How Shopify is Reimagining the Merchant Class

How Shopify is Reimagining the Merchant Class

A merchant’s happiness hangs upon chance, winds, and waves – 

Old Turkish Proverb

Can you imagine a world without shopping? Without The Kroger Co. or Costco, life could get tricky. Breakfast pancakes would just not be the same if you had to tap maple syrup from a tree, not to mention the challenges of getting hold of some bacon if there weren’t any shops. Who has the time for that? 

We obviously enjoy the convenience that stores bring us, and our forefathers felt the same way - the concept of shopping has been around for centuries, although it’s completely evolved since then. 

In the Beginning (of Shops)

In medieval times, merchants played a vital role in the development of society. They traded at weekly markets, some traveled from continent to continent selling their goods, and some even set up international trade routes. For example the Phoenicians who sailed ships across the Mediterranean to deal in textiles, wood, glass and produce like oil, nuts, dried fruit, and wine. Phoenician merchants were so active that a network of colonies was formed along the coast stretching from what’s now known as Crete to Morocco. 

Merchants who did not brave the oceans to bring goods to the rest of the world, and instead set up permanent shops, made a massive contribution to the growth of the towns they set up in. Although they were initially distrusted, the merchant class eventually became respected, revered, and had the potential to do really well. They even had guilds that promoted their economic interests, helped them establish mutual aid, and provided other types of support and protection. Yes, merchants had it quite good in the middle ages! 

And then they pretty much vanished.  

The iron wheels of industrialization crushed merchants in the 19th century and the consumer culture practically wiped it out in the 20th century. Until the era of e-commerce emerged, merchants have had to take a backseat. 

At Last, Merchants are Reclaiming Their Space!

As online shopping took the world by storm, e-merchants began selling their wares in the digital marketplace, just like ancient merchants used the town square to trade. Until recently this mostly meant Amazon, the industry giant that takes care of a massive chunk of online sales in the U.S. on behalf of nearly 2 million suppliers.  

Even though Amazon excels at making shoppers happy, merchants are not always satisfied. But, because they have the monopoly, Amazon can continue to operate despite not providing the best support to sellers. The endless stream of buyers persuades some merchants to put up with it. Those who don’t, strike out on their own and create their personal ‘microbrands’ as they handle payment, customer services, and fulfilment autonomously. 

Setting off without the comfort of using a multi-billion dollar corporation’s infrastructure can be daunting. Since the merchant class is only making a comeback now, it doesn’t have the support of guilds the way the olden day merchants did. 

Shopify changed all of this by developing a way to shift the focus to the merchants, instead of only catering to hordes of buyers - welcoming in the new age of the merchant class! 


Planning the Perfect Platform

Shopify was launched in 2006 by accident by Canadians who wanted to make e-commerce better. Since then, the company’s value has increased exponentially. Just the past year saw an increase of a staggering 180%. Of course, it’s nowhere near worldwide e-commerce veteran eBay, which is also just a speck in the shadow of Amazon. 

To put this into perspective, eBay’s annual revenue for 2020 was US$10.271 billion while Amazon raked in US$386 billion. Shopify only made US$2.93 billion. However, merchants using Shopify generated around US$307 billion in revenue in 2020. Did we say Shopify is nice to sellers, or what? 

With Shopify, digital merchants don’t need to spend a small fortune on setting up shop online, or be forced to rely on Amazon. They can market, sell, and ship their products on their own terms, in their own packaging, and without having to sacrifice margins or give over control when it comes to customer care. Sellers also no longer need to worry about the risk of being elbowed out of their own industry if Amazon decides to create their own version of their products. 

Shopify’s Role in Bringing Back the Merchant Class

Since Amazon and eBay are the leaders in digital commerce, were they not responsible for this newfangled return of the merchant class? Yes, and no. Amazon made it possible for merchants to ply their wares from a central location. However, the price to pay was relinquishing control and autonomy.  

Unlike Amazon, Shopify doesn’t interfere with how merchants and buyers interact, or how products are shipped. Shoppers don’t even know that Shopify is involved. They are shopping from the brand, not Shopify. It’s the ideal space for budding and veteran merchants alike. Shopify merchants also:

  • Have the option to set up shop according to budget
  • Enjoy a quick and easy set up
  • Scale up inexpensively
  • Enjoy higher margins
  • Have access to apps for functionality
  • Have access to Shopify partners to make every step easier
  • Have the option to use Shopify fulfilment solutions

Just like the merchant guilds of medieval times, Shopify has cleverly crafted an e-league of “merchant guilds”. The support infrastructure is unprecedented, and is growing every day. And, just like the merchant class developed the trade routes across the globe in the middle ages and beyond, Shopify is gearing up to tackle trading in every corner of the world.

Taking on the Global Digital Trade Routes

The next challenge for the merchant class and Shopify is to move beyond the English-speaking world. Currently around three-quarters of Shopify buyers are based there. As with the olden day merchants, there are endless opportunities on faraway shores, especially when tapping the Asian market. 

To get a foot in the door, Shopify has already enabled 17 languages on its platform besides English, which includes several Asian languages. Merchants have the option to use different platforms in different languages, or use a multilingual Shopify theme or app like Weglot. There are some configuration changes needed, but it’s possible.  

Even though Asian giant Alibaba has the monopoly in China, Amazon and Walmart are in full force in India, and South-East Asia mainly uses local firms, Shopify has a different methodology to most, giving it an advantage. 

Then there’s the market in poorer, developing countries where the e-commerce market is still fragile. However, even though the merchant class was not trusted and even seen as suspect in early days, it did not deter them from trading from continent to continent, setting up trade routes that are still valid to this day. These routes covered poor and developing countries as well!

Just like the merchants before them, the new and emerging merchant class is moving forward and redefining digital trade on their terms, and Shopify is making this possible.

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