Opinion - CNBC | Momentive Small Business Survey

Surprise survey findings: Main Street all over the place on extent of Amazon threat

SurveyMonkey's Jon Cohen, chief research officer, and Laura Wronski, research scientist
Workers pack and ship customer orders at the 750,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center on August 1, 2017 in Romeoville, Illinois.
Getty Images

Depending on the day, and twists and turns of the news cycle, Amazon is either the greatest thing or the worst thing to happen to American businesses.

President Donald Trump dubs Amazon a "no-tax monopoly" and said that it is doing "great damage to tax-paying retailers." He repeatedly criticized the company and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, throughout his presidential campaign and into his presidency.

But Linda McMahon, Trump's head of the Small Business Administration, takes a sunnier view of the internet giant. Visiting Amazon's Seattle headquarters in July, she praised the company for providing "opportunities for small businesses," saying the company helps foster entrepreneurship.

It's not just the Trump administration that's split on what Amazon means to Main Street businesses. Even small business owners don't know if Amazon is good or bad for small businesses, according to the latest CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey.

The challenges are manifest, as Amazon increasingly becomes all things to all people: bookstore, clothing retailer, grocer (through the recent acquisition of Whole Foods Market), movie producer and whatever is next. Up against Amazon's loyal and growing customer base, its low prices and fast deliveries and its wealth of analytics and consumer data, mom-and-pop stores are thought to face an existential threat.

Nonetheless, small-business owners are divided about equally on whether Amazon has a generally positive or negative effect on the climate for small businesses in the country. A little more than a third (35 percent) say what's been called the "Everything Store" is "good for small businesses," while a few more (42 percent) still say it is "bad for small businesses." About 1 in 5 (21 percent) say Amazon "has no effect on small businesses."

83% of business owners say they're 'not affected' by Amazon

One big reason for the divided attitude toward Amazon is that when asked about their own business relationship to Amazon, small-business owners express little direct concern. A mere 8 percent say their business "competes with Amazon for customers," with a similar proportion (7 percent) saying the internet giant "helps drive customers" to their business. An overwhelming 83 percent say as of yet their own business is "not affected by Amazon."

These results indicate that despite headlines, from the perspective of small businesses, Amazon is neither all good nor all bad — at least so far. After all, a clear majority of the 2,282 randomly selected small-businesses owners interviewed in this survey (58 percent) are members of Amazon Prime, the company's signature membership program. That's even higher than reported membership among other American adults (46 percent).

Fittingly, small-business owners who say they compete with Amazon directly are more likely to view the online retailer negatively (74 percent) and say Amazon is bad for small businesses in general. But even among this group, 54 percent subscribe to Amazon Prime, with another 27 percent making some purchases on Amazon.

More from the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey:
Economic confidence slips, even among conservative business owners

On the other side, a majority (63 percent) of small-business owners who say Amazon helps drive customers to their businesses see Amazon as having a broader salutary effect. Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) of these small-business owners subscribe to Amazon Prime, and almost everyone else makes some purchases on the platform.

Of those small-business owners who see their businesses as helped by Amazon, 72 percent expect their revenue to increase in the next year. That optimistic view is far more entrenched than it is among those who find themselves in direct competition with Amazon (56 percent of whom see more revenue ahead) or among those who do not yet see a direct effect (50 percent).

The view across industries, however, might offer a glimpse ahead as Amazon continues its expansion. Small business owners in the retail trade — the area where Amazon began to operate as a threat way back in 1995 — take a particularly negative stance. In retail a slim majority (52 percent) call Amazon "bad for businesses," far more than see it as "good for businesses" (31 percent). About a quarter (26 percent) of these small-business owners see themselves in direct competition with the company, the highest of any industry. Still, twice as many (52 percent) of them subscribe to Amazon Prime.

So stay tuned.

— By SurveyMonkey's Jon Cohen, chief research officer, and Laura Wronski, research scientist

The CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey is conducted quarterly using SurveyMonkey's online platform and is based on its survey methodology. The third-quarter survey was conducted Aug. 10–Aug. 17.