sign on a wall for indie record store
Thatcher Spring believes smaller, independent merchants will force Amazon (yes, that Amazon) to loosen its stranglehold on ecommerce PHOTO: Jacob Mendoza

The upward trajectory of ecommerce parallels the growth of the world wide web, and more growth is in the forecast.

Worldwide retail ecommerce sales are predicted to rise 23.2 percent in 2017 to $2.290 trillion. That means for the first time, ecommerce sales will account for one-tenth of total retail sales worldwide.

But just how much of that growth is down to behemoths like Amazon, and how much can be credited to independent retailers?

Indie Players Elbow Into Ecommerce Market

There’s no doubt ecommerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba will vie for the largest slices of the ever-growing ecommerce pie. However, indications suggest the ecommerce industry is benefiting from other, and far smaller players.

Toronto-based Shopify, the leading SaaS online store builder, is one example. The platform’s first quarter results for 2017 showed total revenue reaching $127.4 million, a 75 percent increase from the comparable quarter in 2016. Subscription revenue jumped 60 percent year-over-year to $62.1 million, with the merchant membership hitting 400,000.

Thatcher Spring, founder and CEO of end-to-end ecommerce platform GearLaunch, has built his San Francisco-based company on the premise that independent merchants can and will hold their own against the likes of Amazon. 

Spring is an entrepreneur with ecommerce experience stretching back to 2005. Before founding GearLaunch in 2013, Springs held positions at J.P. Morgan and Mars. He also sits on the board of Cape Eleuthera Foundation, a Boston-based charity.

CMSWire spoke to Spring to better understand his position — as well as the position of his company GearLaunch — in the present and future ecommerce market.

Amazon Loses Stranglehold on Ecommerce

CMSWire: You have spent the last four years nurturing an ecommerce company: how has the ecommerce landscape changed in that time?

Spring: During the last four years, we have seen roughly 25 percent year-over-year growth in ecommerce. Online sales now account for a substantial portion of the consumer’s wallet, trust and safety of online payments is almost a non-issue and cross-border commerce has accelerated dramatically.  

Advances in the availability and sophistication of tech tools enabling transactions have been huge contributors to the recent growth.

Amazon has just about doubled its sales over the last few years ($135 billion in 2016) by taking advantage of the large and growing pool of internet shoppers and by offering new product listing and shopping functionality to both buyers and sellers. But as Amazon has grown, a new class of cloud-based ecommerce software platforms have emerged to give new opportunities to independent merchants around the world.  

We can see this in the meteoric rise of market leader Shopify, with almost five times the number of merchants and 10 times the sales volume in 2016 than it had in 2013. The substantial growth of Shopify and other ecommerce platform providers indicate the extent to which independent merchants are making sales outside of central destination marketplaces.

CMSWire: You're a proponent of the idea that the likes of Amazon need to be wary of independent merchants stealing market share from them. Traditionally, the story has been the other way around. What makes you think individual merchants can hurt the likes of Amazon?

Spring: My view is not that Amazon is doomed, but rather that it will have to increasingly share the growth of online sales with independent merchants.  

With today’s expanded availability of commerce tech tools, it’s reasonable to believe that a substantial portion of future ecommerce growth will occur outside of Amazon. Platforms that enable transactions, combined with effective and easy-to-use social advertising tools have dramatically improved the direct marketing capabilities of online merchants, enabling them to find new buyers and build strong, independent businesses.

Independent merchants also maintain an edge in their targeted sales approach with highly specific knowledge of their customers’ unique interests combined with their own entrepreneurial drive to succeed. Niche-focused online retailers dedicate 100 percent of their mental energy to finding and taking advantage of every opportunity to get their products in front of buyers.  

Given the choice, merchants will always prefer to sell on their own sites where they can control the buyer experience, own their customer data, and build value in their brands.  

The army of independent merchants, now properly equipped, are uniquely positioned to be successful in ways that are outside of Amazon’s core focus on ubiquitous availability of products within its endless online catalog.

CMSWire: What’s the story behind the 2013 birth of GearLaunch?

Spring: My first experience with ecommerce was actually in 2005 when I started a business selling high-end accessories products made in Italy. My company at the time wholesaled goods to 500 specialty retailers around the United States, and built an ecommerce presence to about 20 percent of annual sales.

After seeing first-hand the explosive potential of the ecommerce market, I founded GearLaunch in 2013. Our initial focus was to offer an online marketplace where internet merchants could sell customizable versions of the high-end products that I had a great deal of experience sourcing. When going to market, we quickly learned that our initial value proposition was not solving a big enough problem for our target audience.

However, our initial effort left us with a deep understanding of where our customers experienced pain in their ecommerce businesses in addition to strong working relationships with an amazing group of retail entrepreneurs. We took advantage of this great opportunity to listen and learn, and successfully pivoted the business.

Our new focus became providing merchants with software infrastructure to grow brands on their own independent sites, and give them control of their customer relationships, both of which were value propositions not offered by central destination marketplaces.  

Enabling merchants to grow independently of marketplaces, combined with providing deep access to a broad inventory of customizable products and buyer support services is what makes GearLaunch so valuable. We now have over 3,000 total ecommerce stores on the platform, many of which are operating seven-figure businesses.

CMSWire: Would it be fair to describe GearLaunch as more than just an ecommerce solution, and more of an ‘ecommerce business-in-a-box’?

Spring: Yes. GearLaunch offers everything a merchant needs to start a business selling products on the internet.  

Ecommerce solutions traditionally have been thought of as simply allowing for transactions between sellers and buyers, but GearLaunch takes this to a whole new level by additionally offering merchants seamless access to a broad supply of on-demand products and personalized buyer support. Using our system, merchants can easily scale their businesses all in one place without hiring teams or investing precious cash into inventory or additional business operation and selling tools.

CMSWire: You grew up on a North Atlantic island (Which island was that?) and thus spent a lot of time on sailboats. Tell us something interesting about sailboating that not many people know.

Spring: Growing up on Nantucket gave me the opportunity to learn sailing at a young age, which became a major life passion and offered me an early experience with entrepreneurship. One of my first businesses was a small sailing instruction operation that I started during the summer after my first year of college. I learned many life lessons from my experience racing sailboats and teaching others the sport.

Something about sailing that people unfamiliar may not know is that it’s one of the only sports that is ruthlessly competitive on the water, and extremely friendly as soon as racing is over. Sportsmanship is championed, and it’s customary to have a drink with your competitors and talk through the day’s strategy during the evening.