium businesses and view profiles and videos of their owners, placing Amazon Handmade sellers in the new site’s “artisan” subcategory. To support the effort, the company said it would run “its first-ever national TV commercial featuring real businesses that sell on Amazon.” The star of that commercial, Little Flower Soap Co., was an Amazon Handmade seller. Amazon later published a blog post about the commercial, noting that “small- and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of Amazon’s stores … Amazon’s national ad recognizes that reality and celebrates business owners like Rutt and her husband Justin, living their own version of the American Dream.” But as with Amazon Handmade, the only way Amazon shoppers would encounter the “storefront” section — other than being linked to it from an article or press release about the feature — is by specifically choosing the small and mid-sized business category from a long list on Amazon’s homepage.
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In 2019, Amazon again cited Handmade while announcing its annual small business impact report, this time counting it among the “billions of dollars every year [Amazon spends] to help small and medium-sized businesses around the globe succeed in Amazon’s stores.” And in 2020, Amazon issued a press release linking to its latest version of the report that highlighted the best-selling Handmade categories and top locations of Handmade sellers. “At Amazon Handmade, we obsess over customers and their desire for unique handcrafted goods, which is why we are so proud of our incredible Makers and the products they sell in our store,” said Katie Harnetiaux, head of Amazon Handmade, said in the statement. “The flourishing craft community selling with Amazon Handmade spans from coast-to-coast, with Makers from every corner of the U.S. building successful businesses and reaching new customers.”
Amazon may not be the craft-haven it advertises, but small sellers seeking a friendly online platform for selling handmade items have few alternatives.
Messages like these run counter to criticisms of Amazon as a monopoly hostile to local businesses, which have increased significantly since Handmade launched. The EU is reportedly planning to announce antitrust charges over Amazon’s treatment of third-party sellers, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said last month that he will testify to the U.S. Congress as part of a yearlong antitrust probe into Amazon and other tech companies. In a 2019 survey of 1,000 independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — a nonprofit that works to fight “corporate control in all of its forms” (including and especially that of Amazon) — 53% said that Amazon had a significant negative impact on their revenue. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC last year that Amazon “destroyed the retail industry across the United States.”
Amazon may not be the craft-haven it advertises, but small sellers seeking a friendly online platform for selling handmade items have few alternatives. In a successful effort to become more profitable, Etsy has become more Amazon-like, allowing for the sale of manufactured items, selling sponsored listings to its sellers, and, last year, telling sellers it would prioritize those who offered free shipping on orders of $35 or more. Even small independent online stores are being sucked into giant global marketplaces. Earlier this month, Walmart announced a new integration with the e-commerce site builder Shopify. With a few clicks, businesses that built their sites on Shopify can copy product listings to the value superstore’s third-party marketplace, which typically charges an 8% to 20% commission.
Lela Barker, who runs a consulting business for small creative brands, says her clients are often drawn to Amazon Handmade because of Amazon’s huge customer base. “So many searches now start and end on Amazon — people are using it almost like a search directory, similar to what they would do with Google,” she says. “The sales volume that happens on Amazon is just mind-blowingly impressive.”
But, she says, it is difficult to build long-term relationships with customers there — especially because Amazon does not share customer email addresses with sellers (one seller said Amazon even redacted an email address that a customer tried to share within a message) — and Amazon is often associated with commodity goods. Some brick-and-mortar stores that might buy handmade products wholesale will not work with businesses that are also selling on Amazon. Faire, a marketplace boutique that owners use to buy wholesale handmade items, offers a “not on Amazon” search filter.
Plenty of Handmade sellers are happy to sell on Amazon nonetheless. In addition, many of them sell on Etsy and their own sites. To them, access to Amazon’s large stream of shoppers is a boon, even if those shoppers aren’t necessarily looking for handmade items.
“The handmade industry is growing up a little bit,” says Hamil. “It’s moving on from twee, which is what Etsy felt like in the early aughts to 2010. I’ve been doing it for almost a decade now, and I have employees and I have a business plan. … It’s not that important to me that Amazon 100% eat, breathe, and sleep the passion of why people do handmade. My passion propels my company. All I need is avenues to sell.”