Adapting To Etsy: Artists Struggle With Website's Policy Changes

Jan 24, 2015

Tracy Bell holding her bells made out of vintage silverware handles
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

The e-commerce website Etsy—which specializes in handmade and vintage goods—has come a long way since it started in 2005. The site now has over one million shops. But not all artists are happy with how the company has grown.

Tracy Bell at her home in Battle Creek
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Tracy Bell of Battle Creek makes glass beads and recycled jewelry. In addition to selling her work at art fairs, Bell has listed her work on Etsy for about seven years.

But a few years ago, Bell noticed she was spending more time putting jewelry on Etsy but selling less of it.

“If I can go in in six or seven hours I can sell, you know, $800 worth of stuff or a thousand dollars’ worth of stuff—that’s a lot less work to me than trying to put up a single listing on Etsy for everything I just sold," she says.

"It would have taken me a lot longer than the eight hours. And then I got to wait for somebody to find me.”

In a sea of more than one million Etsy shops, Bell says she’s not being found. But she’s not alone – artists around the country have had mixed feelings about the direction the company has taken.

“Cause it was originally supplies for that person who’s making handmade stuff and the handmade stuff itself,” says Bell.

Many artists disagreed with the way Etsy changed it’s handmade policy in the fall of 2013. That allowed artists to hire help manufacturers. While some artists say the new policy goes against Etsy’s original values, it could also affect sales.

On the company’s blog, Etsy encourages sellers to renew their product listings so those items jump to the top of the search. It says the more “new” items you list, the more likely your product is to be seen by Etsy shoppers. When asked if the search gives larger sellers an advantage in visibility, Etsy's Director of Seller Development, Kim Alfonso, says:

"No. I think that on Etsy, we have always seen that there are a variety of paths to growth for sellers. And for us, with sellers that wanted to use outside manufacturing, we wanted to allow sellers to have that path for growth. It's important to recognize that still the majority of our marketplace is solo shops as handmade sellers. And many of them are quite successful." 

It’s not just about visibility. Heidi Fahrenbacher of Bella Joy Pottery in Kalamazoo says larger sellers clearly have an advantage when it comes to pricing. 

“Because if you had an outside manufacturer your price point would be lower," she says. "I mean I think it’s just human nature: If you see two items that are very similar and you don’t really know the background story, you would go with the least expensive item.”

Fahrenbacher says she lost a third of her sales when Etsy re-organized its browsing function. Before, customers could easily choose categories like “handmade” or “vintage.”

“What’s different now is if you click on ‘mugs,’ it’s all mugs—it’s handmade mugs, vintage mugs. Now they can manufacture…you can contract out a large manufacturer in China, for instance. Those can all get bunched together,” she says.

Fahrenbacher says it’s almost impossible to tell which artist is using an outside help. Etsy does require sellers to fill out an application explaining what roles contractors play in their work, but quick search reveals that few share that info on their shop pages.

To be clear, Fahrenbacher says she isn’t opposed to artists hiring help—she herself has an assistant. That’s what allows her to sell on Etsy Wholesale – a private space on Etsy where juried artists can sell bulk items to businesses. Fahrenbacher sells her mugs to Water Street Coffee Joint in Kalamazoo. She says if it weren't for Etsy Wholesale, Etsy probably wouldn't be a viable place for her to sell her art. 

Despite the competition, some local artists are still doing well on the site. Colette Smojver quit her job as an accountant in 2009 to become a full-time mom to her two toddlers. She runs the Etsy shop Wonderstruck Weddings and Wreaths.

“Fall 2013 up until now—my sales have jumped 140 percent,” says Smojver. 

Smojver says she’s making about as much money from her Etsy shop as she would in a part-time accounting job.

Etsy puts out dozens of articles on how artists can improve their sales. Here are a few tips: Post good photos that show detail, add a lot of tags so customers can find your work, refer people to your shop through social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest, and use your Etsy statistics to see what products are selling.

Smojver does all of these and much more. Before even setting up her shop, she started building her brand with a logo and a banner.

“I try to have branded packaging. I give business cards to all the customers. I actually have postcards with my logo on front that I write a thank-you note to every customer. Just to give them kind of a boutique experience I would say when they’re shopping online. So that they’re not just receiving something in a cardboard box.”

Smojver has a blog where she posts things like recipes mixed in with news about her Etsy business. She also pays attention to trends.

“Right now silhouettes of deer heads are huge décor for people. So I’m actually going to start making some wreaths for…that have those incorporated in them,” she says. 

Smojver also buys enough material so she can re-make items quickly if they sell. This way she doesn’t have to make a new listing every time.

“That’s where a lot of the work is, is in taking the photos. You have to edit the photos if you want to crop things out of it. You have to write your description. That is very very very time consuming," she says. "And if you can get by that and not have to do that every single time, then 20 hours a week is very easy.”

But a lot of these tips won’t work for jewelry artist Tracy Bell. She says the recycled materials she works with often dictate what she makes. Plus, Bell says—as an artist—she would get bored making the same things all the time.

Though Bell has moved most of her online sales to her website, she still uses Etsy to finalize those sales. She says it makes shoppers feel more comfortable because Etsy will refund their money if they don’t receive an item.

Bell says she makes most of her sales at art fairs—where she can tell potential buyers the story behind each piece.

“When you buy from an artist, you’re buying a little piece of their soul that’s going with that piece," says Bell. "It’s really…you know, I think in any art form, meeting the artist is a large part of that sale.”