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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ways to still shop for handmade on Etsy

Since I wrote my post about why I'm leaving Etsy, I've gotten many messages of support from both sellers and buyers on the site. It involves people's livelihoods, so I want to be clear that while I don't believe Etsy is a fit for my business anymore, the handmade artists that are there still need your support. They are getting harder to find among the place that used to be known for handmade items, and is know known for unique items, however they may be made.  With this level of fogginess on Etsy, there are some ways to still search what you are looking for, and support a small scale, independent artist of unique, and quality, handmade goods.

It's important to be just as diligent searching for legitimate sellers as it is anywhere else on the internet. Take the time to fully read the item descriptions, seller information and policies, shop owner 'info', and shop 'about' sections. Get a feel for things. Does the listing describe the making process, materials, or inspiration? Does the item description look more like a suspicious website catalog copy and paste than a summary of a process and materials? Are you getting a strong sense of an individual behind the scenes or someone trying to disguise as one? Follow your gut. If you don't believe it is actually handmade, but love it and want to confirm before you decide to skip the purchase, write the seller a note. Ask about the item and feel it out. Some sellers are simply less descriptive in the item listings, and guard themselves a bit more with what they are willing to share, so do some more detective work before you dismiss, or accept, something as the handmade item you are looking for. And above all else, do not trust the 'handmade' filter in your search to be definitive.

Shopping handmade is great, but you know what's even better? Shopping local handmade! Use the feature within Etsy (or course using the tips above) to find nearby crafted items. Search out local events where artists are selling and showing their work. You can even seek artists through their supply shops in your area. Thinking a lovely quilt would be nice but can't figure out where to start? Head to the local fabric shop and ask the staff. They'll be the first ones to know who in the area is making and selling quilts, where a market to find one is, or of another artist somewhere else that is a good fit. A little detective work can leave you with the item you wanted, and a good feeling from knowing you bought directly from a handmade artist.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I'm closing my Etsy shop

Etsy and I have had a long run. A visit to my shop homepage will tell you it began April 2, 2008 to be exact. But lots of things have changed in seven years.

When I started out Etsy was giant, but not this enormous beast it is today. The site was filled with handmade work with a dash of vintage items. Some work up there was bad, some excellent, but a look of handmade was clear. To quote them, "When Etsy started, we relied on one word to carry all our values out into the world: handmade.". This older article goes on further to state some of their changes since the beginning and why they were made. But let's remember that point. As of 2005 when they were founded, in one word their mission was handmade.

These days, it's a sorry sight for true handmade*. A search for 'ceramic handmade mug' back in the day would result in actual handmade mugs. Now pages are filled with mass produced bisqueware enhanced with mass produced decals. Zero individualism outside of where the decal is placed on the mug. Putting a sticker on and sticking something in a kiln doesn't exactly make it a handmade piece of pottery. Sure, as a potter I'm more biased on this than I think most people would be, but let's take a step back and use another example within the site. Etsy sells food as well, lots of it baked goods. I can buy a box of cake mix and a tub of cake frosting at the grocery store, and sell it on Etsy. When I bring this into a market that is, or was, known for quality, small batch baked goods, it matters to those making and buying those things. Technically it's a handbaked item, sure, you'd have every right to sell it as such, but it sits a little strange, doesn't it? When someone searches for 'handbaked cake' are they looking for a Betty Crocker? Doubtful. But now the market is flooded with these Betty Crocker items, and the the true makers are getting harder and harder to find, leaving those looking for small batch craft frustrated. If you're a Betty Crocker Etsy seller, that's fine, everyone has to do their own thing. Again, I'll admit I'm biased about the Betty Crocker decal mugs out there, but as someone who has spent so much effort teaching the value of actual handmade, it's not what I want my business to be surrounded by. Lumping it all together is not helping the public understand and appreciate handmade, something that once seemed much more important to Etsy.

Over the years I've gotten increasingly annoyed when I browse the site. Details were driving me crazy. The vintage category is insane, and inaccurate. If I can currently go to Walmart and buy your small soup bowl, not vintage. A handmade pot you found at the Goodwill, unsigned or dated but a bright 1970's shade of orange, not vintage. Color isn't an indication of age. Curiously sending these sellers notes asking about the history of the piece I'm told "I'm not sure, I found it at Goodwill". They openly admit they are unsure of the history, yet label it as vintage, and I've witnessed this on more than one occasion. I'm not a vintage seller, or buyer, so maybe it shouldn't bother me, but as the owner of an Etsy shop, it does. It's a level of dishonesty, and while your work should always be able to speak for itself, it's silly to pretend your surrounding company can't affect how you are viewed. So yes, as an Etsy shop owner, I've never liked it that listings were unclear at best, and dishonest at worst.

On the same note of surrounding company within the site, just as the ideas of what a handmade mug and vintage are broad, so is a 'supply'. I think it's great there are supplies up there! I've made supply purchases myself! But, man. Yard debris is a solid source of Etsy listings if you're looking to start a shop. Have sticks, leaves, and dirt laying around? Well shit! Maybe it's time you become a craft supply seller! While this one is more amusing than truly annoying, it's again (imo!) getting a little disconnected, and shaping into this 'anything goes' attitude within the site.

Alright, none of these are really big complaints, I get it. They don't truly directly affect me or my shop, and maybe I shouldn't care at all. But they're all annoyances that have been brewing, and getting more prevalent, over the years, and are details that have been making me feel like Etsy isn't where I need to be. The layout of the site has also been a source of annoyance as it continued to change and adjust, each big change making me feel like my items were getting harder and harder to find as category groupings became more vague and less meaningful. So little things have been piling up for a while. Then the game started to get more serious.

In October of 2013 Etsy changed their shop selling guidelines. They now read:

In our new, simpler guidelines:
  • You are welcome to hire people and collaborate from different locations.
  • If it makes things easier, you can use shipping or fulfillment services. You remain responsible for your buyer’s experience.
  • You can work with outside manufacturers to help produce your designs. We’ll ask a few questions about why you chose them and how you work together.
  • Re-selling — purchasing a new, finished product you had no role in creating and selling it to someone else unchanged — is still not allowed.
  • All manufacturers and any shop members who help make your handmade items should be listed on your About page, to foster trust with buyers
Etsy made changes allowing business to continue to grow. That's a good thing, right? Almost. They explained further on their blog,

"....we realized that handmade on Etsy could never be defined as a single method or process.

Instead, handmade was about values we as a community prize: authorship — the idea that your handmade item begins with you — and responsibility, because Etsy sellers are deeply involved in how their items are made and accountable for their buyers’ experiences. When we began to think about giving sellers greater choices for staffing, shipping and making items, the third value was evident: transparency. The Etsy community places a premium on knowing the person and the story behind a handmade item.

We know defining handmade as authorship, responsibility and transparency may not match your personal definition, but these are the values we see Etsy sellers living every day. They capture what sets Etsy apart, and they create a clear framework for giving more opportunity to sellers."

Etsy empowered sellers to grab the world by the tail and build their business as big as they wanted to. No more messing around with definitions of handmade and manufactured. Go ahead! Manufacture your stuff all you want, we'll be here for you to continue to sell even when your items are being produced overseas and they never are touched or seen by you! Wait.....what? Let's check that quote again. "defining handmade as authorship, responsibility and transparency"

Ai yi yi. There has always been, and will always be, a thin and unclear line of handmade and manufactured. It's a debate artists and craftspeople love to have, mostly because everyone has their own idea of it, and they are usually passionate about it (like this post). Everything was designed by someone. All processes have some level of human assistance somewhere in the production. So what makes something handmade and something manufactured? Is there some certain percentage of time or materials necessary to consider something handmade? I think it's like the how do you define pornography quote. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Of course there is no clear line or definition to go back to for handmade, but there's certainly a framework of understanding.

It's great that Etsy gave sellers the opportunity to grow, but were these new guidelines really helping the people who needed it? If you are successful enough on Etsy that you have had to outsource your work to keep up, you just got an extra helping hand. Likely your giant success could transfer to your own site, so it could be argued that these people could find success on their own, needing that extra edge less than others still growing. Why did Etsy decide to focus more on helping build the large guys and less on the little, the people who really need it? I've got a gue$$. I'm not saying anyone should leave the site or isn't allowed to build a business, that's amazing some people have had such great experiences selling, that's the dream! I am saying, it was disappointing to many sellers that Etsy seemed to side with the businesses on the site who were already killing it, and not the small guys who could really use an extra hand of support. While there had been many sellers breaking rules of manufacturing and handmade for some time, they just got a green light from Etsy. Etsy was clearly siding with the shops that brought them biggest revenue streams. It was a kick to the face for handmade shops. The site that founded themselves on the word handmade had in eight years decided they were leaving behind the little guys, stating that authorship, responsibility and transparency are the same thing. Ouch.

This week the big bomb was dropped. While not confirmed by Etsy, but heavily rumored among many news sources, Etsy is going public (<=== those are four links there, and many more are available on a google news search). This sunk like a knife in my heart. What an absolute sad day for handmade. Etsy, the largest name for handmade in the country, will be a publicly traded company. Does this say handmade? Small batch? Not in any way, shape, or form. It's the clearest indication yet of the company swaying away from the base they built and towards the dollar signs. Another kick to the face. 

After hearing this news, I learned an older bit of information from a month ago. There was a change on Etsy's board recently. Catarina Fake was leaving after being with Etsy since 2006. She was the fifth employee in a company that now has over 600. Her replacement is Michelle Burns. As someone who has been hoping for Etsy to more clearly embrace their handmade roots, her bio was incredibly disturbing to read. Michelle has significant business experience, which itself isn't the scary part. "Michele understands both traditional and emerging commerce models. She was previously on the board of Walmart and has a keen sense of what lies ahead."  The mention of  a Walmart history is the scary part. And presenting it as something that will help direct and shape the Etsy, again, the largest name of handmade in the country? Even scarier

Throughout my pottery career I've had to educate the public on why what I do matters. "Why would I get this when I can get a mug for $2 at Walmart?". There it is. That is my enemy. That is what my work is compared to by the uneducated time and time again. It is what I have to work against. My work and business are about trying to cultivate a love for handmade, for people to infuse their life with things that are beautiful, have a story, bring joy, and matter. Walmart's business is to only sell. I'm not ignorant to the experience and positives Michelle will bring to the table, or the company going public. It means big things. But it also means an even bigger disconnect coming from the handmade values I've sadly seen slip away from Etsy and their business practices.

This doesn't support me. I don't feel a person from the Walmart board understands me, my business, my product, or my customers. I don't think Etsy falls in line anymore with what I stand for, and I don't fee like they're backing me up. The site continues to sway further and further away from the values I hold, while embracing ones I do not. 

I'm tired of feeling like a hypocrite,  and giving them listing fees and commissions. I'm tired of complaining yet sending traffic their way via my shop. I've been wishing there was another site that had the traffic Etsy has, but with a quality they do not, but this need hasn't been filled yet. I've been considering my options of leaving for a while now, and this last week has put the final nail in that coffin. I'm done. It was a nice run while around. I got some amazing opportunities off of my presence there. I met some great people because of the site, and I made some money. But the time has come to move on to something that makes more sense and falls in line with my values more. 

I hear rumblings from many other makers also at their wit's end, ready to jump ship after this clear new direction. It's nice to know I'm not the only one feeling alienated by all of this. We are ready to embrace getting back to what we stand for, wherever that may be. While Etsy may be zigzaging their allegiance, true handmade artists know their own direction, and it is not towards stock shares or Walmart business practices. So some of us will break away on our own and head back towards a strong sense of handmade, because it is not "authorship, responsibility and transparency" that speaks to us. It is craftsmanship, individualism, and independence

I'm still sorting out details, but there will be a definitive close to my shop soon. I am willing to lose the sales, the exposure, and the opportunities. I know what I stand for and it's crystal clear that Etsy and I are going different directions. I do not know when the closing date will be, but I am clearing out work until then. I invite you to shop with me during the final days of my Etsy presence. Use coupon code FAREWELLETSY to get 25% off until I'm gone, and know that you helped support a true, independent, handmade artist. A new shop will be made, allowing shoppers of quality, handmade pottery to still purchase my work, and of course those details will all be shared later on down the road. So this isn't the end of my online selling, just my online Etsy shop. 

It was a fun run, it served it's purpose for me for a time, and if you've ever bought, shared, or favorited an item of mine on there, thank you so much for your support. To those of you who are going to see this through with your shop and the new Etsy, I wish you the best of luck. What works for some of us doesn't work for all of us, and that's okay. Just stay true to yourself and your values. 

*I'm not going to call out or link to these shops carrying non-vintage 'vintage' items, yard debris, or Betty Crocker mugs. It doesn't matter. If you're curious head to the site and do a search of your own, but I am not looking to bring shop owners or their items into this. The issue is with Etsy and how they choose to curate their site, not the individuals.