Beyond Etsy: Small Handmade Markets as Chambers of Commerce
When I launched TAFA in 2010, half of us had shops on Etsy. Seven years later, we still have a good presence there, but many have abandoned their shops and now sell through their own sites or on other handmade markets. We have seen great advances in tools that are user friendly making an e-commerce site more accessible to individuals or small groups, yet the never ending problem is how to get seen among the masses that are competing for the same audience. The solution and an increasing trend lies in creating groups of shops that have a common base and promoting them as a marketplace. I think of these as our virtual “chambers of commerce”.
Discontentment with Etsy
Back in 2013 Etsy announced that it was changing its focus and would allow manufactured products on to the marketplace. It also removed the word “handmade” from its mission statement. We documented our community’s reaction in this post: Etsy’s New Guidelines: Reaction? Action! The comments at that time show distress and disappointment. Etsy then went public and although it continues to serve the handmade community with an excellent platform that continually strives to improve itself, many of us who are still there have suffered a dramatic loss in revenue and reach. Why? You would think that the larger a market becomes, the more people it will reach. The same logic was applied to Amazon’s launch of its handmade marketplace.
My experience on eBay (9 years there) and on Etsy (since it’s 2nd year) is that when a market becomes a super giant, people get lost. And, any place that is not curated is going to be loaded with junk so that the shopping experience becomes more frustrating, more of a mission than an enjoyable excursion.
Etsy is like a medusa with wild hair. With one hand, great things are done for our community (loads of tutorials, training, meet-ups, building community) and then the snakes take jabs at this or that, causing chaos. One excellent concept Etsy established was the notion of team building. Shops organize around a theme or location to promote themselves. There are over 14,000 teams on Etsy! Some teams are just about business or promotion, but many proactively develop their identities into a type of guild, with rules, fees, a blog or website and social media promotions. One of the best ones that I know of is the Etsy Mud Team. Several of our ceramic artists on Artizan Made belong to it and speak highly of them.
We tried to do something similar with TAFA and it didn’t fly. I ended up doing most of the work and was frustrated with the lack of involvement from the members. The reality for most of us is that selling online is a huge job. You have to make or buy the products, photograph them, go through the tiresome listing process, deal with customer service, ship whatever sells, keep up with records, promote what you do on social media and supposedly have a life! Those with young children or other jobs rarely end up with the time or energy to volunteer in a group effort. So, a successful team on Etsy certainly has a couple of dedicated people who are keeping the ship afloat.
We did create a presence on Etsy through our Team and that is still going: Visit TAFA on Etsy At the time of this post, there are over 3,000 items listed by our members and it’s an excellent overall way to find high quality textiles and fiber art over on Etsy.
I proposed that we form a collective and each member pay a small monthly fee to cover my time and the expenses of running a website. Around 20 of our members formed the initial core group and we launched Artizan Made in 2014. Since we were going off-TAFA, I suggested that we open it up to other fine craft and focus on home decor and eco-fashion. We now accept handmade supplies, too, but the focus is generally on functional works. Artizan has gone through several transformations in the last three years. Technology keeps changing and with it, new ways of presenting the work, both on the site and on the devices that show them force us to adapt. We’ve had three overhauls in three years and each time, it meant redoing much of the work, adjusting how things looked, a huge commitment of time and effort. But, we are finally settled into a beautiful space and hopefully this will be good for awhile.
We currently have around 70 shops on Artizan Made and in June launched a market on the site where our members could list their products. This has been the biggest tech challenge of my life as everything that could go wrong went wrong. I started researching it in January and although there are many options out there now, some are a fortune, others are ugly, and others have bad reviews. I decided to go with a wordpress version because it is the largest open source platform in the world and the geek community is constantly working on it. The problem is that as the core of wordpress updates, the other parts that shape the site (the theme, the cart, the marketplace, the events page, etc) are all developed by independent groups and sometimes one will conflict with the other. And, any site that becomes large starts having issues dealing with servers, memory, bot attacks and the list goes on and on and on. The learning curve has subsided and we now have excellent tech assistance to help us with issues as they come up.
It takes money and tech skills to run a marketplace like what we have now. I estimate that an ideal size for us is to have around 200 shops. That will give us enough income to handle these challenges in a professional way and to do the kind of marketing we need to do to reach a wide audience. A successful marketplace needs to have enough variety to attract interest and yet be small enough so that the members don’t get lost in the shuffle.
As mentioned above, running a shop takes a lot of time and energy. And, as I was seeing more and more of our TAFA members open their own shops on their sites, my thinking began to move away from Etsy. Now the focus is to support our handmade community wherever they are: on Etsy, on their own sites, or somewhere else.
When people shop online, they usually have something in mind that they are looking for: a scarf, a pillow, a wall hanging. Or, they might just be browsing for inspiration. Having good categories helps people navigate to areas that they are interested in. We have over 200 categories on Artizan, all reachable by an expanding directory on the sidebar of the Market. They describe function, color, materials, provenance and other descriptive areas.
Each shop owner can decide how they want to use their listings. This is very important! They can link over to their own shop (which most are doing), use our cart (we do not take a commission of their sales) or announce a Made to Order listing.
The reason that this is so important is that the shop owner does not have to have separate inventory for each site. And, because we are not taking a commission on sales, we don’t have to worry about where the sale is made. Our role is to support and promote. So, the listings that link over to other places are really like small advertisements that can be sorted into categories. Then, those who want to can use our cart to sell through our site. Many people don’t want to deal with the headache of managing their own cart, don’t want to be on Etsy, etc., so having this option is great for them.
We have an importer that allows us to pull listings in from other sites. This saves loads of time, although each listing still needs to be adjusted to fit our format and categories. Once the seller has set up the listings, they do not have to invest much effort in managing their shop. They can edit or change their listings at any time.
The blog and social media. One of the tools that has been great about the themes that we are using here and on Artizan is that we can pull in different elements into a blog post, featuring member profiles, shop products or other categories we have on the site. The blog becomes a much more powerful tool as it can do this automatically and always show a current mix of whatever we are showing.
I’ve been working with the handmade community for decades now and things keep getting more and more complicated. This is what I think is the best strategy for handmade shops:
- Choose where your main hub will be. Etsy is still an excellent place to be if you don’t want to host your own site. The seller and shop tools are excellent and the listing process is straightforward. But, I believe that having your own, self hosted website is the best thing for serious businesses. If you own your own site, you can set it up the way you want to, have total control over graphics and content, and you will not get shut down. Etsy has the power to close your shop anytime it wants to and it has done so to several of our TAFA members.
- Have all of your marketing point to your main hub. Make sure that you have the same name everywhere so that you can build your brand and so your customers won’t be confused.
- Work on your images until they shine! This is so, so, so important! When people are shopping online, they usually scroll quickly through hundreds of image, stopping at the ones that capture their attention. If you image is blurry, dark, or poorly cropped, they will pass right over you. If your colors are off significantly, you will get your product returned.
- Use text to help search engines find you. Understand which key words will attract your people. Make your titles professional, your listings informational and have your main link everywhere. If people share your image or content, you want new people to know where to come to find you.
Finally, find marketplaces and groups that will support you and promote you in a beautiful way. It is very difficult to build up a following on your own, so look for a few, select places that will promote you to the right audience.
Interested in joining Artizan Made?
Our members pay $125 to join and $12.50/month to be on the site. If they want to set up shop, it’s an extra $25/year for 50 products. Those who are linking back to their sites usually have enough in the Artizan mix to stick with the 50 products. Those who are using our cart might eventually need more space, so they can buy another block of 50 listings. The reason we are doing it this way is that the Market is costing us in server space and in technical assistance. Each new member who joins means several hours of my time, getting them set up, adding them to different areas of the site so that they show up and it’s just time consuming. The $12.50/month helps cover my time, marketing, and any costs that come up. Hopefully, we can eventually hire an assistant. Go here for more information.
Artsy Shark has put together the best list around to see where to sell art online. There are so many different approaches and you really need to look at what will best suit your needs. I have tried many different platforms over the years and have come to the conclusion that if you are selling higher end work, you need to be on platforms that are attractive, that support your price point and that are not filled with junk. Site designs with large product images are helpful (some are so tiny that you can barely see what the product is!) and you can always contact a few of the people shown there to see how they respond. Here are some examples of what I think is good:
This elegant site has been a role model for what I envision for Artizan Made, except that I see us as more rugged or handmade in our look. The work is superb and they recently revamped their site to larger images, making the visual experience much better. Some of their info:
Artful Home charges a one-time membership fee of $300 to help offset the costs of getting an artist live on our site. You can also choose to pay this fee at $25/month for one year. On an on-going basis, Artful Home will take a standard gallery commission on any sales we generate. (It’s 50%)
We support our artists with active, direct marketing. Our catalogs, email marketing campaigns, and advertising all serve to drive customers back to artfulhome.com. In 2017, we will:
- Mail catalogs to 2.5 million people
- Drive 2.3 million visitors to artfulhome.com
- Contact our email subscriber base of 100,000 people several times a week
In other words, they are expensive, compared to us and to other places. Yet, because they have this income, they can also invest in staff, promotions and have a strict control over their presentation. Several of our TAFA members have been selling through them for many years.
Folt Bolt has a beautiful page on Facebook with over a million followers. Kriszta, the owner, used to make clothing that she sold online. She is Hungarian, living in Australia, and when she closed her shop, she decided to help her Hungarian friends promote their work. This evolved into other marketing opportunities on her site and we have been working with her for close to two years now to promote both TAFA and Artizan Made. Kriszta has an amazing sense of color and curates her Facebook page with passion and sensitivity. Every time our turn comes up for promotion on Folt Bolt, we see spikes in our traffic. It works! Her pricing is affordable and we highly recommend her to the handmade community.
Just a couple of months ago, Folt Bolt also launched a market, Folt Bolt Shop. Shops are still getting their products up, but each day it becomes more beautiful and it will no doubt be a huge success. She is actually using a theme that I tested, but opted not to use. We have some overlap in shops and audience, but also some differences. It will be interesting to see how both of our markets evolve.
The Folt Bolt Shop is structured much like ours, charging $15 AUD/month to sellers and taking no commission on sales.
Am I worried about competition? No! I think the more of us who are out there promoting handmade, the better. If Folt Bolt can grow and become the “new Etsy”, I could not be more pleased. I want to see Artizan Made thrive, but I don’t see it as becoming a huge mega site like Etsy. These sites are a ton of work to manage, so each of us has to decide if we want to keep it small enough where a couple of people can run it or have a huge staff dealing with all of the issues.
An insight into branding:
I recently spoke to a marketer who said that five years ago, it took 5 impressions before someone started noticing a brand. Now it takes 17! This means that a name has to show up in your radar somewhere 17 times before you start taking notice of it. And, it will only get harder as we are bombarded by media and ads from all sides. We learn to focus on the content we want to see and block everything else. So, if you have a handmade shop and are represented on Artizan Made, Folt Bolt and other handmade places, the likelihood of you getting seen in different contexts increases. It also means that you don’t have to be everywhere tooting your horn. We do some of that for you.
Another new site, One of Your Kind is a great example of what I mean by having a marketplace serve as a virtual chamber of commerce. One of our TAFA and Artizan members, Inese Liepina of Wrapture by Inese, is a founding member. Inese lives in Latvia and machine knits gorgeous wraps, accessories and garments. Their vision:
One of Your Kind founders are three Latvians from Australia, America and Latvia who are inspired and fascinated by products of artists and designers from the Baltic States. They created this marketplace to promote and sale beautiful and original collections of Baltic artists and designers.
So, in this space, they are creating a lovely representation of art from a specific place in the world. In the same way, any group can gather together and promote themselves online and many of the new marketplaces do have specific themes around cuisine, sports, a fashion niche, pets or any interest they can gather around and promote. A smart strategy for the handmade community is to think outside the box and look for alliances in unusual places where the competition for a scarf or a pillow might not be as great. Example: bird pillows might work well with environmental sites.
Etsy owes its huge success to its sellers. They promoted it with all their hearts and souls. Every effort needs both money and enthusiasm from its community. So, if you like what any of us are doing, tell your people about it. If you are in a shopping mood, check out what we all have and support some great people with your buying power! To make things very clear: I am not anti-Etsy. It’s just that they made some poor choices for their community and the technology has evolved to the point where now it is one option in a larger toolbox.
This is the trend:
Own your own website and have your own cart. Use marketplaces and social media to drive traffic to where you are. Build confidence in your brand by aligning yourself with good people.
Let’s have a discussion in the comments!
About Rachel Biel
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