Online marketplaces are flourishing in the age of Amazon — despite the hovering behemoth’s ever ubiquitous presence.
Amazon might be on top — it reached the $1 trillion market-cap mark for the first time in September on the heels of an awe-inspiring second quarter — but niche retail marketplaces with their ingenuity backed up by compelling, tailored solutions are finding ways to compete.
“Those that are smaller have to be scrappy, and they’re trying to compete on every different level,” says Sara Hicks, CEO of Reaction Commerce, an open source, real-time ecommerce platform that offers development and design flexibility and support for small online retail marketplaces seeking to position their brands.
“There is so much more room for improvement that we’re only at the starting point, kind of the Wild West of the early days of putting software and data and tools into the hands of the masses,” she says.
“We’re not talking about a long period of time that even an Amazon or a Walmart has been operating. I’m just convinced that there won’t be one single company or even a handful of companies, no matter how big or successful today, that will control ecommerce in the long run. I believe that ultimately ecommerce is going to be decentralized. It’s going to be accessible. It’s going to be open.”
London-based Artlimes Ltd., an online art marketplace that enables artists in more than 20 countries to sell to galleries, buyers, collectors and dealers while accessing other services such as custom framing and insurance, operates on the Reaction Commerce platform.
CEO Lorenzo Campanis is an accomplished hobby artist and technologist whose mission for the company is to enjoin a high-tech and art business case, providing a rich platform for artists to display and market their creations.
Campanis learned about the Reaction Commerce service a few years ago — he needed a platform that would allow him to refine and evolve Artlimes’ offerings with a cutting-edge technological bent for stakeholders in sophisticated art markets like London, Athens and Paris.
The Reaction Commerce open source platform met his requirement to be able to “scale in five to 10 years without a new implementation” or encumbrances on proprietary and less modular platforms, he said. “We thought it was a good match to tag along with what we actually wanted to do,” he says. “We’re very much open source-minded.”
His ambitions on technology are well placed. As an online marketplace targeting a highly creative community, the Artlimes platform needed to be able to replicate a visually dependent offline experience with technologies that include virtual reality, 3D browsing and artificial intelligence.
For instance, Artlimes is testing a high definition showrooming feature that allows buyers to visualize art in different areas of a house or in different environments, similar to technologies in the apparel industry where clothing shoppers can access virtual features to see how items would look on them.
“The uniqueness of our product comes with technology first, and then the fact that we love art,” Campanis says. “We want to make sure we provide the best technology with the best solutions in an easy way with a nice user experience.”
Despite viewing it through a screen, Campanis contends that users nonetheless still want to “feel” the art. That’s the point of being heavily invested in technology, he says, because it gives him a talking point on the competition, including an internet giant like Amazon and its formidable Amazon Art platform that affords consumer access and sale to more than 40,000 works of fine art from global galleries and dealers.
He believes his heavy investment in technology will help him stand out. “When it comes to art, you like minimalism. You really want to feel the product and not be distracted by other things. For us to get through all this noise, we invest heavily in customer acquisition, and we invest heavily in knowing what the customer really wants. We’ve got a lean methodology behind how we provide the product to the customer,” he says.
While Artlimes offers an example of a business-to-consumer online marketplace employing the Reaction Commerce platform, hop.exchange — facilitating the sale and trade of the fundamental flavoring component in beer-making — is seeking similar efficiencies of open source through a business-to-business orientation.
William Moss, hop.exchange founder, says an open source platform will help the online marketplace achieve its long-term objectives. The business began first as a service to beer brewers as a conduit for sourcing or selling excess hops efficiently and cost-effectively.
The hops market in Great Britain is a vertically integrated segment dominated by family businesses that have been growing the flower for literally hundreds of years. However, from a sourcing standpoint, it is a business that is difficult to predict the needs of the market two or three years ahead.
Hop.exchange “solves a problem for brewers” by facilitating sales and exchanges to other brewers or hop merchants, Moss says. For hop.exchange, that’s the short-term play. Longer term, Moss aims for the platform to be a one-stop-shop for all brewing supplies and information. He says the Reaction Commerce environment allows the company to bring on technologies and capabilities as needed.
“Rather than brewers calling six different people to see what they’ve got and what their prices are, they can come to this one site and compare prices, quality and reviews and see the details and make an informed decision. It’s really bringing brewing supplies into the 21st century,” Moss says.
He acknowledges that hop.exchange will never compete with large business-to-consumer marketplaces, but says there is plenty of opportunity to carve out a niche in a custom segment like hops. As a custom marketplace, he says hop.exchange can offer tailored solutions, even down to a near-individual customer level.
“We can actually build our platform and take in certain data points and build something that’s really customized to our market. We’ve got lots of people who just want to sell one or two things and they just want to get it sold now, so the platform needs to be really, really easy to use,” Moss says. “We make it really crystal clear for them.”
Hicks says the concept of open source is designed to support online retail marketplaces not only with needed infrastructure, but also with a large open-source community that exchanges information on solutions. If the infrastructure is addressed, such as setting up the platform, managing catalogs, processing orders and fulfilling logistics, the sites can focus their attention on merchandising and marketing.
“There are a lot of complexities with commerce that I think is sort of forgotten. When you are a small business, you’re trying to deal with all of that, let alone figuring out how to get exposure for your products,” Hicks said. “Because we’re open, it gives businesses total ownership and control over the [customer]experience.”
M.V. Greene is an independent writer and editor based in Owings Mills, Md., who covers business, technology and retail.