Every inch of my silk scarves are hand painted by me. It’s obvious, I know, but that means like other artisans who craft all their own pieces, I can’t compete with mass-produced work. I’ve written several posts about my experiences of selling on Etsy and last May commented on the relationship between crafters and Etsy. More recently it has been reassuring for me to read that I am not out of step with many of my fellow artisans who like me have found that Etsy is no longer the platform for their work.
Interestingly, earlier this week, the American business magazine Forbes interviewed Gil Luria, director of research at the investment firm D.A. Davidson, concerning the state of the online marketplace Etsy. And, in his commentary he opines
. . . . . the biggest change in the run up to Etsy’s 2015 IPO — [was when] the company removed its requirement that all goods sold on the platform had to be handmade. This gave big manufacturers access to Etsy’s loyal customer base. When Etsy started listing $10 bracelets from Chinese factories right next to $100 bracelets handmade by homemakers in Wisconsin, the homemakers could no longer compete.
Initially you may think that perhaps hand painted silk is not as easily copied and mass-produced as some jewellery appears to be, but a big manufacturer simply takes original artwork for a scarf, scans it and then laser prints it onto silk over and over. This state of affairs doesn’t merely affect solo crafters. Within the luxury brands sector companies often have their work copied, and, as I am sure you have noticed, fake versions are found at street markets all over the world. One feature which frequently adds value to handmade work is when there is only one of its kind and consequently even a limited ‘print’ run is unacceptable let alone approving mass production. When Etsy permitted mass-produced stock to be listed directly side by side with handmade they effectively undercut and devalued handmade and at the same time diminished and diluted their own brand!
Earlier this week on Tuesday, 2 May 2017, Chad Dickerson, the Chief Executive of Etsy, quit his job following unexpectedly poor results for the first quarter of 2017. Etsy made an unpredicted loss of $421,000 (£325,000) during the period. The business is now under investor pressure to restructure – mmm, I wonder how many of those investors are crafters too?
I admired the original premise of the Etsy founders and the platform has certainly been extremely successful for over a decade. Dickerson once commented “Etsy is very much a community-based business. What we’re really trying to do is build an ‘Etsy economy’ that’s about connecting people.”
And from . . .
A handcrafted beginning (from the Etsy homepage)
Etsy was founded in June 2005 in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York to fill a need for an online community where crafters, artists and makers could sell their handmade and vintage goods and craft supplies. In the spirit of handmade, founder Rob Kalin and two friends designed the first site, wrote the code, assembled the servers and spliced the cables to get Etsy up and running. In 2008, Chad Dickerson joined Etsy as its first CTO, and created the company’s foundational engineering culture, treating “Code as Craft”. Chad became CEO in 2011 and began championing the “reimagination of commerce,” a transformation of every aspect of how goods are made, bought and sold. Under Chad’s leadership, the website that began in an apartment in Brooklyn has evolved into a sophisticated technology platform that connects Etsy sellers and buyers across borders, languages and devices, a company that spans the globe and a business that is committed to creating lasting change in the world.
Etsy has burgeoned into an enormous global ‘marketplace’. The successful original idea has grown and grown.
However, back in 2013 significant changes that broadened what was accepted as handmade work were introduced much to the concern of many Etsy crafters. These changes permitted the hiring of help to make your work and the opportunity for wholesaling your work.
I must admit at that time I was a newbie to Etsy and was more perplexed about ‘wholesaling my work’ than annoyed about it. I simply couldn’t imagine how I could create and physically paint enough silk myself and then offer it wholesale to be resold (mark up of at least 100%) at a price to even cover my costs let alone make a small profit. For me the wholesale idea didn’t fit with my craft. And, this is the rub – truly handmade, craftwork is neither cheap nor high volume. As you may remember just about a year ago I decided to close my Etsy shop as my one-off, handmade work was difficult to find, swamped amongst the thousands of laser printed or amateur silk pieces offered for sale.
The Etsy craft platform business model appears to have a hit a bump in the road as those 2013 policy changes have eventually resulted in less one-off original pieces and many more ‘me too’ products. And, if you are fine with the ‘me too’ world why not simply go elsewhere to buy/sell on Amazon Handmade or eBay. Etsy has ridden the crafting wave successfully, but nothing grows for ever and if, in the world of handmade, you water down your standards to achieve volume, quality will inevitably suffer.
I used to think that Etsy helped promote craft, but now I’ve realised that the resurgence of interest in craft and the ‘so-called’ boom was well underway at the grass roots before Etsy came into being. (If you are interested fellow crafter and early member of the Etsy craft community, Grace Dobush, has written a superb article about craft and the Internet.)
And, finally back to Chad Dickerson. During the 947 days that I had my Etsy shop, I watched several Etsy ‘live chats’ with Chad Dickerson and his Etsy staff. He came over as an interesting, thoughtful guy. He certainly appeared to believe in his quoted wish to champion ‘the re-imagination of commerce”. However, perhaps, at this point in time, we’re re-discovering that authentic craft has more local than global appeal.
Over the last couple of months or so I’ve spent a fair chunk of my time revamping my Etsy shop in preparation for their latest online changes. I know that plenty of folk are resistant to change if change appears to be pointless. What’s the expression ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ However, considering making changes can prompt you to dispassionately scrutinise the status quo. The Etsy new look for their shops has certainly made me tidy up and redesign the look and feel of both my Etsy outlet and my own online shop.
Okay, so that was all well and good, but then, on the back of a few other gripes, came the final straw. Etsy introduced an easy to use template for a shop’s policies. Just bear with me here for a sec. Etsy has ‘found’ that customers don’t like reading lots of words, particularly about boring issues such as time to send out goods, delivery details, buying from another country, insurance and what happens should wish to return an item. Yes, I agree, I don’t want pages of legalese, but when I’m buying I do want to know what to expect especially if I’m buying a special gift for someone and time is crucial.
Etsy has been around for over a decade now and should know that the ‘world of handmade’ is not a homogeneous place where ‘one size fits all’ solutions are going to be the answer. Like many of my fellow Etsy artisans who create one-off pieces, I spent sometime writing my policies to give my customers as much information as possible. As Etsy sellers, who are not all based in the US (Etsy is a US listed public corporation), we are subject to our own, quite specific, national trading laws regarding online commerce. I would have thought that this fact alone would suggest that a policies template for everyone was going to be inappropriate. It transpires that you don’t have to use the new template, but there’s a hint that if you don’t comply you are less likely to be ‘found’ when customers search on Etsy.
So, is it time I left the Etsy platform – the end of the affair? I’ve only been an Etsy seller since 2013, a relative newbie, but during this time Etsy changes have meant a broader acceptance of work for sale that is neither vintage nor handmade. Of course, digitally printed silk scarves spring to mind – what can I say! This issue, coupled with a general race to the bottom pricing as some crafters flood the Etsy market with cheaply made offers, means I feel that perhaps it’s no longer the place for me. Remember the film depicting the short reign of Anne Boleyn, ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’, well I’m ‘Agnes of 947 days’.
Update – I have now closed my Etsy shop. All my hand painted scarves and textile art is available from my own Agnes Ashe boutique/gallery which is run through a professional eCommerce platform based in the UK (most of my sales are to UK customers). I may have left Etsy, but I do still ship internationally to Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and accept major debit/credit cards.
That’s it – end of the moan and end of all those boring . . . words.
Earlier this week I had a pleasant surprise to find that one of my scarves (Portia apple) had been selected and featured in an Etsy festive ‘Editors’ Picks’. Apparently, there are over 30 million items listed on Etsy so I’m genuinely surprised and very grateful to have something selected for the ‘Under £100’ gifts category.
I must be a bit thick as I only found out my work had been featured when I kept seeing referrals for this scarf on my stats page coming from ‘Editors’ Picks’. Well, anyway, thank you to the Editors!
And, also thanks to the folks at Make It British who also included one of my scarves (Hilda ruby) in their Christmas newsletter.
Oh yes, and whilst I’m spreading the love, today (3 Dec 2015) sees the arrival in UK bookshops of ‘I Belong to No One’ written by fellow blogger Gwen Wilson. Congratulations to Gwen and hopefully lots of sales!
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!
Yesterday, I went to London on a very early train to be on the set at a film studios. Doesn’t that sound glamorous! Well, yes and no. The UK part of Etsy was filming their first TV Ad. About 80 of us (very lucky) Etsy UK traders had been selected via Instagram to take part. We all turned up with some of our work, the long day began and filming continued until the sun went down. Very exciting, but as is the norm for this type of thing there was an awful lot of waiting around.
Now I’m not being precious, but we had to sign various forms restricting the uploading of images from the day’s activities, so I’m afraid no pics from the day here until Etsy release the official photos. The final TV Ad is for the British market, but no doubt it will be put up on the Internet in the future for the whole world to see!
My assistant/model and I were on the set. She was on the edge and I was at the back. Some folks love the camera, but I’ve never liked being photographed and unexpectedly there I was an ‘extra’. Can’t wait to see the advert, hope I can see my assistant in it and all the new friends I made yesterday, but genuinely hope I’m lost in the crowd.