There’s a certain truth: “People like sitting in their cubicles and looking at cute things online,” says Asheville-based painter Moni Hill. Satisfying that desire, Hill (and dozens of other local artists) posts her work on e-commerce Web site Etsy.com.
But there’s another cold, hard fact at work here: Sales are down in almost every commercial sector. The Washington Post recently reported, “Consumers scaled back on discretionary spending and hunted for values on necessities,” adding that “many department stores and apparel retailers, including Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters, had declines.”
So where are consumers spending their pocket money? Apparently in virtual stores. In an August Good Morning America segment called “Five Best Work-From-Home Jobs,” Etsy got the nod. “If you specialize in jewelry, pottery, clothing, illustrations, bath products, edibles and more, you should be selling today on Etsy,” noted Tory Johnson, founder of Women For Hire. “In July alone, the company says 487,000 items were sold, totaling $7 million.” Some of that cash, happily, is flowing into the Western North Carolina economy.
“I’ve been able to sell items I have handmade, in addition to my photographs, around the world,” reveals Asheville resident Mary Donovan. “It’s always great to have other people appreciate the things that you put so much love and care into.” Donovan’s shop, DandyTree (www.dandytree.etsy.com) features art photography both as two-dimensional art and incorporated into pendants, rings and earrings. While she admits that “the majority of my print sales go to the West Coast,” local shoppers also find her. “I did recently receive an order for a few prints for someone who had just moved to Asheville and wanted some local art in their house. I have also had orders placed from people who have moved on from Asheville, but want a little piece of it in their house.”
Hill’s Etsy store (www.monihill.etsy.com) lists her nature-themed folk art, painted onto reclaimed wood. She opened the online shop not as much for the retail business as for a place where her fans could find her. “Mainly I needed it because my turnover is so quick,” the artist says. “When I would show paintings at art fairs, people would want to know [where to find more of my work]. I knew I needed a Web site, so I opened an Etsy account.”
It turns out that 185,000 other sellers have done the same thing. The Web site, which was created in 2005 by painter/carpenter/photographer Rob Kalin, has seen exponential increases in sales each year. Gross merchandise sales reached $3.8 million in 2006. Last year, that number climbed to $26 million, and as of August 2008, the sales figure hovered around $35 million. That, from hand-knitted scarves, one-off jewelry and unique gift items. Things that can be had for less than $50.
“You know the extra buttons that come with some shirts? I have been stashing them for a few years, but in various places, so each time I needed one, I wouldn’t have to tear up my house trying to find another one. When I ran out, I found some at thrift stores, craft stores, and even on the ground,” says local designer Lauren Bansemer. Her button collecting led to craft inspiration; now her independent business Pliable Trade (www.pliabletrade.etsy.com) sells button-adorned brooches for $7 to $8.50 each.
The site’s “Geofinder” function shows 82 stores operated by Asheville-area sellers. Among those, George Sawyer (georgesawyer.etsy.com) makes iPod cases out of wood; Buncombe Buckles Metalworks (buncombebuckles.etsy.com) offers belt buckles fashioned from discarded metal parts; and the Bloomery (theBloomery.etsy.com) is home to bloomers (as in loose, decorative shorts worn under skirts) made from recycled fabrics. Looking for a blast form the past? At Revival Studio (revivalstudio.etsy.com), vintage sewing patterns (such as “1965 swanky Fred McMurray sweater jacket or vest”) run $1.50 to $3 each. Want something edgy? Artist Josh Smith sells chain-mail jewelry ranging from $10 to $30 at SubcultureWorx (www.subcultureWorx.etsy.com). Need a housewarming gift? Lazy Dog Pottery (www.LazyDogPottery.etsy.com) carries wheel-thrown or slab-built mugs, plates, teapots, vases, lidded jars and candle holders—and in this shop, shipping is free.
Seamstress Bridget Miller (who is currently based in Chattanooga, Tenn.) created the line Astronette (www.astronette.etsy.com) to market her one-of-a-kind clothing. While Astronette is also available at Asheville boutique The HoneyPot, Miller says her online business equals her consignment sales. “Handmade clothes have a soul and are made with love and attention,” she muses. The one e-commerce glitch: “Knowing if the item will fit is probably the most tricky part of shopping for clothes online. I provide detailed measurements of each garment and so far everything has fit.”
Miller offers this tip for Etsy shoppers: “To find independent clothing designers, search for ‘BFSC’: it stands for ‘built from scratch clothing.’”
Beyond the sheer variety, the something-for-everyone-ness, Etsy’s users tend to gush the site’s praises. “Buying has been a breeze and listing my own items has not been difficult to figure out,” says local seamstress Dawn Mendonca, who sells crafty clothing for children at Darcus Does It (www.darcusdoesit.etsy.com). “I’m creative with a computer so it’s been fun setting up the storefront and all the options.”
She continues, “Etsy actually helps to inspire the seller in me because I see so many other part-time crafters making a go at it, too.” Her only complaint is that once her user name was set, she wasn’t able to change it.
“Etsy has some kinks to work out, but personally I find that the site is not only beautiful to look at, but very user-friendly for both buyers and sellers,” offers Bansemer.
The perk most sellers mention is the low fees (20 cents per item sold) that Etsy charges. Other e-commerce sites are not so inexpensive, and for crafters trying to make a little extra cash from handmade items, low overhead makes all the difference.