The October issue of WIRED magazine has a truly fascinating article about ETSY.com. The fact that WIRED, "the" geek magazine for years now, would be covering the artsy, fartsy world of artists and crafters makes for fascinating reading all by itself.
The article titled "ETSY: Goes Pro" asks the questions - can a marketplace for crocheted blankets and hand-beaded necklaces infiltrate the shelves of your local mall? A good question indeed especially in light of the recent questions and discussions of those who have ETSY stores and have seen their sales drop off a cliff. Here is a recent quote from a discussion about dropping sales, "The new browse thing has affected a lot of shops, I think... Views are down over 50% with me, and if you aren't seen you're likely to make less sales (usually...) Also intro of Google shopping may have had an impact..?"
The article of course does not cover that worry. No, in fact it covers primarily a story of one person (symbolic to be fair) who has been fortunate enough to need to expand beyond what they can do themselves and would need to find another site or create a web site and hire additional people to expand. The conditions of being a crafter on ETSY are fairly strict and that has always been a bone of contention. What IS handcrafted and what is not. It appears this is going to change.
ETSY, for those who are uninformed, was a site created in 2005 by a group by twentysomething techies who had drifted in the DIY crafter circuit. The foremost founder was Rob Kalin who remained at the helm until recently and by the time he was ousted was felt by some to be a hindrance rather than help for the crafting community. He was seen as more interested in ideology than business. Quoting WIRED, Kalin said, "I see Etsy as an art project." He saw Etsy as a cultural movement that could revive the power and voice of the individual against the depersonalized landscape of big-box retail.
Today the site is said to attract 42 million unique visitors a month who browse the 15 million products of the 800,000 sellers who use Etsy as their store front. As a seller myself I find these figures highly suspect especially when I mention the site to friends, acquaintances, or just about anyone I meet when I tell them what I do. Etsy they ask? What's that?
I didn't realize there were so many sellers and in many ways explains the battle all sellers are having just getting their items seen. This is a constant battle and much discussion goes on about how to get your products on the first few screens in a search. In fact, I think that some of these sellers make more selling books and such about how to sell on Etsy than selling items. Has Etsy reached its limit?
It IS highly profitable. With listings of 20 cents an item for four months and a fee of 3.5% of each sale, they get at least $9 million a year in listing fees alone. That doesn't include the selling fee and a whole bunch of other potential costs for special placements and the like.
The article goes on to say that the new CEO, a dedicated business type, wants to tweak the rules allowing people who "design" something outsource their designs and sell them on the site. Currently this is forbidden. But of additional worry is that Etsy is buddying up with brick and mortar stores such as retailer West Elm. This comes on the heels of their purchase of Trunkt which gives sellers tools to get their products "into the world in brick-and -mortar stores, catalogs and other online stores." Does that mean you could see handcrafted items at your local JCPenney? Maybe. Are these Etsy sellers manufacturing? The majority are not and could resent those who do yet retain the title "handcrafted."
I think the average sellers on Etsy are more worried about getting traffic to their stores and making a few sales than the few who have done extremely well and, as many feel, should move on. There comes a point when what you make is not your own and becomes your design but is not your creation anymore. Visit any craft or kitschy Christmas store. You see unique items that when inspected give you the creators name and then at the bottom say "Made In China." Yes there was an original but it has been duplicated a million times and can not truthfully be considered hand crafted. This is sort of like a Thomas Kincaid painting. There was one original and 10,000 copies. The images of sweat shops in central Los Angeles and Southeast Asia quickly come to mind. Its not grandma knitting in front of her TV watching her favorite soap opera; its a factory where they may be knitting but the conditions would be deplorable.
Reading any of the books about being sellers on Etsy paints a grim picture. You would have to just about work 24 / 7 marketing your site just to make a living. And then, where is the time to create?
To be fair though, Etsy is still the gold standard if slow to innovate and when it does often at very awkward times. Competitors like ArtFire and TheCraftStar are even less known. In the latter's case it took months to come online after the posted start date. It has been rife with downtime, and after poor communication I never opened a store there.
I have no solutions or answers. It has been a year now for me and sales are almost nonexistent. I feel that I would be better off finding a local craft fair and seeing if my ROI would be better spent there. If you're interested here is the link to the WIRED article: http://www.wired.com/design/2012/09/etsy-goes-pro/ .