Saturday, October 17, 2009

I thought buying handmade was good?

I was reading the Stinkerpants Designs blog this morning and she had a fascinating post that she wrote awhile ago about Etsy. I then read this article about the myth of the Etsy businessswoman. (Note: the same fantasy can be said to be had by the many many homemakers who write blogs and generate small revenue off of them.)

When law school gets really hard, I fantasize about chucking it all and becoming an artist (completely ignoring the fact that I am bad. at. art.), and as somebody who likes handmade products and supporting small businesses, I think this whole discussion is really interesting.
And then there is this paragraph, which made me feel a little guilty:
"Have you heard of Etsy’s custom section, Alchemy? Basically, a customer can name a price for a custom-created item, or ask sellers to give a price at which they’re willing to create the item. Usually, people are requesting something like a custom necklace for $10. A custom necklace for ten dollars. And you know what? They’re getting their custom necklaces made for $10. This is not cool, people."

For our Save-the-Dates, we needed a stamp. I was dissatisfied with all of the internet design companies and I wanted to work with somebody that I could well, work with. Somebody that would notice any typos that I made. Somebody I could talk to directly. And preferably, somebody who was not employing children in an unsafe factory. I was unsure enough about the custom-stamp making process that we thought Etsy was the way to go - and I didn't like any of the custom stamp-makers I found when I did a broad search. So I drafted up an Alchemy request and posted it, with the design, saying we were looking for somebody to make us a stamp. I put in that we would pay up to $20, which was the going rate for a custom stamp of the right dimensions at most companies. I got bids for $18, $20, and $12.

We went with the $12 bidder. We had already made the design (although the artist did re-create the design for us) and although it did occur to me that the bid was low, I checked out the seller's shop and realized that their main business wasn't rubber stamps - they responded to other custom alchemy requests like mine, but were actually a t-shirt business. Additionally, the price she was charging wasn't lower than the going rate on the internet, and we weren't paying for something unique and handcrafted - it was a stamp that she made on a laser engraving machine - but thinking about it now, it probably took at least an hour to communicate with me about the stamp and then to put it together. Am I really comfortable with the fact that, factoring in labor, not only did somebody barely make a profit off of us, we let her underbid the other Alchemy bidders like that? Sure, maybe stamps aren't her gig - they're just something she does on the side to make a little extra cash - but they are somebody else's gig, and she is undercutting them and making it harder for that person to make a living. And lets be real - its not easy for people to make a living as craftspeople anyway. But lets be really real here - most crafters have day jobs or somebody that pays the bills. So why are we responsible for making sure they make a living wage? And if you want to make a living off of your art, aren't you responsible for selling your products in a way that makes you the most money, which may mean discontinuing an etsy shop?

I'm not really sure what the answer is here. But I probably will continue to shop on Etsy, albeit with an eye towards paying a fair price for goods instead of searching for the cheapest deal or asking for too little when I post an alchemy request.


  1. Honestly, I didn't buy the thesis of the DoubleX piece on Etsy -- I don't think there's enough evidence to claim that the majority, or even a large minority, of Etsy sellers actually believe they can make a living from their Etsy sites. I think a fair number of Etsy sellers are hobbyists who are just looking to recoup the cost of materials and maybe make a few extra dollars, and I tend to agree with you that sellers are responsible for setting their own prices according to what they want to get out of the sale.

    BUT! I also tend to think that a seller who is savvy enough to set a fair price for their labor is also more likely to be a professional, organized businessperson. I used Etsy Alchemy for our wedding invitations and went with a fairly lowball bid (although not the lowest), and the printer turned out to be an unorganized, unprofessional train wreck. So I think it's sensible for buyers to be skeptical of ultra-low-cost items and bids, and to seek to do business with people who actually seem to have some business savvy. Does that make any sense? I feel like I'm kind of babbling.

  2. um, I didn't even finish reading those articles... do these people understand anything about supply and demand? No one HAS to sell on Etsy. I know that I'm generally the one to deride this argument... but come on!

  3. @petitechablis - the same things bothered me about this article as you mentioned here & on your blog - I don't buy that this is a "feminist" fantasy - I think for a lot of women, it is a way to turn a hobby into a few extra bucks or it gives them a creative outlet - but I don't think that they are trying to make a living.
    @Andy - "has to" is relative. As etsy becomes an easy and straightforward way to search for handmade goods, it's increasingly difficult for craftspeople who don't sell on Etsy to peddle their wares. The cost any crafter would pay in advertising to raise the profile of their separate online shop is way more than they would pay to open an Etsy shop - and the argument that crafters steal from each other and then undercut their prices is certainly valid. I ultimately think that this is an example of the internet making the world a little smaller - and it's cheaper for me to pay a SAHM from North Dakota who makes necklaces for fun to make me a custom necklace than it is for me to pay for one from a shop here in Baltimore that actually needs to sell their goods to make a living. It's basically outsourcing goods to people who have more time and a lower cost of living, therefore their dollar goes further. Just as more people are getting into photography simply because they own a digital camera and like taking pictures, and because the internet makes it easier to make a living as a digital photographer, the people who have been professional photographers for 20 years are suddenly seeing clients that expect to pay $1000 for pictures and get to keep the digital images. That's not what the photographer's time or talent is worth, but once there is an increase in supply, other suppliers have to compete and keep up. In some ways we win, in some ways we lose.

  4. In some ways, I wonder if the article XX should have written is this: " pitches itself as a website for full-time crafters who want to quit their day jobs. But the majority of Etsy sellers say this is neither realistic, nor what they personally want to do. So who is selling on Etsy, and why? And what does it mean for people who *do* want to make a living off their crafts?"

    I definitely agree with you about the idea of the world becoming a little smaller via the internet, and how someone who's made handcrafted knitted items for years is suddenly competing with a SAHM who just wants to recoup the cost of her supplies and maybe make a few extra bucks. Sara/Stinkerpants made some really good points about Etsy's drawbacks for full-timers like herself in her discussion of why she's chosen to close down her Etsy shop -- thanks for linking to that!

  5. I think the other interesting thing that Sara/Stinkerpants pointed out about Etsy is that people steal ideas from other people. I have definitely seen that happen - and there isn't a very good way for an Etsy seller to protect their intellectual property. I think the fact that everything on Etsy is handmade makes it easy for people to look at things on Etsy and say "I could make those and it would be way cheaper than what x is selling them for." In theory, this is why Etsy is great - it keeps people from overcharging.
    I'm going to keep using Etsy, but I'm also going to consider the amount of time the product I'm paying for takes to make and whether I'm being fair to the seller. Since I sew and craft, I think I can gauge this pretty well. The bolero I linked to today is $24 - since it probably takes about 1/2 to a yard of fabric, which (depending on the source) is probably about $6, it leaves $18 for labor/profit - which seems reasonable because I'm guessing for somebody with experience, it's about a 1-2 hour project. So it seems fair.
    And I would have very much liked to have read that article by XX - I think it would have been interesting.

  6. I didn't finish reading the articles either. I think it is ridiculous and whiny to think that way. Whether you post on Etsy or post anywhere someone could like the pattern and decide to try it themselves. Also, few people use it as a primary job, and if they do it's because they are just that successful.

    I bought my wedding jewelry off of Etsy's wedding shop. I am glad that it was something that was made for me and is unique.