When handmade isn’t handmade (and a sale on gen-u-ine handmade)

I wrote this a few weeks ago and left it to marinate. Yesterday as cold weather arrived in Georgia I decided to have a sale on my handmade items. This post is a little about self-promotion. It is also about a company that bends words to boost its bottom line.

Last year on Etsy, the largest online site for buying and selling handmade and vintage items, I had two shops, one selling moderately priced felted wool accessories and another featuring cashmere and fine wools. It was a crowded place with plenty of competition, but being in the crowd is often the best way to be noticed by customers.

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cashmere scarf made with a repurposed thrift store sweater

I sold scarves, fingerless gloves, iPad sleeves, and cozies for cold drinks (o.k., most of them were made to fit a beer bottle, because beer is good). If a buyer searched cell phone covers, they could end up with results that placed a handmade phone cover like the felted ones I make one at a time, next to a plastic case made in China. Often the plastic stuff kept showing up in greater numbers on a site “devoted” to handmade goods.

Last summer I worked on combining my two stores, got a local artist to create a fabulous logo, and began to build a new Etsy shop for The Sassy Gal.

The day I opened The Sassy Gal, Etsy announced a radical change in their policies for shop owners, one that includes a definition of “handmade” that exists in a special dictionary only available to the Etsy owners and CEO.

Now, for Etsy, “handmade” includes outsourcing the manufacturing of items. In short, if the shop owner/artisan designs it, the item can be made anywhere, in any manner, and still be “handmade.” There’s some gobbledygoop about transparency on how things are made with the onus being on the seller to disclose and the buyer to find that disclosure. Etsy says they will require ethical manufacturing (manufacturing just doesn’t fit with handmade). Does Etsy think it or its shop owners can police working conditions for overseas sweatshops and factories?

Etsy charges shop owners for listings. The more we list, the louder the cash register rings for Etsy. If shops can outsource the manufacturing of their inventory they can list more. More listings = more revenue for Etsy. Handmade? Buyers should check their dictionary.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been late to the party, but I arrived just as the discussion section provided to sellers and buyers exploded. And amazingly, I made a sale just days after opening my shop with very little inventory listed.

But the changes are dramatic.

When I search Etsy for cashmere infinity scarves (a scarf that is a circle of fabric one loops around the neck) hundreds come up. Last year at this time there were thousands. Now my listings show up readily among similar items. That may help me, but fewer choices may also mean fewer shoppers.

After asking some folks and doing some research, I opened a second Sassy Gal shop on another site. Zibbet is a distant second to Etsy, but I think the gap may be closing.

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Visit The Sassy Gal at Zibbet

And the exodus of artisans to Zibbet, just on October 1, when Etsy redefined handmade, caused the Zibbet servers to crash. Zibbet is rebuilding its search capacity to handle the influx of new listings as shop owners leave Etsy altogether or duplicate their listings with Zibbet.

Zibbet’s owners say they will only allow artists and craftspeople making items one at a time by hand to sell with them. They went so far as to post a “pledge” for sellers and customers to sign (It’s a little overboard, pledging not to buy “mass produced,” because the computer I’m using now was mass produced. And remember, the uproar at Etsy started with how “handmade” is now defined by Etsy’s CEO Chad Dickerson and the private shareholders of the company).

I don’t know where most of my online sales will happen. There’s a lot of time left between now and the beginning of the year, my busiest time of year. I’m curious to see which site has more traffic and which one has more actual sales.

There are lots of ways to define sales success. In a few months I’ll know if it is spelled
E T S Y or Z I B B E T.

About Katherine Helms Cummings

During the day I am a social and environmental activist whose professional work has been in the nonprofit world for the last 12 years. Most nights and weekends I am an artisan making accessories with upcycled cashmere and woven textiles. My handmade items are available at The Sassy Gal http://thesassygal.org
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One Response to When handmade isn’t handmade (and a sale on gen-u-ine handmade)

  1. Katherine,

    I was also a bit late to the ‘Etsy experience’ having just opening this past May. Made a little bit of $, but not much especially since September. It was as if my shop disappeared from the listings even though I was promoting like crazy. I am over at Zibbet now. I am very hopeful that it will be much better over here. They seem to use a dictionary that anyone can understand, not just money grabbing CEOs. Handmade is the way to go!