CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- Microbusinesses are a hot topic in discussions of Third World economies, but many of us overlook thriving examples of small-scale entrepreneurship closer to home.
created a new kind of marketplace -- and allowed those outside the traditional retail world, such stay-at-home moms and retirees, to bring in new income -- the craft-focused site
has created its own commercial niche. The site's huge range of sellers and buyers, all of whom share a love for handcrafted pieces and/or vintage style, prove there is a market for unique items that can't be found at the local dollar store.
The craft-focused Web site Etsy has created its own commercial niche among people who love the homemade and vintage.
First, some background. Started in 2005, Etsy was created as an online marketplace for designers and craftspeople to sell directly to the public. Unlike some other e-commerce sites, it was designed to appeal to design-conscious consumers, with plenty of soothing white space and no glaring colors or flashy fonts.
To maintain the site's integrity and vision, products sold on Etsy must fall into one of three categories: homemade, vintage or crafting supplies (such as fabric, buttons or yarn). Would-be sellers must first set up an online "shop," then pay 20 cents to list an item for four months, plus a 3.5% transaction fee for each item sold.
The plus for sellers is that Etsy takes on the burden of setting up a Web presence. (Let's be honest: Most creative types would rather be sewing or painting than learning the ins and outs of HTML.) A jewelry designer or potter can create a site quickly using the Etsy template, then have Etsy process their payments as well. Joining Etsy also gives sellers access to the site's devoted fan base, with a built-in community of fellow artists and crafters who interact online.
In September, the site reached a milestone of 1 billion page views. More than 2.3 million items were sold during the month, up 45% from the same period a year ago; total dollar sales were up 75% from a year ago.
As with any other small business, though, just because you open a store doesn't mean anyone will stop in. The overall Etsy sales numbers might look good, but there are 800,000 active shops on the site. Divide the $46 million worth of goods sold on Etsy during September and that averages out to only $57 per shop. The reality is that a few well-publicized shops are able to support a full-time living; many others only supplement a family's main income, and others bring in hardly any money at all.
Kimberly Layton has grown from Etsy seller to Etsy expert, and now runs the blog
, which gives advice to sellers, shares marketing tips and highlights noteworthy Etsy products.
"There are many people making a full-time living by selling on Etsy, and I'm sure that number will continue to grow as Etsy becomes more well known," she says. "Just like with any bricks-and-mortar business, success greatly depends on educating yourself with your target market, creating original work and marketing it well."
The key for a site such as Etsy, where design matters, is that products be displayed well. "One of the biggest mistakes I see with newcomers is poor photography," Layton says. "Photos need to be top-notch to attract customers."
Etsy does offer a certain level of support to sellers, with extensive online FAQs, video workshops, newsletters and even live events at the Etsy Labs space in Brooklyn. But convincing customers to click "buy" takes some serious outreach.
"One misconception is that it's Etsy's job to promote your items," Layton says. "It's not. People can search Etsy and come across your shop, but ultimately it's up to the seller to spread the word about their products if they are looking to grow their business." Remember: There are hundreds of thousands of shops. You have to guide people there, not expect them to find you.
Layton is a great example of how that can happen. She started out on Etsy selling hair clips with handmade felt decorations. She and her family now run three Etsy shops and a separate e-commerce site and bring in additional revenue from selling advertising on their Etsy-related blog sites; Layton also recently published a craft book,
From Felt to Fabulous
"I believe all Etsy sellers should have a blog," she says. "It's the best way to build relationships with your buyers. It keeps them coming back and sharing your shop with friends. Advertising on blogs and being listed in directories is a great way to bring new customers to your shop and build your shop SEO at the same time."
Crafters and artists who set up shop on Etsy are allying themselves with an ever-more-powerful brand. While many American consumers shop by price alone, others are willing to pay more for distinctive, one-of-a-kind items. By giving artisans another way to sell, Etsy is giving a boost to microbusinesses based on craftsmanship, a quality often overlooked in our quest for the lowest price.
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