Should you have a unique online storefront or are you better off on Etsy?
I've been thinking quite a bit about this question. Over the summer I was interviewed by a reporter for Wired magazine about the future of Etsy and the company's efforts to retain veteran sellers. The article was recently published and if you missed it, it's a good read.
I'm not mentioned in the article, but it was well worth my time to speak with its author, Rob Walker, while he was beginning his research. He was learning about Etsy and during our conversation I began to reflect on my own Etsy shop in some new ways.
I signed up for Etsy on July 3, 2005, less than a month after it was founded. At that time Etsy was still in beta, listings were free, and there were a few thousand users. Why did I jump on board so quickly? Because at that moment, and for years afterwards, actually, Etsy solved a huge problem for me.
Technical computer skills and programming are well beyond my capabilities and graphic design is not my forte. Although it was technically possible to set up a shopping cart on my own site and use that as my online storefront during those years, the task was overwhelming to me. Etsy made it easy. With very little time investment and almost no financial risk at stake I could have an online shop and start to sell my stuffed animals. It was an exciting time.
My shop and Etsy itself are over 7 years old now and the online landscape has changed drastically. There are now dozens of sites that allow you to quickly and cheaply create online shops, no technical expertise required (Big Cartel and Goodsie are two that immediately come to mind as big hitters in the handmade community). And Etsy has grown. Okay, that's a serious understatement. Etsy is now enormous.
The vastness of Etsy brings with it a lot of positives.
- average shoppers feel comfortable on Etsy; it's not foreign or scary to shop online there
- the traffic numbers to the site are astoundingly huge
- Etsy makes it easy peasy to do business with them - buying is easy, listing is easy, communication between buyers and sellers is easy, tracking your stats is easy (and paying Etsy is easy!)
But here's the catch. Your shop looks and feels like everyone else's. You can create a custom banner and write a nice about page, but in truth all Etsy shops look alike.
Let me tell you about a recent incident that I think will help you to see why this bothers me. The baby and I were over at a neighbor's house the other day for a playdate. This neighbor knows I sew stuffed animals and she showed me a really cute plush monster she'd recently gotten for her daughter. When I admired it she said, "I bought it on Etsy!".
To me, this statement says it all.
She bought handmade (hooray!). She knew where to go to find something handmade online (Etsy!). She felt comfortable making a financial transaction with a handmade seller because the transaction was being handled by a trusted well-known company (Hooray!).
But, boo, too. The maker of this cute monster didn't stand out in my neighbor's mind. It wasn't, "I bought this monster from a woman in North Carolina named Jennifer who makes all these wonderful, imaginative monsters, large and small, and some of them have big pocket mouths and they're made from recycled fabric and she taught herself to sew in her 40's!" Nope.
In fact I'd venture to say that my neighbor didn't just buy the monster ON Etsy, she bought the monster FROM Etsy.
And here's how it happens. If you're looking for a fun gift for your baby daughter and you hop on Etsy and search for "monster plush" you see this:
And when you see this, what do you do? You scan down the screen for colors, shapes, and faces that catch your eye, you compare prices, you click on a few of the 6,814 monsters that look promising and look at the customer feedback, and then you weigh your options and pick one.
As a maker of monsters what does having your monster come up in this search do for your business? Well, If your monster was chosen, it made you a sale. If the buyer loved your product, who knows she could become a repeat buyer.
But how does it potentially degrade your business? Here's how: your monster is one in a million. Your unique identity is subsumed by Etsy's uniformity.
Although I know this to be true, I still don't have my own online storefront so I can't compare very well what happens if you have both an Etsy shop and your own shop. At some point I may take this leap, but for now in order to get a broader perspective on this issue I reached out to another handmade business owner who has already taken this step.
I spoke with Jahje who has a handmade business called Baby Jives. Jahje makes beautiful, ethereal mobiles for baby's rooms. She has both an Etsy shop and her own online storefront (which was designed by Eleanor Grosch, by the way!). Here is how both shops look side by side:
And here is what Jahje told me:
I haven't left Etsy yet and probably won't for a while, but I started my storefront because I wanted to have more control over my own products and brand.
I was finding that my company name, Baby Jives, was one of the most searched for terms that people used to land in my Etsy shop and I was also doing craft shows where I felt like I was giving out my cards to folks who would then get pulled into the whole of Etsy after I had done the hard work of making the connection.
So I decided to set up my own site with e-commerce (previously it had just redirected people to my Etsy shop to purchase items).
When Jahje said that customers would take her card, look her shop up online and then get pulled into "the whole of Etsy", diminishing her hard work of relationship building, this issue really hit home for me.
The wonderful thing about buying handmade is the relationship you have with the maker of the item. But I think there is a way in which having a shop on Etsy can erode that one-on-one interaction, even while it creates a space for that interaction to happen with frequency and ease.
I know there is more to this and I want to hear your thoughts. What has been your experience as buyer of handmade when it comes to brand identity and loyalty for the handmade businesses you patronize on Etsy versus on independent online shops? Is there a different gut feeling when you buy from each?
And as a seller, are you sticking with Etsy? Leaving? Maintaining two shops, or more? Why?