Crafts are going online in a big way, and local artists are taking advantage of the trend. Sales on the hugely popular online site Etsy (a craft, handmade and vintage marketplace) topped at $895.1 million last year, a 70 percent increase from 2011, according to press info on the sight.
Since its launch in 2005, Etsy now boasts 900,000 active shops and 60 million unique visitors per month. Make no mistake; the online marketplace has made its mark in the craft community.
As Asheville Etsy seller Andrea Lauren Courchene defines it, “I think Etsy is offering a blank canvas of opportunity with which to make your own success.”
Says another local, Liz Maier, “Etsy is a really level playing field,” Maier says. “It's a mix of professionals, hobbyists and startups. Anyone can compete regardless of experience or capital. It's really merit-based that way.” Maier’s handmade mirrors and custom frames place her in a niche well-suited to online sales, but she acknowledges that she seeks more from her art career. “I'm loyal to an old-fashioned concept of artisanship and the idea of a slow emergence of mastery over a very long period of time, which are two values that I'm not so sure an online marketplace can capture or nurture. So I definitely set my professional goals beyond just what sells on Etsy.”
Etsy does not have a gallery director or artistic programmer to set the parameters of their marketplace or provide a baseline for well-crafted handmade work. The sales market is the only directive force to reward crafters who create good products and market themselves well. Of course, with such a wide open platform, the range, variety and skill demonstrated in available works spans the full spectrum.
There are some who might resent Etsy for elevating the hobbyist to the level of craftsperson, a label that had previously been reserved only for those with a level of training or focus. The director of the American Crafts Council, Chris Amundsen, offers a more inclusive perspective. “From my experience, a vast majority of craft hobbyists are creating items because they value making and have the desire to create, not because they are looking to become professional craft artists. Becoming a successful artist requires many skills and a commitment beyond what most hobbyists are interested in pursuing.”
With all levels of crafters enjoying the process of creating handmade work, perhaps there is room for both the hobbyist and the professional craftsperson in this growing market.
The Asheville community generally holds handmade crafts in high esteem. Our festivals and small businesses already provide platforms for crafters to sell their wares locally. But is the local marketplace enough? “It became obvious very quickly that setting up shop in a global online marketplace was the only way for me to reach the audience I needed to craft full time,” says Asheville-based Etsy seller Mary Lynn Schroeder, who now employs four staff members to keep up with the demands of her business. “There is certainly work involved, but the sheer amount of people that can access my work is limitless, there is no ceiling. I ship to several countries every day, and my Etsy site has had 267,000 views so far this year, so it definitely hits a previously untapped market for me. The more eyes on your craft, the more likely you are to connect with a customer.”
Courchene sees the choice to make a purchase from an artist to be valuable and important. She says, “The faceless nature of large corporations has definitely driven a large segment of the population toward Etsy for a more personal connection to the product story and the person making it.” Schroeder echoes these sentiments. “Times are tough. I feel that more than ever, right now, a customer really wants their dollar to count,” she says. “When you can offer someone a custom-made, personalized, eco-friendly, and thoughtful purchase, you have made that customer's dollar count, which means everyone wins.”
For a look at a few local Etsy sellers, visit Andrea Lauren Courchene at www.papersparrow.etsy.com, Liz Maier at www.theframeandmirror.etsy.com and Mary Lynn Schroeder at www.inblue.etsy.com.
— Steph Guinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.