Friday, 2 September 2011

Why Is My Etsy Shop Failing? One Year In

Hello to my fanbase, all eight of you! :)

It's been a while, and I have much to tell you.  First of all you may have noticed that the Etsy's Greatest Hits feature has taken a sabbatical, perhaps permanently.  As much fun as it was sharing my fellow artists' work, doing so was, quite frankly, cutting into the time and energy necessary to promote my own.  And that's the way it goes in this highly competitive market, I'm afraid.  From this point onward, this blog will be the means through which I share upcoming events, sales, and works-in-progress for anyone who is interested.  I may occasionally do a feature on an artist whose work is of particular interest to me, but for the most part I intend to dedicate this blog to doing everyone does best--talking about myself.  To be honest, I only have so much to give, and if there's one thing I've learned over the past year it's that if I don't talk about my work, no one will.

To that end, on this, the anniversary of the opening of my Etsy shop exactly one year ago, I decided I would take a moment to reflect on the experience.  An experience which I must say can only be described in two words: Epic Fail. 

It's been a discouraging year.  What began as an exciting venture--the prospect of people seeing my work and thinking, "hey, that's pretty cool!", perhaps leading to that most gratifying of declarations, "I want to buy that!"--has proven a disappointment, sending me into a downward spiral of discouragement and self doubt.  Of course, I had anticipated failure as a distinct possibility, and in no way did I enter this with blinders on.  But the resulting inferiority complex was unavoidable, I suppose; when you put yourself out there, only to be summarily ignored, that rejection can be exquisitely painful.  As a result, it's difficult to remember at times like these, when failure can seem so personal and intimate, that there might be others who have encountered similar disappointment.

With this in mind, albeit more out of desperation than curiosity, I performed a rather straightforward Google search: "Why are people not buying from my Etsy shop?" 

The search results for this pathetically phrased plea led me to a very well-written and compelling post on, where after doing some research on Etsy's self-published sales statistics, the author has come to some intriguing conclusions.  Despite his humble claims that "if you are expecting some well-researched and statistic driven journalism here–this ain’t it!", and that the post "is little more than the imaginative ramblings of a math-averse English major", it does an excellent job of bringing some important issues to light about the pros and cons of selling on Etsy, and about Etsy itself. 

The numbers themselves are quite staggering; quoting directly from this post, and illuminated by Etsy's own published statistics for membership and sales numbers for 2010, he concludes that while Etsy is currently averaging almost 250,000 new members a month, Etsy's overall sales have not risen in proportion with the membership.  Despite a dramatic increase in membership, this has not resulted in a similar growth in sales. 

I am one of those 250,000 new members who set up my Etsy shop in September 2010.  To date I have had 12 sales, only 2 to strangers (i.e., the other sales were to friends or acquaintances).  After hours upon hours of research on SEOs, marketing, keyword optimization, social networking, and dozens of other marketing issues that are over my head, I have concluded that making any money at doing what I love–forget making a living–is a dream that is beyond my reach.

Of course, it would be far more discouraging if I believed for a second that I were the only person paddle-less up this proverbial creek.  But those numbers--250,000 new members per month in 2010--can really only be interpreted in one way: The other 249,999 members, or at least a good majority of them, have also looked at their own sales numbers and found them disappointing as well.  And most of them, I would imagine, are asking the same questions as I am, perhaps typing their own desperate pleas into the Google search engine, trying to understand what they are doing wrong.

As I said, I know that I’m not the only Etsy seller with these problems. Averaging one sale a month is still a better fate than that of some other less fortunate Etsy sellers; in fact, I know of some artisans who, after a year of running their shop, have yet to make a single sale. (Note: I am purposely making a distinction between the two types of Etsy sellers--those who sell supplies, whom I refer to as "suppliers", and those who sell their own handmade items, whom I refer to as "artists" or "artisans.")  But I cannot describe how discouraging this can be. I spend a good deal of time working on my Etsy shop, time I would rather spend creating. As a result, doing the thing I love has become less of a joy and more of a chore as I have tried researching marketing strategies, social network, search engine, keyword art no longer revolves around inspiration and creativity, and a lot of the fun has been sucked out of it since I have tried focusing on sales. I used to create for its own sake; now, I judge myself according to my sales numbers--all two of them.

Embarrassingly, my artistic self worth has plummeted as a result. This may sound shallow and silly, but it’s difficult not to get caught up in this logic. For as many people as I’ve seen with low sales figures, I nonetheless continue to come across countless Etsy “success stories”, many of them found on Etsy’s front page, each extolling the virtues of hard work and savvy marketing, each containing the inherent implication that your lack of success is due not to the likelihood of your items getting lost in a sea of sellers and shops, but rather due to a flaw in character or lack of work ethic. This makes it difficult not to fall into the trap of believing that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me, or--perhaps worse--my work itself. It’s difficult not to take the lack of sales personally.

To that end, and in reply to the post on SkinnyArtist, and despite the fact that nobody asked me, I thought I would share some of my experiences.  None of this information is particularly helpful to me as an artist trying to sell her own work, but after a year on Etsy I have learned far more than I have sold.  Hopefully some of my experience can lend some insight into the question that seems to be plaguing a good many Etsy sellers, or at the very least can quell the looming doubt that low sales figures can create.

Etsy: A Place for All (People who Create) Things Handmade...
There is one essential problem with Etsy, at least for those who attempt to sell their artwork; Etsy is, and really always has been, a place for artisans. That is, most of Etsy’s members are artists/crafters. When I have asked the average person on the street whether they have heard of Etsy, the answer has invariably been “no.” (It should be noted that I am in the UK, and this may be not be the case in the US, where Etsy may be more widely known.) So it would be my guess that most of the sales on Etsy are comprised of items that are sold to other crafters.

Etsy has two different types of customers: shoppers looking for handmade goods, and the Etsy sellers/artisans themselves who also purchase from other shop on the site. Unfortunately, I believe that it is this last group that makes up the majority of Etsy’s sales, which means that most of the sales are going to be of supplies, not goods.  I would probably do better selling off my massive inventory of vintage supplies than to actually use them in my own pieces.

This is the problem for Etsy artisans–we simply aren’t going to get attention from other artists, at least not the kind that garners sales.  They call us starving artists for a reason, and as much as we may admire our fellow artists' work, we simply don't have the revenue to purchase it.  If we are going to spend money, it’s going to be on supplies. Other, similar sites such as ArtFire and DeviantArt are probably even less well known to the buying public and are comprised almost solely of artists. So one very possible reason for the low sales numbers for artists is that the majority of Etsy members are artisans who are already selling on Etsy, rather than your everyday shopper looking for handmade art. I myself purchase most of my supplies for my creations through Etsy, and I suspect that most of the other artisans/Etsy members do as well. So I would not be surprised if Etsy’s sales, were you to examine them closely, would be made up primarily of art/crafting supplies sold to other members of Etsy, most of whom are probably there to sell the items they make from these supplies.

…Or Not?

One of the most disappointing (and damning) of Etsy’s business strategies is its promotion of items that are in direct contrast to its self-professed goals. Etsy claims to be a source for all things handmade, but what do they market more vigorously than anything else? On their front page, on their multitude of Facebook presences, you will find, more often than anything else, the bane of the Etsy seller’s existence–the omnipresent wall decal. Judging by the number of times I have visited Etsy’s front page and found items featured there that are either obviously NOT handmade or items that I would deem sub-par (is there anyone who hasn't seen Regretsy?), Etsy’s interests clearly do not lie, as it claims, in promoting handmade items by talented artists. And make no mistake, Etsy is chock full of talent. Unfortunately, as it was built on the eBay platform, it has also gone the way eBay has gone to a certain extent; it has become, as my British husband would say, a place for “old tat”. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to see truly amazing artists constantly being eclipsed by sheets of mass-produced adhesive-backed vinyl that say “Just Breath” [sic], or seven listings by seven different shops of a brass octopus stamping hanging from a chain.

The prevalence of the wall decal and brass octopus illustrates yet another problem:  It’s near to impossible to get noticed unless you concentrate on making hundreds of items at the lowest possible cost, something which is simply not possible for most artists, at least those of us who concentrate on using quality supplies and doing quality work. Unfortunately, most people don't care whether or not the items I use in my pieces are real vintage or plastic fakery, or whether the glassware I sell is hand painted or stamped out with decals by workers in sweat shops earning thirty cents an hour. It seems that most people either don’t see the difference, or don’t know or care to look, and Etsy is taking advantage of that fact. Perhaps it’s elitist of me to say, but I think they should be above that lowest common denominator marketing. For a site to claim to be a source for handmade items, presumably by creative folks, it just seems ironic for Etsy to use the WalMart business model to sell itself.  I understand that Etsy’s main priority is to make money, but for a site that claims to be THE outlet for artisans and crafters, that kind of marketing, in my opinion, is doing its reputation a disservice. And it also discourages the rest of us who are actually making our own stuff and not mass producing items and selling at a deep discount. Unfortunately, Etsy will never remove these shops from the site, because these are the money makers. Just as it will not take down shops that are engaging in obvious copyright infringement and/or resale, as long as the shop is making them money, it will continue to exist--unless an outside source forces Etsy’s hand (again, have a good look at Regretsy for some of the most egregious examples of this).

Etsy Versus Etsy Sellers--Different Interests

As if this issue weren’t problematic enough, Etsy has implemented several changes to their site that have hurt its sellers--further proof, as if it were needed, that Etsy and its sellers have very different interests. Last year the very popular Alchemy feature was disabled, which allowed customers to request items upon which artisans could bid, giving shop owners a surefire way to gain custom orders. I was too late to Etsy to utilize Alchemy to gain sales, but I have read several accounts of artisans losing more than half their business as a result of its discontinuation. I would not be surprised it those sellers who were making the majority of their sales from this feature might have left Etsy in frustration after this, especially since Etsy had promised to replace it with something better, a promise which has yet to be fulfilled.

Additionally, Etsy has also recently changed their search engine to sort for “relevancy.” This has the potential to be a positive change, as it apparently mirrors Google’s search engine.  Previous to this change, sellers have had to use the relisting procedure to get items to the top of the list in searches; that is, in order for a listing to make it to the front page of a search result, it had to be the most recent item listed. The change to relevancy allows us to bypass that (often fruitless) chore of constant and timely relisting. Until now, the only way to get noticed was to 1) flood Etsy with listings, meaning you had to have many items in your shop to even make a dent in the search results, and 2) relist a) often and b) at the right time (Etsy’s users are primarily US natives, so those of us in the UK had to list or relist at the optimum time for traffic, which for me would be between 12-4 AM). Not to mention that in order to be seen this way, it was necessary to relist items every couple of days or so, and although 20 cents a listing seems like a small amount, imagine having to repeat this every two or three days for ten items. If I were to attempt to have my items seen by relisting in this way, I would have to sell at least four items a month just to make up costs, and my shop has 53 items (as of August 30) and is currently averaging one sale per month. All in all, the “relist often” tactic just isn’t very efficient for most of us. So the change to “relevancy” for the search engine could prove to be a good thing.

However, this change has thrown me off, and I suspect many other sellers who are not as market savvy as others. Trying to figure out how to best cater to this relevancy factor is more difficult than it sounds. Tonight I went through my listings and attempted to change keywords and the listing text to accommodate this change and had no luck whatsoever. It seems that the same shops end up at the top of the list no matter what the search engine’s design--the shops with hundreds of items do well, while those of us who simply cannot flood the market are left behind. This change is still too new for me to have figured out, so I cannot speak to its effectiveness; my inability to move my items up in the listings might have less to do with the change itself and more to do with my ignorance of how SEO works. But this change still gives an edge to folks with more money to spend on marketing strategies such as search engine submission and keyword optimization. Those of us who are just the figurative starving artist (or, in some cases, literal) do not have the option of hiring people to help us with marketing strategy.  There is certainly no lack of reading material on this subject; in fact, it seems that the likelihood of making money on a "how to make money on Etsy" book is far better than making money on Etsy by selling your artwork.  The flurry of information on all of this is overwhelming for those of us who are not technologically inclined, and the amount of reading I’ve done on this subject, limited only by my meagre comprehension, so far has left me more confused and discouraged than I was to begin with.  Thus, the same people who are currently at the bottom of the listings–like myself–will remain there simply due to an inability to get this kind of assistance.

Where Are All The Customers?

But perhaps the biggest problem for Etsy artists is Etsy itself.  As far as I can tell, the only thing that is going to help Etsy sellers sell--at least for those of us who peddle our own creations--is for Etsy to find a way to better market itself to the buying public.  Most artists are aware of the existence of Etsy, whether they maintain a shop or not.  But how many people outside of the art/crafting community have heard of it or  know what it is?  And even if they did, in an economic climate where anything non-essential is considered a luxury, how many of them can actually afford to pay the kind of money that artists are necessarily asking for their products?  When I price my items, I very rarely factor in labour.  If I did, the cost would be prohibitive.  I ask for supply costs and then tack on a small amount to recoup the little extras such as listing fees, packaging, supplies that are difficult to factor into the final products (paints and brushes for example).  If I were to add the cost of labour to many of the items I sell, I would be pricing myself right out of any potential business.  A set of wine glasses I am currently working on, with which I am approximately halfway finished, have to date already required  more than 200 hours of labor.  Even if I were to charge something ludicrous like $1 an hour for my labour, that would still mean I would have to charge at least $200 for a set of four wine glasses, not including supply cost.

Obviously this is not an option. The simple truth is, our prices must be higher than those you will find at your local five-and-dime or its modern equivalent.  Unfortunately, the continuing effect of what I like to call the Walmartization of the Western World does not lend itself to supporting handmade, and if I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve exhibited at a craft show only to hear a customer say “Eighteen dollars? I can get the same thing at WalMart for a buck!”, I might have a more lucrative product to sell.

Look away from the Etsy front page success stories and toward sites like Regretsy and to articles like the SkinnyArtist post, and you'll find droves of Etsians like myself who are disappointed and discouraged not only with their sales figures but with Etsy itself.  From the reading I've done, many artists have concluded that the best way to deal with this disappointment is to stop relying solely on Etsy to sell and promote your work.  Years ago I had my own web site, and I plan to resuscitate that as my main sales outlet.  Having a shop where I will not be forced to compete with hundreds upon thousands of items, a good number of which qualify as neither handmade nor goods, is certainly in my best interest.  I will continue to maintain a presence on Etsy, but I will no longer have my eggs planted  firmly and solely in that basket.  I will continue to promote myself there to the best of my ability, but will focus more on my website as well as on my Facebook page and here on my blog. 

But most importantly, I will continue to create, if for no other reason than that I must.  On the first anniversary of the opening of my Etsy shop, in the face of what appears to be a miserable failure, it is not the sales figures that keep me going.  It's the creativity that gets me up in the morning, and it's also what keeps me up at night, long past the wee hours, working on that set of wine glasses until, like the most comfortable bed on earth, they are just right. 

Dear Etsy: Will you do the same?