Google Aims to Be the Anti-Amazon of E-Commerce. It Has a Long Way to Go.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Google tried to copy Amazon’s playbook to become the shopping hub of the internet, with little success. Now it is trying something different: the anti-Amazon strategy.

Google is trying to present itself as a cheaper and less restrictive option for independent sellers. And it is focused on driving traffic to sellers’ sites, not selling its own version of products, as Amazon does.

In the last year, Google eliminated fees for merchants and allowed sellers to list their wares in its search results for free. It is also trying to make it easier for small, independent shops to upload their inventory of products to appear in search results and buy ads on Google by teaming up with Shopify, which powers online stores for 1.7 million merchants who sell directly to consumers.

But like Google’s many attempts during its two-decade quest to compete with Amazon, this one shows little sign of working. Google has nothing as alluring as the $295 billion that passed through Amazon’s third-party marketplace in 2020. The amount of goods people buy on Google is “very small” by comparison — probably around $1 billion, said Juozas Kaziukenas, the founder of Marketplace Pulse, a research company.

grew 30 percent to $17.6 billion in 2020, trailing only Google and Facebook in the United States.

But as the pandemic has forced many stores to go online, it has created a new opening for Google to woo sellers who feel uneasy about building their businesses on Amazon.

Christina Stang, 33, opened Fritzy’s Roller Skate Shop near Pacific Beach in San Diego last March. Shelter-in-place orders forced her to set up an online storefront on Shopify.

She got lucky. She was sitting on a huge supply of skates when demand surged as skating videos became popular on TikTok during the pandemic.

the pressure to spend more to succeed. Merchants on Amazon do not have a direct relationship with their customers, limiting their ability to communicate with them and to generate future business. And because everything is contained within the Amazon world, it is harder to create a unique look and feel that express a brand’s identity the way companies can on their own websites.

piloting its own same-day delivery service, but it shuttered the project as costs ballooned. It tried to forge partnerships with traditional retail giants, only to see the alliances wilt from a lack of sales. It built its own marketplace to make it easier for shoppers to buy the things they find on Google, but was not able to break consumers from their Amazon habit.

Last year, Google brought in Bill Ready, a former chief operating officer at PayPal, to fill a new senior position and spearhead an overhaul of its shopping strategy.

Around the time of his hiring, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, warned senior executives that the new approach could mean a short-term crimp in advertising revenue, according to two people familiar with the conversations, who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss them publicly. He asked teams to support the e-commerce push because it was a company priority.

When the pandemic spurred huge demand for online shopping, Google eliminated fees, allowing retailers to list products for free and walking back a 2012 decision to allow only advertisers to display goods on its shopping site.

Three months after hiring Mr. Ready, Google said the free listings would show up on its main search results. Then Google said customers could buy products directly from merchants on Google with no commissions. It also said Google would open its platform to third parties like Shopify and PayPal so that sellers could continue to use their existing tools to manage inventory and orders and processing payments.

flocked to the software platform during the pandemic. About 9 percent of U.S. online shopping sales took place on storefronts powered by Shopify as of October, according to research firm eMarketer. That was up from 6 percent the prior year and second only to Amazon’s share of 37 percent.

Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s president, said Google and Shopify were developing new ways for merchants to sell through Google services, such as experiments to allow customers to buy items directly on YouTube and to display what products stores are carrying in Google Maps.

Mr. Ready walked a fine line when it came to Amazon, which is a big buyer of ads on Google, but he made it clear he believed Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce posed a threat to other merchants.

“Nobody wants to live in a world where there is only one place to buy something, and retailers don’t want to be dependent on gatekeepers,” he said in an interview.

Google said it had increased the number of sellers appearing in its results by 80 percent in 2020, with the most significant growth coming from small and midsize businesses. And existing retailers are listing more products.

Overstock.com, a seller of discount furniture and home bedding, said it had paid to list products on Google in the past. But now that listings are free, Overstock is adding low-margin products, too.

“When all shopping starts and stops at Amazon, that’s bad for the industry,” said Jonathan E. Johnson, Overstock’s chief executive. “It’s nice to have another 800-pound tech gorilla in this space.”

BACtrack, a maker of breathalyzers, has more than doubled its advertising spending on Amazon in the last two years because that is where the customers are, it said, while it has spent 6 percent less advertising its products on Google.

“It seems like more and more people are skipping Google and going straight to Amazon,” said Keith Nothacker, the chief executive of BACtrack.

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For Creators, Everything is for Sale

A rash of new start-ups are making it easier for digital creators to monetize every aspect of their life — down to what they eat, who they hang out with and who they respond to on TikTok.

Tens of millions of people around the globe consider themselves creators, and the creator economy represents the “fastest-growing type of small business,” according to a 2020 report by the venture capital firm SignalFire.

But as the market gets more and more competitive — and the platforms and their algorithms remain unreliable — creators are devising new, hyper-specific revenue streams.

One comes in the form of NewNew, a start-up in Los Angeles, that describes its product as creating a “human stock market.” On the app, fans pay to vote in polls to control some of a creator’s day-to-day decisions.

if you aren’t getting paid?)

Recently, a platform called PearPop has become popular for allowing fans to pay for interactions with their idols on social media. For $250, for instance, the TikTok star Griffin Johnson will comment on your video. If you don’t have $250 to spare, you can offer your best bid.

“Monetizing your social presence has traditionally only been accessible to those with a large following that can secure big brand deals,” said Cole Mason, the co-founder and chief executive of PearPop. “This is no longer the case. The idea for PearPop democratizes creator monetization by providing something that makes a lot of sense for creators with 10,000 followers and 10 million followers alike.”

Stir, is seeking to help creators split money for videos they make together.

“We think the future of creator monetization is collaboration,” said Joseph Albanese, the C.E.O. and a founder of Stir. “We let creators take any place they make money, whether it’s a YouTube video or Shopify store, and split the revenue with other creators.”

The crypto world has also proved enticing for creators looking to monetize interactions.

Rally.io, a crypto platform, allows creators to start their own digital currency in order to build independent economies with their fans. Fans can purchase the creator’s currency and use it to unlock exclusive or unreleased content.

The Clubhouse star Bomani X has begun offering his own $BOO Coin currency and the Twitch creator FanHOTS has introduced $FAN Coin; fans who hold the coin can use it to choose which character he will play in online games.

NFTs), which are pieces of digital art and media that live online. Though anyone can see an NFT on the internet — buyers do not get to “own” anything in a physical sense — they have become a fast-growing market. The pieces of digital media function as rare collectibles. The YouTube star Logan Paul recently sold $5 million worth of NFTs.

Elijah Daniel, 26, a creator in Los Angeles, is helping followers put a price on the creators. On Friday, he launched the Clout Market, which is a little bit like trading cards, but of influencers.

The Clout Market offers 10 million NFTs representing top creators including Trisha Paytas, James Charles, Bryce Hall, David Dobrik and Jeffree Star. The NFTs are designed to look like Pokemon cards with pixelated images of each creator. The cards carry parody names for legal purposes, Mr. Daniel said, so Tana Mongeau’s card reads “Tana Mongoose.”

The price for these items is determined by the creator’s relevance online. Mr. Daniel worked with a developer to create a dynamic pricing structure that adjusts prices in real time. (It pulls from social and analytics platforms data.) If a creator loses or gains followers or trends on Twitter, the price of the NFT Mr. Daniel created for them will go up or down.

Mr. Daniel said the goal of selling these NFTs is to let fans monetize the drama surrounding their favorite influencers. “A lot of fans will buy these for support,” he said, “haters will buy them to bet on people’s downfall.”

“Influencers and social media stars are making so much money off drama and scandals,” he said, “and most of them are fake. This is a way for the fans who follow along so heavily with everything to be able to invest in those scandals and make money too.”

He added: “If we have to go through another scandal, we all better be getting paid for it.”

“This is the first-wave of creators adopting new technologies to connect with an already engaged fan-base,” said Jeremiah Owyang, a creator adviser to Rally.io. “But instead of it being one-way and solely transactional,” he said, “the fans are as much part of the creation experience as the creator.”

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When You’re a Small Business, E-Commerce Is Tougher Than It Looks

A chair sits in the middle of Holiday Market, a specialty grocer near Detroit, and if customers are lucky, they’ll find Tom Violante Sr. sitting in it. The 91-year-old founder still comes to work most days — and he knows where everything is in its 60,000 square feet.

“He asks everyone if they found what they wanted,” said his son, Tom Violante Jr., who operates the store with his sister and brother-in-law. “If they haven’t, he’ll tell them which aisle it is in, how many steps it takes to get there, and where it’s located, knee, head or belly high.”

That’s the type of customer service the store, in Royal Oak, Mich., is known for. So, when Tom Violante Jr. began considering offering online grocery shopping, he wanted to provide that same level of care. He didn’t expect the service to be a huge revenue generator, but he saw the future coming, as online brands such as Chewy and Winc wooed his customers away. In 2019, he assembled a team to build an online platform that could handle the store’s 60,000 items.

Big e-commerce businesses also absorbed nearly 60 percent of all warehouse space available last year, according to real estate analysts at CoStar Group.

“The big just got bigger,” said Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst with eMarketer.

For small businesses, he said, the benefit was wildly uneven. There were winner sectors, such as grocery, health and fitness, and direct-to-consumer brands, but apparel boutiques and other specialty retailers — especially those without existing e-commerce platforms — struggled.

“The pandemic accelerated the growth of online commerce,” said Loren Padelford, vice president of Shopify, the e-commerce platform that predominantly serves independent retailers. “It woke a lot of people up to the idea that if you have to close your physical door, you need to have a digital door.”

been using Instagram, TikTok and Clubhouse to connect directly with shoppers. She has developed a following on those platforms, she said, because she doesn’t post just about the products. She posts about what matters to her: the struggles of building a business, her upbringing, even confusion about what she is “supposed to look like” as the owner of a beauty brand.

“This is so different from the last version of the brand,” Ms. Roy said. “It’s less transactional, more authentic to who I am. It has really contributed to our growth.”

In 2020, the company recorded $1 million in sales, Ms. Roy said. This year, she anticipates $6 million.

the Peacock Room, Frida and Yama. “E-commerce websites are not a magical solution for saving small retail,” she said.

For one, Ms. Lutz couldn’t find a good way to manage inventory across two sales channels. She carries a number of unique and specialty items, and she worried than an online customer could buy an item just as someone picked it up off a store shelf. And stocking separate inventories for online and in-store was too expensive. She also didn’t want to use her retail spaces as shipping and logistics centers when the cost of renting them is so much higher than warehouse space.

In the end, she realized being a community-centered business was the most important thing. “I might be less efficient, but I have a more special and unique business and that’s what draws people to our store,” Ms. Lutz said.

Live Cycle Delight fitness studio in Detroit, is putting on her own show. She wishes she could just point a camera at one of her yoga or spinning instructors and start running Instagram Live, but she knows she needs high production values if she wants her customers to maintain their memberships. So Ms. Daniels built a mini production studio inside her spin room, investing thousands in microphones, lights and a film crew to produce on-demand video classes.

But no matter how much she invests in her digital platform, it’s hard to go up against Peloton, which is well capitalized and has entire teams producing its digital classes. Last fiscal year, that company saw its sales surge 100 percent even as Live Cycle Delight’s revenue fell 80 percent.

“Our competition changed,” Ms. Daniels said. “We’re not just competing with the gym down the street. Titans like Peloton and SoulCycle, they are true beneficiaries of this pandemic. We are working twice as hard to compete with those titans and with celebrity trainers.”

About 30 customers left Live Cycle Delight for Peloton, Ms. Daniels said, but she found support in other ways. With the movement to support Black-owned businesses, people donated to her, and there was healthy demand for the studio’s branded merchandise, such as Pilates balls, T-shirts and booty bands, the stretchy bands that add resistance to a workout. These goods have proved so popular that Ms. Daniels struggles to keep them in stock on her website.

Between the products, outdoor classes in the summer and memberships, she has been able to keep the three-year-old business open. The shift to e-commerce hasn’t been perfect, she said, but it’s been worth it. She reminds herself why she started the studio: to make fitness more accessible and inclusive.

“Peloton is just one kind of experience,” she said. “We’re still here providing clients with an option to join us on the quest of better.”

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