E-Commerce Businesses: State of the Merchant Report for 2019

Are we seeing a plateauing of Amazon? Those who think that any type of e-commerce conducted outside of Amazon is a dead-end are dead wrong. Today we welcome back Andrew Youderain to discuss his third annual State of the Merchant Report for 2019. If you’ve never read or heard us talk about the report, it’s a comprehensive report of all things e-commerce that comes from Andy’s exclusive database of real entrepreneurs, all running physical product e-commerce businesses.

With more than 400 qualifying merchants completing the questionnaire, the report covers an array of important topics including growth and conversion rates, profitability stats, advertising ROI, and even one surprise question about ways our members would fulfill their biggest indulgences. We’ll go over all the questions, responses, and the surprising trends in e-commerce for 2019.

Episode Highlights:

  • What is providing the best return on investment in terms of advertising?
  • The facebook marketing factor, why it’s so different, and how can be tricky.
  • A shout out to email marketing as a very valuable and viable advertising tool.
  • The reality of advertising fatigue and the big three – Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
  • The typical store owner makeup and whether dropshipping is coming to an end.
  • Surprising gains in manufacturing of original merchandise.
  • The impact of the new tariffs on the surveyed businesses.
  • Does everything seem to be growing? We discuss general growth rates in the e-commerce industry.
  • The surprising thing we learned from the survey this year regarding Amazon.
  • The place for premium and niche products.
  • Andrew’s top three takeaways from the survey.
  • A rise in Chinese sellers on Amazon and what that means for e-commerce merchants and counterfeiting.
  • Andrew’s view on the FBA nexus and the state to state tax impact for his community of clients.
  • The fun and surprising final question in the survey.

Transcription:

Joe: Mark back in Savannah I think it was 2016 was the 2nd time I ever went to eCommerceFuel. In a great location because I could drive there and it was a beautiful, beautiful location. And I was so proud because I brought copies of my e-book some would call it a book called 10 Steps to Selling your Amazon Business and this is back in ’16. We’re talking years ago. And so I thought I was at the forefront of things. And then Andrew does his presentation at the beginning of eCommerceFuel events which was really the state of commerce back then and what we’ve had him on the podcast about what this podcast today is about. The 1st thing he talks about is how few of the eCommerceFuel attendees are using Amazon; like less than 10%. And it was a very small part of their business and that Shopify and other channels were much, much bigger. And I was slightly mortified. But then the next year, the biggest growth I think in 2018 that we saw—actually it was at ’17 because we stated e-commerce from Andrew in 2018 and the biggest growth factor was Amazon. And now that you’ve had him on again I think that that’s changed a little bit, right?

Mark: That’s right. In this year’s State of the Merchant Report from eCommerceFuel, they’ve found that this is the 1st year that non Amazon e-commerce stores outpaced Amazon as far as new sales channels which is pretty amazing when you think about the impact. The quote directly is this was the 1st year non Amazon sellers grew faster than those on the platform. So there’s more growth happening off of Amazon among their members than on the Amazon platform. That’s pretty remarkable to hear that because it feels like feels like everybody’s on Amazon. And we’ve often preached this idea of having diverse revenue streams and making sure that you’re being multichannel with your revenue streams and platforms but you and I know a lot of Amazon sellers that have gone all in on Amazon so that they could just focus on the growth there to get as much sales blossomed there as they can because it’s easier to do than trying to manage multiple channels. Those who think that outside of Amazon e-commerce is dead; it’s not at all, not even close. There is a couple of other interesting things that came out of this report and I’m going to let Andrew really get into some of the things that he found impressive. But one of the things that that stood out to me was the effectiveness of Facebook as a marketing channel. It seems like everyone we talked to always says Facebook is such a great marketing channel and if we could just figure it out and what my experience has been is that everybody’s trying to figure it out. Which means it’s really difficult to actually do. I think those that have “figured it out” are doing well. But among the people that responded to this really lengthy survey that Andrew puts them through Facebook ads came in as the 5th most effective sales channel or advertising channel that people were reporting. And the ROIS, the media in ROIS was a full point lower than the next highest. And again we’ll let Andrew talk about some of these things because I’m sure he has more insights than I do into the report itself. From just a general like where are you in the market as an e-commerce business or when you’re looking to buy and identifying the right trends and the types of businesses that are going to be around for the next several years a report like this is just invaluable, right? You get to see where a business is going, where the industry is going, and maybe where the next opportunities lie.

Joe: Yeah and it comes directly from the eCommerceFuel membership database. As far as I understand it Andrew sends a survey out and collects all of this data and all of this information so it’s from real entrepreneurs down in the trenches running their businesses; physical product e-commerce businesses. So if anybody is out there that is looking to grow their business outside of Amazon this report can help. If anybody’s buying a business and wants to take it beyond Amazon this report can help. If you’re on Shopify and you want to learn the other channels, what number 2, 3, and 4 are before that 5th one that’s most effective being Facebook this report can help. And it comes from Andrew. There are very few people in the industry that are as good character as Andrew and the folks at eCommerceFuel.

Mark: Oh I was just about to say that now. A shout out for the good guys Andrew is certainly one of those. So let’s get into this discussion between Andrew and I on this report and find out what some of the insights he [inaudible 00:05:59.2].

Joe: Let’s go to it.

Mark: Andrew, thank you so much for coming back on to the podcast. You were on last year and we talked about the awesome report that you guys do over at eCommerceFuel; the State of the Merchant Report. And this is where you survey a lot of the members of your community which we’ve talked about here on the Quiet Light Podcast, Joe and I talked about it quite a bit. One of our favorite conferences, one of our favorite communities out there for high revenue e-commerce store owners; it’s a fantastic community that you built there. And you do this report every year. It’s a really good pulse of what’s going on in the world of e-commerce. So thank you again for joining us.

Andrew: Yeah thanks for having me. I appreciate it. And good work with the podcast. I’m enjoying the Quiet Light Podcast. I kind of love your episodes and yes you’re putting up good stuff; you and Joe. But your episodes seem to have just a tiny edge on Joe’s. I don’t know maybe it’s just in my mind but regardless you guys are doing awesome, awesome stuff.  

Mark: Yeah I’m just going to record that. I’m going to put it on a loop and I’m just going to send it to Joe a few times so he can hear that over and over again. You need to submit at some point we’ve been adding these movie quotes to our intros at random so you need to listen to those and tell us what you think it is and we’ll give you a shout out. I don’t know what they are myself so I’m excited about this. I’m excited to talk about this year’s report because you always come out with just some really fascinating bits of data. And I’m going to start with one that I’ve run across a decent amount because I think it really speaks to a lot of buyers are thinking about when they’re evaluating an online purchase and also sellers who are looking to scale their business and this is what is providing the best return on investment at this point in terms of advertising? Facebook is often quoted you know if we could just unlock Facebook and this is something that I want to get into a little bit here but your report showed some surprising numbers with where the most value is and where some of the lowest hanging fruit is for advertising.

Andrew: Yeah so there are a couple of things that are new this year. I wanted to take a look at what merchants are using the most in terms of promoting their business; so what’s most popular and then also what’s the most effective because often those are not the same thing. And so you look at the most popular marketing channels and we just ask people what are you using and in the number of popularity 1st was email marketing, 2nd Facebook ads, 3rd was Google AdWords, 4th was SEO, and 5th was Instagram. And so then we—of course, it was a popularity—to get a sense of what was most effective we looked at okay, of the people that are using every single one of these things we asked about which, how many, what percentage of them ranked that specific one as the most effective? And the one that came to the surface wasn’t even the top 5 that we talked about. The number one most effective marketing channel reported by merchants was Amazon Ads. Over half of people running Amazon Ads said it was the best highest ROI marketing channel to use, number two is e-mail marketing, three was SEO, 4th was Google AdWords, and like a distant 5th not even like a close 5th, but a distant 5th was Facebook Ads. And another thing that we explored was the average return on Ad Spend for Facebook Ads versus Amazon and Google and they had the lowest return on Ad Spend at 3.4 compared to Amazon at 4.6 and Google at over 5. And they’re increasing of the costs on the Facebook platform were growing up the fastest as well; almost 20% versus 16 for Amazon and 10 for Google. So that was kind of the Facebook—I think a lot of people, so many people are doing it and it’s easy to have like almost some fear of missing out if you’re not doing it or if you’re doing it like you’re not getting the secret when everyone else is. But I think it’s a harder nut to crack than people like to admit. And those were some of the numbers based on the advertising.

Mark: Yeah there’s a lot that I want to get into on this here and let’s see if I can remember all of it but I want to 1st talk about the Facebook ads because you put it in that way; it’s a tough nut to crack. And I wonder if that’s really maybe some of the secrets that’s going on behind these numbers with the EBIDTA ROIS and also the effective marketing channel. We’ve had Ezra Firestone on the podcast here before. He’s a friend of Quiet Light Brokerage. He obviously is a big advocate of Facebook advertising. I’ve seen some other people who have been doing Facebook Ads with a lot of effectiveness but and this is the big caviar, it takes a while to figure that part out. And a lot of these guys have gotten there where they’re seeing these ROIS of five plus, they’ve taken months—literally months and lots of dollars down the drain to really get to that point. I’m wondering and maybe you looked into this a little bit with the survey; did you look into people that have tried Facebook marketing and maybe gave up after two or three months because they couldn’t get it to work or did you not look that deep or ask that deep of a question?

Andrew: Yeah I didn’t go quite that deep. And it’s always tough designing the survey because it’s already like 50 plus questions and I’m trying to balance—making sure we get people who get all the way through it with you know what are the critical things we get. So sadly I didn’t get that kind of data. A lot of the kind of the fox and the stories behind people getting into Facebook and having a hard time with it are more anecdotal that I hear from people. And so sadly yeah I wish I had some good numbers and data behind it but it’s more anecdotal than anything else.

Mark: I mean look there’s a couple of things on here on your top; 5 Amazon Ads, e-mail marketing, SEO, and Google AdWords. So let’s go through here with Amazon Ads, SEO, Google AdWords; those are all high intent advertising channels, right? So if somebody goes online and says buy shoes or buy cheap shoes or best running shoes; that’s a really high intent search, Facebook Ads not so much of a high intense search, e-mail marketing side if they’re on your list that already a warm contact. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re seeing that but the other side of this too that I would say is like if you’re looking to create a market and let’s say you have kind of an odd channel, maybe you take a spin on a new type of ice cream scooper that doesn’t get stuck ever. So the ice cream never gets stuck in that ice cream scooper and you’ve invented this and you’re going to sell it; well nobody knows that it exists. So it might take a while to build that market and so Facebook Ads might be a good source for that because you can have that proof of concept and really kind of educate the marketplace. But it’s also going to take a little bit more work to get people to really peak their attention.

Andrew: Yeah Facebook is just a totally different mindset for advertising. It’s really great if you’re good at targeting if you’re good at—the way you build a funnel is just totally different. It’s more so about you get to be able to catch people when they’re doing something else, get their attention, pull them off the platform or engage them for a while and then pull them off versus being able to drive a sale short term. I think it’s a longer term game and just a different mentality you need to have if you’re going to do it well. And targeting too with Facebook I think is getting trickier [inaudible 00:12:57.7] that some of the targeting the traffic that Facebook had been sending hasn’t been converting as well for some members and some people I know. So that’s a big part of Facebook performing well as them sending you people that are based on their intelligence they know are going to work well. So yes it’s interesting.

Mark: Yeah talking to crack I think is the best way to describe it. So I do think it’s a viable source but you’ve got to have the right type of product and you really have to know what you’re doing with it and be patient. I mean that’s just a lot with these; Amazon I’m not surprised at all, still a very young marketplace so I think we’re still seeing kind of those numbers equalize out. Talk about a high intent marketplace and high intent searches so I think that makes complete sense they’re number one on the list. And let’s give a shout out to email marketing probably the old man in the room there, right?

Andrew: Yeah although it’s funny I think about if you look at email and even email it’s still of course you know the number two most effective marketing channel and it’s still highly—super valuable but I feel like even probably it’s getting harder. I think advertising, in general, is getting so much more difficult because we’ve had so much of it—a part of it is fatigue; just advertising fatigue. And you’ve got three main giants who control so much of it and they’re kind of squeezing all of the juice out of it they can with rising ad prices but even my email inbox I don’t know about you Mark but I’m way more ruthless now with my email. I’ve got a ton of filters set up. I have used like unroll.me to unsubscribe from a lot of stuff because you have to. Because I’m looking to change my email address in the next couple of months to just have a team address to really focus on because it’s—the levels most of the messages coming at us are increasingly just –they just keep going up and up and up. And so I don’t know, it would be interesting to see if anything comes up in the next two, three, four years where—that it makes it able to get through all of that noise. Because it’s getting—just any advertising, in general, is just getting a lot harder because there’s just so much out there.

Mark: You know I really think it comes down to the personalization. Email marketing, you’re right I mean email it’s a complete mess and now I use Gmail, we use Gmail, Google Apps throughout Quiet Light Brokerage and they tab everything down in that promotions or updates or forums tab. And I’ll tell you what I don’t look at promotions ever. Basically, its spam light is what it is and so you just throw all that stuff away. I go through it every few days and select all and hit the archive. Coming through that though like having personalized messages, very, very hyper focused hyper personalized messages I think that’s really the only way that people are going to be able to survive with that email marketing. That’s tough, that’s not easy to do.

Andrew: You know I agree and I think—you know I did a podcast with somebody earlier this year and they have an antiques business and every week they send out an email on Saturday and at the click through rates are like 25%. I talked to him about how he was doing this, I mean trying to get some secret out of it and there wasn’t any secret. It was that he spent hours and hours and hours on an email that was totally unique and it was amazing deep interest level to the customers and people open it. And like I look at the email that we have that goes out to our private communities [inaudible 00:16:34.2] it’s not nearly as good as his is but just that so much smaller group only about a thousand people but we’re able to get it. It takes a lot of time to put together but it gets generally open rates of close to 50%.

Mark: Let’s move on here to another thing. I want to talk about the anatomy of a store owner. You put together a really nice simple graphic on the link to the report and I will link to this report here in the show notes and we’ll also throw it into an email as well. So people listening to this take a look at the email coming through from Quiet Light Brokerage but I want to talk about the makeup of the store owner. Drop shipping seems to be kind of on the losing end of things these days.

Andrew: Yeah I feel like it’s had some pretty strong headwinds for the last couple of years. And this year the number—every year we ask and we look at what percentage of store owners is a certain type of business model; drop shipping, manufacturing, private label, hybrid, or reselling products. And this year the number of drop shippers that reported got cut in half. So only 8% of people this year down from 16% last year were drop shippers which is a pretty huge—just a massive cut. And if you look at the number of manufacturers that we’re reporting that reports for the survey that was up by almost a 3rd by 32%. So it seems like a lot of those—this has been a couple of narratives that have been talked about for a couple of years now but it’s really playing out in the numbers.

Mark: Yeah I think so as well. What’s funny though is we had somebody on recently to talk about drop shipping and they were killing it. They were doing a great job with drop shipping. So I feel like it’s one of these areas where for a while there were Ad Sense sites, a pretty number of Ad Sense sites all over the place, a bunch of those got wiped out and the general thought was this is kind of a dead business model. Well, I’ve seen some of them come by and those people that actually survived through that and how they got some strong, strong businesses. I feel that way with drop shipping a little bit. Like if you can survive these head winds you’ve got something good.

Andrew: It’s funny you say that Mark because when I looked at the revenue growth by business model and the income growth by a business model guess who was leading the pack on both of those metrics? It was drop shippers. And I think what happened is exactly like you said there’s a little bit of a Darwinism at play here where a lot of the herd got thinned out and the people that were left were able to make it work well. And I think you’re actually right it definitely can work in some models. I think it’s much harder to get the things to all align and get a model where it works well for reasons that—I guess I don’t want to get into on the show right now but if you can get it right I mean it’s a great business model because no inventory, no upfront cash, no cash flow issues, location independent. If you get it to work right it’s a pretty good gig.

Mark: It really is but it seems to be so dependent on the product and also your relationships as well because obviously, the problem with drop shipping is competition. It’s so easy just to spin up something and compete directly with you and you get the sort of you bicker with a sort of marketplace of every product that is exactly the same, same images and everything else. It’s tough to work in that area. On the flip side—so like I like to think about this on a spectrum. On one side we have drop shipping where you can see the products sometimes you get into reselling which might be a little bit of a step away from that drop shipping where you’re still doing with some physical product but it’s not yours. And then you go all the way over to the other side of the spectrum and you get these unique manufactured products, some of them private labeled but the most extreme would be hey I invented something or I’ve created a product and you’re seeing some pretty big gains in that area.

Andrew: Yeah I mean the number of manufacturers like I mentioned was up a 3rd this year. If you look at also not just the number of people that are doing it but the benefits that they’re seeing and the pay off, so we tracked gross margin, net margin for those—for all these different types of sellers and manufacturers and by far the largest gross margin at 53%, the highest net margin at 21% and those were up year over year too for each category. I think the gross margin for manufacturers was up from 45% percent up to 53 and the net was up as well. So yeah I think manufacturers are—it’s a harder business, there’s less of a roadmap, it’s more capital intensive, it’s more stressful but if you’re able to crack it more and more people are going that way. It’s really the only way I feel like you can play on Amazon these days because if you’re going to try to go resell someone else’s product on Amazon you’re going to get destroyed. And it’s where a lot of people seem to be going and getting paid for.

Mark: Yeah I think all those things that you talked about; the stress, no roadmap, everything else there’s a flip side of that. It’s defensible, right? Because there’s no roadmap you’re not going to have everybody saying oh I know exactly how to do this. It is difficult to do and figuring out how to get that manufacturing [inaudible 00:21:21.3] done is tough. Did you ask people and if you only have just kind of from what you’ve heard in the community obviously China I would guess would be the number one sourcing location for most people manufacturing, what other countries are you hearing from some of the members on the community that—where people are sourcing products? Especially when we’re recording this—I don’t know when we’re going to air this episode but when we’re recording this we’re staring down potentially more tariffs going on with China. Obviously, this is going to impact everybody selling from China so finding other sources would be great. Have you heard of any other countries that seem to be emergent?

Andrew: That’s a great question and the honest answer is no. I mean there are people in Asia—I hear occasionally about people sourcing in Taiwan which depending on who you ask is China or isn’t. Vietnam is another one that comes up but apart—and you know some people I know occasionally hear their source from India or make their things in Canada or someone I met with recently is building some footwear in Mexico. So there definitely are some other places people get certain things but in terms of a potential runner up to China that could even remotely start to be an alternative to where people are manufacturing 90% of things I don’t think of someone who’s pulling away or even you know accelerating at all. It’s kind of just a whole bunch of a lot of different options all over. So not really an emerging source for manufacturing that I’m seeing.

Mark: That’s a little disappointing but not surprising. I mean wouldn’t it be great to have something on this side of the ocean where we could maybe just pull up from Central America instead of having to—I talked to some of these store owners and they’re talking about three months plus lead times where you’re committing capital and then that goes on the ocean and it takes—I can’t imagine how difficult that would be.

Andrew: Oh yeah it would be really hard and you know it’s one thing we did ask this year was did tariffs  impact your business and granted I know we’re talking you and I are both in the States, I know a lot of people listening aren’t in the States but probably the vast majority of  85% or so of respondents for the survey are US based or 75% rather but we asked did tariffs impact your business this year? And over a 3rd of people, the 36% said the tariffs meaningfully hurt their business this year. And like you just alluded to they are only getting more from slapped on. So it’s a big deal and it’d be nice to have a silver lining; maybe be that sourcing out of some of the countries closer to us maybe, maybe get a boost.

Mark: Yeah that’d be interesting. Hey if anybody has an idea on where we can craft and not let me know. That’d be great to get that part out. Let’s go to like some of the Sunday news here and that is everything seems to be growing. You know I started Quiet Light Brokerage right before we hit that great recession so a lot of my entrepreneurial journey has been slogging through a difficult economy. It seems like from what we’re seeing we’re in a bull market right now.

Andrew: It seems really strong. So we—looking at growth rates over time, and again these are the average merchant—the average e-commerce store owner reporting for the survey was right around 3 million. So that’s relatively small when you look at the macro economy, if you look at e-commerce trends, in general, they’re probably could be growing closer to 20% plus or minus but for this segment of store owners if you look at the growth trend over 3 years, 2017 it was about 25%, last year it jumped way up to almost 37%, and this year it’s down a touch to 36% but still meaningfully about the same. So revenue growth is good, income growth has also remained real strong and if you look at the conversion rates too and it’s just continued to go up the last two years. I mean the conversion rate we’re looking at this year was over 3% up from 2.60% last year. And in terms of like our earlier margins are up so all in all for store owners things are good, growth is good, margins are good, the conversion is great and it’s kind of a boom time is the right word. But it’s definitely—things are robust and healthy out there for stores in this segment.

Mark: Yeah that’s fantastic. One of the surprising things that I’ve seen from the report and we talked about this last year and I know Joe tells me and we mentioned this in the introduction to this episode here that the very 1st eCommerceFuel Live that he attended he brought a book on 10 Steps to Selling Amazon Business. You asked at one point to raise your hand if you’re selling on Amazon and it was only a small portion of the room that did so. And he was thinking oh man I completely missed the mark bringing this book. Well, we’ve seen this number increase over the years although this year from—unless I’ve got [inaudible 00:26:19.5] I’m not reading this backwards, it looks like you have a decline in people that are selling on Amazon and an increase in people that are not selling on Amazon. Is that really what you’re seeing?

Andrew: Yeah I wouldn’t say a decline but I would say a plateauing of something in the report that I wrote I call it like a plateauing Amazon—I hesitate to use the word peak Amazon because every time that I think that they’ve peaked anything they blow up and accelerate to the moon. But looking at like three examples here, or three data points; if you look at the number of merchants who just sell on Amazon or they don’t. A couple of years ago 49% last year, it was 55% so a fairly meaningful jump. This year that number barely budged; it went from 55.2% to 55.8%. So up a little bit but wildly decelerating. Along the same lines if you look at group sales from Amazon last year, two years ago they were up really sharply and this year they barely budged; 27.6 to 28.2% of the total sales that all of the merchants generate coming from Amazon. And this is maybe the most surprising number. If you look at just the revenue growth of stores that sell on Amazon versus don’t last year stores that sold on Amazon grew faster than stores that didn’t. And this year stores that don’t sell on Amazon actually grew faster than stores that do by a small margin which is just really, really surprising. So I think that there’s so much here. We could do a whole episode on I don’t think Amazon is going anywhere, I think they’re going to be shaping the e-commerce landscape for the next 5 to 10 years. But I do think a lot of merchants are starting to really struggle with counterfeit issues, with increasing fees, with loss of control, with feeling like they’re totally beholden to Amazon, and a lot of host of other issues. And they’re not getting off the platform but the number of merchants that are saying hey yeah let’s go hitch our wagon, go to Amazon and sell there—and some people are just deciding to leave the platform altogether. So one of my predictions and here I’m almost certain that it could be wrong because I’m going out on a limb is that next year is the 1st year we see the percentage of stores selling on Amazon actually decrease year over year. So we’ll see when that happens.

Mark: Yeah that’s interesting.  I wonder if shopper’s behavior is changing at all and just again you just can’t draw any conclusions from this here but I know for myself I’ve become more of a diversified shopper than I have in the past. I still use Amazon probably like 4 or 5 times a week, I’m still a really heavy Amazon shopper but I’ll actually look around a little bit off of Amazon as well. And if I get the chance to order directly from a store I do so. Now that’s probably just because I worked with so many entrepreneurs that have these stores and I know the benefits for them. But there’s something nice about that specialization, right? If you think about the big box stores and how they couldn’t specialize in any sort of gear but if you want something high end and specialized, it makes sense that there is somebody that actually does specialize in that. It’s pure speculation on my part of course.

Andrew: No. I think you’re absolutely right. I think we’re going to see in the next 5 years a real hollowing out of e-commerce where you have Amazon; if there’s something you’d know you want to buy it’s more of a commodity or a fairly inexpensive product that I think Amazon is going to be the place you go to get it quickly and cheaply and efficiently. But I think for anything else, for merchants I think the place to really thrive and survive over the next 5 years is to have a premium product or a very niched product; ideally, one that you manufacture. Like just for example yesterday I called up and I was in the market for a nice bike rack for my vehicle. And I went into a lot of research and the company I ended up buying it from I ended up talking to him on the phone for 35, 40 minutes. They custom manufacture in the United States, they ship that to me and it’s that kind of thing. They have an incredible product and they don’t sell on Amazon surprisingly because they don’t need to. Because everyone that wants the site or this product they go right to them and they don’t want to give up the marginalized control and guessing. And I think those are the kind of merchants that are going to do really well in the next 5 plus years. And I think that’s kind of the best place to be going forward if you’re not going to be on Amazon.

Mark: Yeah. I would agree 100%. I think just from a long term sort of defensibility mindset and that’s what I’ve seen and I actually see it on Amazon as well, the companies that are doing really, really well long term Amazon really care about their products. And they’re spending a lot of time on that product development cycle and doing their research and trying to make sure that they have something that’s a high quality product. But then they’re also looking outside of that as well and becoming specialists in that space which makes a big difference. With everything that you surveyed here was there any one or two things that really stood out to you as being surprising this year or would inform you if you were an owner of an e-commerce business yourself that you would definitely want to take action on?

Andrew: I think the big things were the massive shift and we kind of touched on this but the massive shift of people going away from drop shipping and into manufacturing. And the benefits financially that those manufacturers we’re seeing. That would be a big one. The other one was the Facebook ones we talked about where Facebook Ads really are definitely at the back of the pack especially relative to their popularity in terms of effectiveness. So those would be probably two of the big things and then in terms of Amazon just I think it still makes—it can make sense if you have a great product that’s proprietary. It doesn’t—if you do it carefully I don’t think you shouldn’t go on Amazon but just the fact that so many people are kind of hitting the brakes on that or at least new entrance in saying aren’t rushing in as head long as they were before I think is pretty telling. So nothing new there Mark that we haven’t talked about but three things if I was in the middle of kind of defining strategy or starting it from scratch I think would be things I would think really carefully about.

Mark: You said earlier in the episode here with advertising how much more difficult it’s become. And I generally think that what we’re seeing with the Internet and Internet based businesses and we’ve been seeing this pretty much since the time I started as an entrepreneur 20 years ago now is this maturation of the businesses where I think they’re all getting more difficult to do. And you look at this and you think oh man that’s such a bummer. I know I talked to some friends who are entrepreneurs back in the early 2000s and we kind of reminisce about the quarry days of Amazon was a thing of the website waiting for the movie dance to happen and now all of a sudden they’re making gobs of money. But what do we learn from all that? We learned that dries up and disappears pretty quickly. The people that are surviving are the ones that are embracing some of these challenges and looking at them saying I’m going to build something really sustainable, a real product and they’re doing great. They’re doing really good. And that bears out in some of your numbers.

Andrew: Yeah and one thing—it absolutely, absolutely does and I think one thing for you to touch on in terms of Amazon and in terms of sourcing in more of a macro level, if you look at one of the things we asked it was what are your most common struggles, what macro changes are you seeing, and what are your future plans? And one of the macro changes that came up the 1st time this year on the top top list was the number of Chinese sellers that were coming into Amazon. And I think I saw a stat today that 40% of the top Amazon sellers in 2019 are Chinese sellers versus 26% two years ago. And so A. on one level you have just a lot more competition directly from factories who are the low cost provider. Which isn’t a bad thing for consumers in and of itself but it’s harder for merchants. And if those sellers don’t have the same kind of quality standards; some of them do, some of them don’t, and you also run into problems. But you also have a lot of—one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of counterfeit issues. This has been in the news. We’ve had a number of members in our community who have had problems with this when they had a product it got knocked off and then these people—you know a lot of overseas sellers started selling this product directly in competition with the original manufacturer which was really problematic because the quality wasn’t as good. And so consumers got it and it really hurt the brand because they assumed it came from the original source when it didn’t. And so you see I think this also ties back into Amazon and why people are getting a little bit more careful about that platform is because there are some meaningful counterfeit issues out there that again going back to the difficulties of manufacturing that merchants are having to face that weren’t really as much of an issue two, three years ago.

Mark: That would be interesting to see what happens with that platform. And also I’m going to touch on one last bit of the report here that you spent some time on and that is the impact of politicians and judges and we’ve covered two areas; we were already talked about tariffs briefly and how many were impacted by that. I think the other big elephant in the room and it’s been there for several years and we’ve talked about it a ton here at Quiet Light Brokerage and that is the FBA Nexus. Do you have Nexus, are you filing those sales taxes in different states, and you still have a very small percentage [inaudible 00:35:49.6] to the speaking of your community that was paying those sales taxes. I think 21% is what I’m seeing is that right?

Andrew: Yup that’s correct. So the percentage of sellers who have Amazon inventory that is filing for sales tax, [inaudible 00:36:04.0] sales tax in any state that they have “FBA Nexus” whether or not you agree that [inaudible 00:36:10.1] Nexus. Yeah only about a quarter of merchants are submitting sales tax to those states.

Mark: And do you have any idea why such a small percentage? I mean obviously nobody wants to pay taxes and that it’s a pain to most people. I’ve run into sellers who make the argument that it’s really not—oh there’s no legal basis for it.

Andrew: I think it’s a couple of things. I think one it’s it is potentially disputable whether or not and again this is something I need to personally do a deep dive on but from the very—this is where things get dangerous when I talk but from the very little I know I don’t know if it’s—I don’t believe it’s that very crystal clear, there’s a whole lot of present presidents that said yes this does definitively give you Nexus. And it could be a state by state issue as well. So I think that’s part of it. I think the 2nd part of it is thinking about—so because it’s a gray area you can have more people who start thinking on a risk basis. What are my risks I submit? What are my risks if I don’t? Also relative to the workload because it’s not just about the tax; I mean if it was mostly about the tax and the administering this and the managing of it was really easy and you didn’t have any you know long term liability or exposure to being audited I think most merchants would say hey it’s a little inconvenience but let’s go ahead and let’s set this up. You can snap your fingers I’ll collect the sales tax; it’s not a big deal.  If it is a federal level it’s much easier to do. I think you’d see that number jumped to 25 to 50% plus but that’s not the case. Like you’ve got—it’s hard to administer. You potentially open yourself up to dozens, hundreds, maybe even theoretically thousands of different municipalities who can audit you. You run the risk of getting on a sales tax agency’s radar to come after you and maybe it wasn’t before. So I think those are some of the reasons why people are not exactly thrilled at the thought of jumping in and waving their hand at taxation seasons saying hey here I am I’m not sure if I’m actually legally obligated to do this but come check me out.

Mark: I completely get it. I get the risk versus reward analysis and frankly if I were a seller I would probably be among that 75% that’s not collecting. Not that that’s what I would advise here in my role because I know that if you do want to sell you got to be doing that right. And most buyers are looking at that and saying we want you to be paying those taxes. We don’t want that to come back after us [inaudible 00:38:31.9] later on. But I mean from my opinion I think it’s pretty legally shaky ground to say that people do have that Nexus. But the best practice from a selling standpoint would be to be filing so we do—I mean that’s our default position here at Quiet Light is that you should be filing for sure without a doubt. But I would love to see this resolved within the next few years because it as if Amazon sellers don’t have enough things hanging over their head. There’s this potential like you said of being audited by the state of California or all of a sudden getting a bill for seven, eight, nine years of tax—what a mess. They need to get it together and figure this part out.

Andrew: There’s a little bit of encouraging news [inaudible 00:39:16.5] different sales tax issue we’re talking about the FBA Nexus tax issue but the wayfarer versus South Dakota Supreme Court case that opened up the doors for states to tax inbound orders to their residents even if you don’t have Nexus in the state as a whole opened up a whole other can of worms. And California I believe just passed some legislation that increases the threshold for—I think that the term for that is economic Nexus. They bumped that up meaningfully to half a million when before it was really low at like 100,000 and 200 transactions. So there’s a little bit of encouraging news on some of that fronts and I believe there’s been maybe half a dozen other states that either followed suit or are in process of doing that but its sales tax right now in the United States is just an absolute disaster. And I agree with you, I think we really need something at the federal level to clean it up because it’s just a nightmare. I know people and I know you have to Mark that have sold their business not entirely based on but this definitely was a large part of the calculation thinking through I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t want to deal with the stress. I don’t know with the liability and this is making business harder than it needs to be and I’m ready to be done.

Mark: Yeah absolutely. Alright, we got to get to the most important metric that you’ve got and then wrap this up because we’re actually long already with the episode. And you know what it is, it’s your KPI the thing that you’re focusing on the most. And in the past, you’ve learned stuff about your community rather be attacked by a swarm of angry bees and a bear and you say that they’re crazy. I don’t know the bear sounds pretty scary. But this year you asked what luxury gift would you pick; unlimited use of a private jet, $300,000 in annual income, a monthly lunch with anyone, or a tropical island and a house. So that 300k of annual income is that like forever?

Andrew: That’s forever. Yeah and I think overly weighted this one. I should have been all stench here with the annual annuity that you got because 2/3 of people picked the 300k income which yeah it’s hard to argue against that. That’s a pretty sweet little set up for life but like 10% picked the jet, about 13% picked the monthly lunch with anyone. That was my pick. I think like you can—I mean to be able to sit down once a month with the likes of U.S. presidents, heads of state, Nobel Prize winners. I mean you can’t buy that. I think that’d be cool.

Mark: Do you have to buy lunch?

Andrew: You do. I should have included that. That was probably what the deal breaker was.

Mark: Right. Because it’s got to be a pretty nice lunch if you’re going to have lunch with these guys. You’re not just going down on like [inaudible 00:41:45.4].

Andrew: That’s a good point. And then the last one was a tropical house, about 30% of people picked that. But yeah I mean to me this is I feel like it’s going to a cornerstone—I suppose we can lead with this one actually Mark. I think next time maybe we mix things around and lead off of the Kardashian performance.

Mark: You like to always put the best content at the end so that people will listen all the way to the end. Because where would your day be today if you hadn’t learned that most people would take 300k annual income over a monthly lunch with anyone. I actually think you make a pretty valid point there. That would be pretty valuable. You can’t buy a monthly lunch with anyone. That’d be tough.

Andrew: Buffet—I think you could buy lunch with Buffett for—I don’t know it’s in the millions I think to have lunch with him. And he’s just—I can imagine he’s a pretty cool cat but yeah to build it up monthly with anyone; that’s pretty cool.

Mark: Yeah that is pretty cool. Alive and dead?

Andrew: No, I don’t think—I think it has to be alive. I didn’t put that in there. If we had some inane abilities to be able to resurrect people, that would be pretty sweet. I’d put that in there too. I probably would have bumped it up a touch but I don’t know, that 300k was pretty [inaudible 00:42:53.4] people. People like their cash.

Mark: I think I could probably make 300k a year with some inane abilities. I’d be like one of those fortune tellers but I’m pretty sure I could spin that off into a pretty desk.

Andrew: I know you could too.

Mark: Hey thanks so much for coming on; tons of really good information. Go check out eCommerceFuel.com and the State of the Merchant Report. We will link to it in the show notes. We will be sending out an email to every one of our subscribers here on this. If you’re not a member of the community are you taking applications right now Andrew?

Andrew: We are. Yes, we are.

Mark: Okay. If you’re not a member of the eCommerceFuel community and you are an e-commerce seller you definitely need to check them out. I don’t recommend a lot of groups. I don’t recommend a lot of people or sites. We do so very stingily here at Quiet Light Brokerage but eCommerceFuel is one of our favorite groups out there. So please do check them out. Anything you’d like to end with Andrew?

Andrew: No. I think that maybe two quick things; one if you want to check out the report directly its eCommerceFuel.com/2019-report that’ll link you right to it. And then if you happen to be a podcast listener which I’m guessing you are, we also do a weekly podcast, sometimes twice a week on e-commerce, e-commerce news, store owners, kind of cutting edge just whatever is happening in the e-commerce world and strategy. That comes out weekly as well so if you’re interested in that you can check that out [inaudible 00:44:15.2].

Mark: Yeah and you guys also sent out really good emails. I know we talked about email marketing and there’s not a lot of people I feel add value to my inbox. I think you guys do a great job of adding value to my inbox. So definitely check out the community, check out the podcast and the report. And once again Andrew thanks for coming on. I look forward to having you on next year for the 2020 State of the Merchant Report.

Andrew: Yeah. Thank you, Mark. I appreciate it. It’s always fun to come on and great work with what you guys are doing in the online space with businesses. It’s always fun to talk and I appreciate the invite.

Links and Resources:

Andrew’s website

State of the Merchant 2019

Andrew’s Podcast

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