The Business of Handmade

Real Handmade vs. Fake Handmade on Etsy, part 3

The Etsy protest, in which more than 4,200 shops went dark, is over – but the problems remain. 

The key issue is Etsy’s drift away from its focus on providing a marketplace for individual handmade artists and artists as well as sellers of real vintage items and craft supplies, and into the arms of large volume resellers and factory outlet shops.  This ‘mission creep’ raises a number of ethical and practical issues.  To recap:

  1. Large volume resellers and factory outlet shops drive individual artist / artisan shops out of the market because (1) they have exponentially more listings – this decreases the visibility of listings from individual sellers, and (2) their prices are lower than what an individual artist or artisan can offer,
  2. Resellers and factories mislead shoppers by calling their items handmade, and, frequently, “unique,” “genuine,” “vintage,” and “antique” when they are not.  Disappointed shoppers stop shopping on Etsy; and
  3. The proliferation of mass produced junk will undermine the Etsy brand.

But these are not the only concerns sellers have voiced.  This comment is an excellent snapshot of other factors that have been souring the relationship between Etsy management and Etsy’s primary customers – the sellers who use the Etsy platform.  The highlights –

  • Tons of site changes, but no additional personalization for individual shops or the ability for additional pictures or information
  • The Etsy-centric positioning of the venue over the seller as evidenced by the increased focus on DIY tutorials, and workshops with ETSY as the destination, including how-tos for doing the very projects people are selling on the site
  • The FP “look” and the very specific tone and products that each collection for any story or feature must have
  • Ageism and regionalism
  • Lack of communication
  • The push to silence dissension
  • the multitudes of clickable ways out of our shops, while finding our shops becomes harder and harder

The last point is particularly important.  Etsy itself does almost no advertising:  it relies instead on sellers to promote their individual shops off site.  On any other sellling platform, a shopper who responds to a seller’s ads or blog posts by visiting their shop stays in that shop.  Etsy, however, makes it very easy for that shopper to click a link that brings them elsewhere on the site.  Thus, one seller’s advertising dollars could easily result in sales for their direct competitors.

Add to this list Etsy’s new Weddings page layout… which I’ll have to address in a future post.  Suffice it to say that combined, these factors make Etsy an increasingly inhospitable place for individual artists and artisans.

Many people have suggested that these problems arise from decisions management has made — such as underspending on key functions like customer service (remarkably, Etsy has no customer service phone number) marketplace integrity (to root out resellers) and infrastructure (the search function is still a nightmare, and tech snafus are commonplace) — because they want to increase net profit, at least in the short term.  Others surmise that there is no coherent management strategy – that Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson is merely lurching from project to project, with the emphasis on a hodge-podge of IT patches.

I believe its a conscious decision.  Really, it doesn’t get much clearer that this (as stated by Etsy staffperson Lauren Engelhardt) (emphasis added):

In Etsy’s earliest days, “the seller” often meant one person — an artisan — who did everything herself, from sourcing materials, to design, to production, to shop management and customer service, to order fulfillment. Over time… [f]or some shops, remaining a one-person operation has been the right approach. For other shops, the business opportunity grew to involve more people — either within the business or from outside. “The seller” is more now accurately referred to as “the shop,” meaning all the people within the business, not just a singular shop owner.

…  We also understand that shops often involve people who don’t have a hand in physically making the products, but who are vital for other aspects of running the business, like accounting or order fulfillment… Etsy does not restrict the formalities of the relationships between people within a business; they may be family members without a formal agreement, they may be equal partners, or one may be the employer and others employees.

So, the truth has been told – businesses are now allowed to open shops on Etsy.  Businesses with staff accountants, staff to handle shipping, staff to produce the products.  And while Etsy would have us imagine these businesses as, say, the talented carpenter whose handmade furniture is now in such demand that he has to hire his sister-in-law to help with bookkeeping, the reality is that this is the acknowledgement that Asian factories are welcome to use Etsy as their outlet.

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