Four or five years ago, I opened a shop on Etsy. Predictably, like many enthusiastic tyros, I assumed it would be easy and that customers would flow to my lovely shop. It would be such fun!
The reality was something quite different. Customers did not flock to my shop, views were few and far between. But every day, I signed into Etsy … sometimes several times … to see if anyone had “viewed” anything. And when I received a ♥ for an item, my day was made. Etsy had an almost narcotic effect on me. Off line in my own craft business, I was doing very well. Brick and mortar stores constantly asked for more of my pieces and the money was an easy if modest income for me.
But for some odd reason, Etsy consumed my attention like a particularly voracious vulture. When I finally sold an item, I was ecstatic. My future was laid out in the stars … I was going to be a stellar success in cyberspace. I carefully packed my first sale in bubble-wrap, added a charming “Thank-You” note which I spent hours designing and finally printing on my economy Canon printer. I tucked everything into a perfectly-sized mailer and danced off the to Post Office. Where I waited half an hour in a queue to mail it.
The whole transaction had cost me well over three hours in convos, a hand-written note, packaging and going to the Post Office to stand in line. Not counting the time taken actually making the item, I later calculated I was earning about 56 cents an hour.
But that didn’t matter at the time. It was a SALE. I went back to my daily routine of checking Etsy, counting views and ♥ ♥ ♥ and becoming more and more addicted to this new venture. And there is no other word for it. It was an addiction.
And it was an addiction which I would later learn was one of the cleverest marketing strategies ever developed. Not to market my shop … nor anyone else’s shop on Etsy. But to ensure Etsy’s profits.
At the core was the system of “hearts” and “favorites” and “circles” and “followers'” designed to reward shop owners with approval. Like stars posted on a kindergarten wall to make toddlers feel special. Then there were “treasuries” which were neat little games consuming a lot of time and geared towards gaining popularity with other shop owners. And the Forums which had so many rules on what could and could not be discussed, that posters were restricted to describing the weather, how many cups of coffee they’d drunk that morning or Aunt Em’s hospital stay. “Social Networking” carried to extremes of banality. A sort of Etsy “twitter” group.
Etsy had created a model of deception. And it was the worst form of subterfuge, because it fed on people’s natural impulse toward socializing and desire for praise and relied on those human emotions to blind them to the fact that their earnestly created shops and mini-businesses were mere window-dressing. The little crafter making his own products gradually became a front for a ruthless big business bent on profits made from suppliers and bulk manufacturers for the most part based in China. Meanwhile Etsy was carefully hiding under the umbrella of “handmade” and later “vintage”.
To keep this game viable and thriving, somehow these honest artisans would have to be kept busy and have to feel that their shops were”active.” Even if nothing sold for months on end and even a relatively busy shop might have only twenty or thirty small sales a year. A cash flow of a couple of hundred dollars must somehow be made to feel like important income. The shop owner had to feel “successful”.
So the Etsy system of “hearts” and “favorites” and “circles” was cleverly concocted to give the artisans. a feeling of some activity, even when common sense would dictate that their shops were virtually moribund and that five or six sales is NOT a business enterprise.
I fell neatly into the trap. I continued gamely adding items and checking those views. The occasional sale was a momentous epiphany when suddenly the future seemed unimaginably bright. I bought a supply of mailers and several large rolls of bubble wrap in order to be well prepared for the sudden spike in sales, which I was sure was imminent. I bought yards of tulle and hair clips and necklace cords and bails. I stocked up. My future was rosy.
I had sold fifteen items, accumulated dozens of “hearts” and was included in ten coveted “circles” when reality dawned on me. I started to check the shops of people who had hearted me or invited me into their circles. Most of the people giving me those hearts and circle membership were making knitted toys for $10 or greeting cards for $2. Crochet pot holders and baby bibs were popular as were stuffed toys and a lot of crude bead jewelry. Most of the offerings were woefully amateur.
But here and there was a wonderful shop with a truly talented artist creating beautiful woodwork, original art or silver jewelry and glass-work. Some of it was spectacular. And some of them were indeed selling well. But the majority were barely selling enough to exceed the standard tax deduction on their annual tax forms. A couple of hundred dollars. Sellers who were racking up sales of 5 or 6 thousand dollars a year were boasting in the Etsy forums that they had “quit their day jobs” somehow forgetting than an average of $500 a month isn’t even minimum wage.
Something was wrong. Very few people were really making money. Etsy seemed more like a social club than a serious business venture. Apart from a few shops who were doing well and the suppliers who had swarmed to Etsy from China and HongKong. And many temporarily successful shops seemed to be riding “surges” of popular items such as scrabble tile pendants and “Keep Calm and Carry On” prints, copies of a motivational poster issued by the British Government in 1939. Revived in around 2000, it was promptly commandeered by hundreds of Etsy shops. Thousands of identical posters in different color combos were sweeping Etsy. Every day new shops opened with identical prints and the prices began to drop.
One day as I sat at my computer, after checking the views and hearts for the day, I wandered into a “forum” for my daily visit. These Etsy message boards I later learned were central to the Etsy pattern of “social networking” but at the time they seemed to be pleasant way to connect with other people with shops on Etsy. On this particular afternoon after an hour or so , I realized I had been twittering like a demented sparrow about absolutely nothing. Cupsy Cakesy was telling us about her dog’s injured paw, Whoopsy Tootsy was complaining about her heartburn, and Lacy Tracy had just bought a dozen rolls of really pretty ribbon.
What the hell was I doing here? In six months, I had sold fifteen items, made less than $300 gross sales, accumulated 789 useless hearts, belonged to 11 circles which did nothing but inundate my message box with announcement about their own new products. Hours squandered in forums and chats and teams. An utter waste of time.
Etsy was clearly a silly social club, full of stay-at-home moms, grannies and college girls with way too much time on their hands. It was a hobby venue for people only a tad more inventive that the women indulging themselves in that ridiculous fad of scrap-booking. And it was a front for a big business which had lost its integrity and its heart.
I closed shop.
BUT I was wrong.