There was once a world before Amazon. I remember having to hurry to the university bookshop to get a recommended textbook before they sold out. If I wasn’t fast enough I’d have to wait, sometimes a couple of weeks, for my local bookshop to obtain a specialist book for me. Amazon and the Internet changed all that. Naturally, in this ‘Age of the Internet’ there have been plusses and minuses. There have been some winners and, unfortunately, some losers, not least those who make a living from cultural production. Musicians, writers and photographers have all had to find new unique interactive ways to sell their work to their respective markets. We’ve seen the rise and rise of live music events, literary festivals and even some professional photographers moving to live shows to exhibit their output. Authentic experiences are valued and traded which is perhaps one of the underlining elements fuelling the renewed interested in original handcrafted work.
The world moves on and you know an alternative trend has gone mainstream when a company like Amazon sets up an online retail service called ‘Handmade’. And, it’s already old news at the point when the UK Sunday Times Style Magazine publishes a feature on the new Amazon Handmade offer as a challenge to Etsy the online marketplace for artisans. There’s been quite a fuss in the world of artisans and crafters on various forums discussing the pros and cons of changing one’s selling platform, but not much discussion about why an enormous, global company such as Amazon thinks there’s serious money to be made out of handmade, artisan goods. As far as I can see Amazon used to be the go-to site for a mass produced product at a very good price if not the cheapest. And, it’s easy to have a “pile ’em high sell ’em cheap” attitude if you’ve got scale and muscle and a good just-in-time relationship with your suppliers. But surely all that is the antithesis of the artisan/cottage industry model.
Each handmade item takes a real person skill and time to create. Most crafts involve specialist knowledge and honed skills together with that all important essential- creativity. Artisans have experience working with raw materials and understand the precise associated processes that will culminate in a unique handmade piece. Within any specific area of artisan production there is a range of abilities, quality of materials used and standards of finish attained, but there is always more time involved to produce ‘handmade’ items. And, as they say, ‘time is money’ therefore handmade should not equal cheap.
If we just step back for a moment, one of the primary outcomes of the Industrial Revolution was the saving of time and the increasing of productivity through machine manufacturing. Machines were faster and more consistent producing thousands and thousands of identical versions of any given object. Nowadays, we take mass production for granted, it is the norm.
So what’s Amazon doing getting onto the ‘handmade’ bandwagon. Let’s face it there isn’t any real possibility of scaling up for most artisans as by the very nature of your work you are making things that require intense, time-consuming human activity and not machine/technological production. So if there’s not profit to be made by scaling up production what is the big business model? Well, that would be scaling up the makers – that is vast numbers of people listing and selling a few pieces. But what of the individual makers – perhaps a working life similar to that of the medieval weavers of East Anglia. Oh joy!