Graphic by Kate Turner, Cord Visual Director

Unravelling Etsy

Graphic by Kate Turner, Cord Visual Director
Graphic by Kate Turner, Cord Visual Director

The global craft market is cultivating homegrown consumerism

Allison Leonard

Amy Walbridge hasn’t had a proper dining room for six years. Reams of fabric and spools of thread now take up the space. It’s a one-woman factory that exists where the formal table and chairs once sat. Like a tiny assembly line, the subtle stitches, sales and sending of handmade clothing happen rhythmically in the Walbridge’s home.
Walbridge is one of hundreds of thousands of people who sell handmade goods on the popular online retail store Etsy. Built for the discerning consumer — those who won’t settle for a mass-marketed sweater — Etsy and other craft-peddling e-commerce sites are quickly changing the landscape of consumerism and corporate labour.

Dubbed ‘craft capitalism’ by academics, the sea of knitted scarfs, engraved lockets and hand-carved, wooden iPhone cases inundate the seemingly endless pages of Etsy listings. Church bazaars and small-town craft sales are but fleeting memories for the craft consumer; the intimacy of a handmade item is now available online.
Grant Packard, assistant professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University, said craft culture is not revolutionary, but a reversion to once necessary trade skills, one with added value.

“Etsy creates global access. There are no barriers or entry fee to open up a shop and see if you can have a business,” said Packard. “eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji opened doors for more formal models like Etsy or crowdsourcing where people have become investors.”

Based on Etsy’s research on seller dem0graphics, Walbridge fits Etsy’s standard seller profile: a female under 40 who moved away from the corporate sector to pursue a passion for the handmade. In Walbridge’s case, her passion is sewing and selling women’s and children’s clothing from her Waterloo home.

“I have always been crafty, I learned to sew from my grandmother when I was young,” she said. “It wasn’t until I had my daughter six-and-a-half years ago that I had nap times available and I started sewing in my dining room.”

Walbridge, a former oversees educator, committed to her craft and decided to indefinitely eave her teaching career.

She’s not alone. Etsy profiles other full-time crafters on their blog, Quit Your Day Job. The romantic ideal of leaving the corporate sector to build a woodworking shop in one’s garage is an important marketing tool for the company.

Sarah Parker, 33, seller of kitschy silver spoons, cutting boards and other home accessories from Richmond, Va. was recently featured on Quit Your Day Job. Parker left the possibility of a career in anesthesiology in hopes of finding more joy in her work.

“I studied nursing and I loved it, but I needed a creative outlet…it didn’t take long before I realized I was getting more pleasure out of crafts than science,” said Parker.

Parker began her pursuit of craft sales when she found a gap in the consumer market.

“I wanted a cake stand that said ‘let them eat cake,’ and despite everywhere on earth I looked, I couldn’t find one,” Parker added. “I thought ‘how hard could this be?’ It was one of the first things I started selling in the shop.”

Parker, however is an exception as are many of the success stories found on the Etsy blog. The remaining sellers, unable to fight through the inundation of online content, often find themselves struggling to make sales.

Skeptics argue that there is an irony to this reversion to pre-factory, individual labour. People leave the corporate sector to quickly start forming partnerships where a percentage of sales and listing fees are paid out — arguably, what they sought to escape.

Packard disagreed. “It’s simply a democratized market. Any small business needs partners to sell a product; retail stores have a landlord, have utilities. You’re always going to need other individuals or companies to do what you want to do.”

The intangible quality of something homemade undoubtedly adds value to an item. Walbridge argues that the subtle qualities of handcrafted goods linger, even when purchased oversees.

“People want comfort and trust. They can find this if they are familiar with one shop or a group of shops,” said Walbridge. “Handmade things have love in them regardless of if I made it or someone else.”

Despite the ‘buy local’ mentality oft associated with handmade goods like the ones you find on Etsy, Walbridge notes that many of her sales are international. “Though Canadians really like to buy Canadian, most of my sales are from the U.S.”

Etsy cannot solely attribute its success to the inherent goodness of a handmade item. The company employs the clever business tactic of creating regional networks of sellers, to which Etsy sends training personal to help improve the sellers business strategies. For those who cannot attend, Etsy provides tailored information on everything from product photography to keeping up with customer requests.

Sellers, however, don’t seem to find any irony in moving from the corporate sector to selling craft on a corporate entity.

“I see Etsy as a platform, not an employer,” argued Parker. “I could open a website and put everything up for free but wouldn’t have the listings or traffic I get because of their brand.”

Craft makers take part in capitalism but are not necessarily defined by its characteristics. Mimicking the growth of a large corporation, when sellers on Etsy do well, they view their success as self-made, despite the significant behind the scenes work that the site does for them.

And for consumers concerned about the environment, buying locally or simply supporting a small seller, Etsy gives them the feeling that they can choose the ethics they apply while online shopping.

Anna Beard, 26, of Waterloo does just that.

“On one hand, there aren’t many niche shops in Kitchener-Waterloo so I’m forced to go online to find things I like,” said Beard. “On the other hand, I’d much prefer supporting people who are making things themselves rather than supporting mass production.”

However, the ease of shopping online makes Beard nostalgic for the individual touch of interacting with a salesperson or shop owner.

“There’s something so cold about shopping online, you only interact with the product,” said Beard. “There is still something romantic about going to a store, horrible Christmas music, sales quotas and all.”

Consumer trust, then, lays not in the handmade or in the small seller, but in the ability to interact with another person, even if that person is the far-removed face of a massive corporation. Etsy supplies this to an extent through open access reviews and the ability to contact a seller, mimicking reputation systems of the corporate world.

Rather than certification partners (like Better Business Bureau) the consumer decides the fate of a seller’s success, penalizing or rewarding through strong reviews as needed.

But the Walbridges of the world, the crafts people buried in the fabric of one-woman, in-home assembly lines find themselves on a proverbial conveyor belt to average sales, average exposure and the same purchasing hesitance provided by any computer screen as individuals choose the mass marketed, whether in store or online.

“I love the creative, the making, but when it comes to business side I fall short,” said Walbridge. “You have to have both sides to be successful on Etsy.”
The differences between counter-cultural e-commerce and the droning world of corporate production are increasingly as subtle as a hand-sewn stitch.