Some 300 women gathered Tuesday at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters — the company’s first conference geared to women entrepreneurs who sell on Amazon’s website.
Prudence Millsap, a mother of two, was tired of doing time in corporate America — as she puts it, making other people rich.
So a couple of years ago she figured she could sell her own brand of beauty products on Amazon’s Marketplace, a growing platform for third-party merchants. It was an easy dive into entrepreneurship, because for a fee, Amazon took care of the shipping and inventory handling.
“We grew into a seven-figure business in a year,” she says.
Her online store’s performance was good enough to get Millsap a coveted spot among the 300 women gathered Tuesday at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters — the company’s first conference geared to women entrepreneurs who sell on Amazon’s website.
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For the attendees who came from 43 U.S. states, the U.K., Canada and Australia, it was a rare close encounter with the company that enables their entrepreneurial ambitions but is also the hard-to-read arbiter of a ruthlessly competitive platform.
In addition, even though Amazon clearly considers these merchants its customers, the tech behemoth remains a feared rival for shoppers’ dollars.
The gathering comes at a time of heightened anxiety among many vendors using Amazon as a tool to reach customers, as competition from thousands of new entrants heats up and the sellers struggle to deal with issues such as counterfeiting and the online retailer’s sometimes obscure rules of engagement.
The event seemed to highlight a growing determination by Amazon to personally connect with the merchants.
The company held a similar forum for its third-party sellers in May.
It’s not hard to see why. Merchants have become a key part of Amazon’s profitability. CEO Jeff Bezos has said Marketplace has become one of the main pillars of Amazon’s breathtaking growth.
The business of charging merchants for selling and handling their wares has much better margins than Amazon’s own retail operations, according to analysts.
Maria Renz, a veteran executive who holds the exalted position of Bezos’ technical adviser, said in the conference keynote speech that “seller business is critical to Amazon, and at every level of the company we know that.”
Peter Faricy, who heads Amazon Marketplace, said it held a conference for women because while entrepreneurship in general is declining, women-owned businesses are on the rise. Moreover, Faricy said, it jibes with his company’s focus on diversity.
“It’s consistent with who we are as a company, but it’s also an important business segment for us to go forward,” he said in an interview.
Amazon conceived the event to provide nuts-and-bolts coaching on how to use its tools and other tactics to improve the entrepreneurs’ operations.
Faricy says more than 3,000 people expressed interest in the event. The 300 invited to participate were top performers, according to the executive.
The forum also served to showcase what the company’s top brass thinks about Marketplace’s future.
A couple of things became clear: Though it began as a freewheeling space mostly populated by arbitrageurs, Marketplace is increasingly a place where businesses sell products that only they produce. Some 80 percent of the attendants at Tuesday’s conference were brand owners, according to Amazon.
Also evident is that Amazon seeks to nudge its disparate horde of third-party sellers to perform as efficiently, and to be as customer-friendly, as Amazon’s own retail unit.
It’s doing so by encouraging them to join the Fulfillment by Amazon program, in which Amazon handles logistics, and by improving its data-management tools, as well as by evangelizing among merchants.
Scot Wingo, executive chairman of e-commerce consultancy ChannelAdvisor, said that besides holding new seller forums such as this past week’s conference, Amazon is “getting out to other trade shows and venues where they haven’t been before.”
The outreach comes at a time when for many sellers the online retail world has gotten much tougher.
Wingo says Amazon’s Marketplace has become “unprecedentedly” competitive, as more vendors are using the platform. Some of the new competition comes from brands entering Marketplace, including Amazon’s own house brands.
ChannelAdvisor says that in July there was a 227 percent year-over-year increase in the number of competing offers for the typical product.
Entrepreneurs have made clear that one constant frustration for them is counterfeiters who piggyback on merchants’ listings and steal sales.
When an Amazon executive said the company will soon release a tool enabling businesses to register their branded products to make it really difficult for counterfeiters and other sellers to exploit, he was met with fervent applause.
Merchants have also long quibbled with what they perceive as undecipherable or arbitrary rules that lead to surprise suspension of selling privileges on Amazon.
Cynthia Carrejo, who runs a San Antonio, Texas-based wholesale store, said she’s never been suspended but has found Amazon’s guidance on when that may happen to be vague.
“That’s always been very scary for people,” she said.
Amazon executives said they’re trying to address these concerns. Scott Kubicki, vice president of seller support at Amazon, said improvements are being deployed to make troubles of the sort that might lead to a suspension of selling privileges easier to detect and fix.
In the fourth quarter, Amazon will roll out to 5,000 of its best vendors a program where the company will “pick up the phone and call you” when it sees a problem brewing, he said.
Amazon also intended these top-performing entrepreneurs, whom Faricy called “a group of superstars,” to network with each other.
That’s a welcome break from what can be a grueling and solitary journey, according to Marla Malcolm Beck, the co-founder and CEO of Bluemercury, a chain of beauty stores acquired by Macy’s earlier this year.
Beck, who spoke at the conference, said in an interview that “being an entrepreneur in general is very lonely. To have this is absolutely critical.”
Kristin Rae, who runs Inspire Travel Luggage and traveled to Seattle from Normal, Ill., found the interaction with other entrepreneurs and with Amazon executives valuable.
“It’s nice to get in front of people who have done big things,” she said. “Maybe I can do that some day.”