The Business of Handmade

Code as Craft… or Crap? Part 1.

Sorry, I had to say it.  Once again the engineers at Etsy.com are messing with the functionality of the site in ways as inexplicable as they are annoying.

Its no secret that engineers rule the roost at Etsy.  The CEO is an engineer with no background in retail.  He has promoted the notion that “craft is code”: the notion that programmers are just as much artisans / artists / curators as the people who sell on Etsy.  This implies that code – like a ceramic bowl, or a painting, or a necklace – is an end in itself.  This idea is silly – code is not content, it is a tool, a tool you use to accomplish a task.  No one comes to Etsy to browse or buy the code.

“Code as craft” might seen like harmless rhetoric, but this thinking appears to be driving a series of missteps that are turning sellers against Etsy’s leadership and threaten to retard, if not turn back, the site’s growth.   Etsy has become a sandbox for programmers to play at e-commerce, a site where technical experimentation has been deemed more important than customer service, marketing, brand management, and communications.

Not all the technical changes are bad.  Etsy has organized a number of voluntary teams to beta test improvements such as: enhancements to the tools sellers use to track activity in their shops; a tool that allows a browser to put selected listings in a ‘holding pen’ at the bottom of the page for later perusal; and a tool that makes it easier to add listings to Treasuries.  Etsy recently introduced the ability to make purchases by credit card, totally bypassing Paypal; this was generally well received (though there are several noteworthy outstanding issues) and seems to be functioning well.

On the flip side, Etsy’s scores of programmers make constant changes to the site that are rolled out to ostensibly small groups of unsuspecting site users (sellers and buyers alike).  Many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but make it difficult to navigate the site from day to day.  Its a bit like showing up to your workplace to find the furniture rearranged and the rooms reassigned, with no warning or explanation – and then showing up the following day to find it all changed again, again without warning or explanation.  Eventually your figure out where everything is, and how to get around… but its a waste of your time and a test of your patience.  And then it keeps happening.

Some of the changes are more than cosmetic.  One of the least defensible and most potentially harmful tests was discussed here.  To sum up, in its latest tests, Etsy has eliminated the long list of categories from its Front Page (FP).  All visitors used to see a list of 31 links representing the diverse range of items for sale on Etsy, starting with Accessories; Art; Bags and Purses… and ending with Toys, Vintage, Weddings, and Woodworking.

Now, some visitors see only JewelryClothing & AccessoriesHome & GardenKidsWeddingsSupplies; and Back to School.

For the unwilling participants in this test, there is no longer any indication on the FP that on Etsy you can shop for original art, or vintage, or dolls and collectibles.   There is no direct link to toys.  One might assume toys would be a subcategory of Kids – but what about toys for grown-ups, like these awesome puzzle boxes hand carved in Hungary?  Or this adorable felted naked gnome?

There are thousands of people who have shops — and thus pay monthly fees — whose work falls entirely in one or more of the now-missing categories.  Their listings have been moved to the virtual back of the shop, without any warning or explanation of the rationale behind the experiment or indication of how long the test will last.

In the absence of any communication from Etsy, sellers are left to ponder the possible reasons for this test – and unsurprisingly, its slim pickings.  It is very hard to come up with a good reason for telling shoppers that your site offers fewer choices than it actually has.  It is equally hard to come up with a good reason for insulting and alienating tens of thousands of sellers by suddenly excluding them from FP exposure.  These things are just not done.  Especially not by sites that depend on its users to do the lion’s share of the site’s marketing, mostly via positive word-of-mouth.

There are only two plausible explanations.  One is that they are more interested in the methodology of making changes and tracking the results than they are about the user experience of their customers (the sellers).  The other is that they are purposely making the site more cumbersome to navigate as a way of inflating the number of ‘clicks’ – clicks that will be tallied as an increase in site traffic.  Of course there are good clicks (reflecting customer interest) and bad clicks (reflecting customer frustration at not being able to accomplish a task).  Perhaps Etsy’s leadership believes that, like publicity, there’s no such thing as bad clicks.

Etsy is fast becoming The Little e-Retail Site That Couldn’t.  Couldn’t resolve problems that sellers – who are, after all, Etsy corporation’s primary customers – have complained about for years.  Couldn’t roll back obvious missteps.  Couldn’t prioritize where to put its resources.  Couldn’t police the site for against-the-rules products that cheapen the Etsy brand.  Couldn’t keep its customers happy — even though its entire advertising strategy relies on the efforts of those sellers in directing buyers to Etsy (instead of others sites where they may have a presence).

Here are some of the pithiest comments from the thread about this latest test….

bellacruz from BellaCruz says
What is etsy testing? The ability for the average customer to buy stuff no matter how hard they make it?
Jeannie from southcentric says
It’s a real grass-roots marketing coup, to rely on word of mouth advertising when you shine at pissing off the people with the vocal cords.
Bags and Purses is also gone and that is a big browsing category – I get lots of views from there. I think new shoppers would see the list they are offering and assume that is all that is here and anything under other ways to shop would be minor. This is terrible!
TidBitz from TidBitz says
I’m not buying that vintage is now rolled into the other categories. Like mentioned before, if a vintage buyer comes to the front page to browse for vintage items, they will think vintage is not sold here and leave.  Same with fine art.   What are they trying to free up space for? I mean how much space did that list really take up??
This, on top of all the other changes is really maddening.
re:  But I think the more important issue is what does a first time visitor learn about etsy. What do they think is here. What does the occasional visitor think is here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~
Couldn’t agree with you more, and it’s what many of us have been posting. I just don’t understand how Etsy cannot understand this. If you show a buyer a limited amount right from the start, they are going to assume that’s all there is, for why would a site not make easily available everything there is to be found on the site? Hence a buyer is not going to think “Hmmm, I wonder where this site has all the hidden stuff, let’s go clicking around to see if I can find it, because I am SURE they have more stuff than this!”

The three main categories on etsy are handmade, supplies and vintage. Currently there are more than 2.5 million vintage items listed in the vintage category. Why in the world would you even test leaving vintage out of the list at the top of the page?
I stick around here no matter what Etsy throws out there for it’s customers to figure out because I have a shop here.
However, I wonder what fairly new returning customers are going through. A person that has recently discovered shopping here could conceivably be seeing something different every time they have returned.
It that person were me I would very much be deterred from this site. I am a buyer only on Amazon and if they were doing this over there I would get totally fed up and discontinue shopping there. No one has time for a site constantly changing the fundamental structure of it’s site.
Etsy is really benefiting from the fact that it’s clients (shop owners) have greater reasons to keep coming back no matter what happens to the site other than just shopping here. An enormous amount of the traffic here is from us shop owners. Unfortunately our clients (the buyers) are the ones without a built in reason to work hard figuring out how to stick around here.
I really don’t see these experiments stopping and the site becoming smooth and reliable by Christmas. I think Etsy views this constant experimentation as their innovative way of running a website and that this will never end.
Cindy from DIGIArtPrints saysEdited on Aug 15, 2012
Is a 12 year old running this site? Common sense would tell you to put the “more categories” option below the categories, and not further down the page away from the categories that says “More ways to shop”. I just don’t get it.

VintageRescueSquad from VintageRescueSquad says
What a load. What does “more ways to shop” have to do with finding vintage or fine art? The semantics don’t make any sense. Shopping for vintage isn’t like shopping by “color” (which is another ridiculous way to shop). Vintage is not a WAY to shop; it is a category of items, purportedly 1/3 of etsy’s emphasis.

I’m completely convinced that etsy executive staff doesn’t really understand HOW people shop online. It would be interesting to know whether they do any true focus groups (not these mysterious test rollouts on unsuspecting users—both sellers and buyers) to see how the site is to navigate or how shoppers EXPECT to navigate a shopping website. Or even at what point they become exasperated. I’m having a hard time imagining that they do.

Because the staff demographic seems so insular, they are myopic about how true users might need to use their site (for this argument, I’m discounting sellers). I know for a fact that my elderly mother can’t navigate it, even though she WANTS to buy things/gifts here. My neighbor, who is a nurse, and is not on computers all day, has a hard time. Many of my very smart male friends are stumped too.

Right now, etsy’s navigation really only works for younger people who grew up on computers, geeks who love exploring the innards of websites, and frequent users who put up with all the changes because they WANT to shop here.

Secondly, I’m also convinced that if they DO analyze search patterns in determining how to tweak search functions, they are including all the searches WE (as buyers) do, without taking into account that we are checking up on competitors, searching to see where our items fall in a search, and testing tags. This GREATLY skews any analysis of how searches are conducted.

I work for a newspaper, and we all have free access to our website. Our clicks are obviously discounted, because we are using the site in a different way than a paying customer/visitor would.

Finally, do you think that if Amazon or Zappos tweaked this frequently they’d retain their high rate of return customers? If they went to a Pinterest-style layout, would it actually HELP sell items? If Zappos only showed high heeled shoes, and made buyers dig to see IF they sold sneakers or boots or slippers, think they’d survive?

Read more comments starting here.

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