Shopify and the return of the merchant class

FOR A CLASS of businessman that has been out of fashion for hundreds of years, the word merchant still has a ring to it. It conjures up medieval Europe, with its mercers, skinners, haberdashers, guilds and gold-buttoned liveries. It brings to mind ambitious venturers, bankrolling crusades and conquests, opening up spice routes and making history—for good and ill. It runs through literature and art, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Holbein. Then it practically vanishes, first under the iron wheels of industrialisation in the 19th century, then crushed by consumer culture in the 20th. Until recently, the few merchants left sold only grain—or doom. Then came the e-commerce era. At last, merchants are staging a comeback.

Many of today’s e-merchants sell in a digital marketplace, akin to a medieval town square. That mostly means Amazon, which handles almost half of American online sales on behalf of 1.9m suppliers. Its reputation for providing support to sellers is iffy. But it compensates by offering them an endless stream of customers, including 100m Prime subscribers who buy frequently and enjoy free, speedy delivery. That persuades sellers to put up with a lot.

Some online retailers, however, prefer to strike out on their own, like the craftsmen of old. They are developing “microbrands” they peddle themselves, handling...

via Business Feeds

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