Chrystal Lynn Simmons has been on Etsy since 2006. Her products on this popular Internet marketplace for independent handmade/vintage goods reflect her own life transitions—from cool, colorful metallic bangles and necklaces to bridal accessories to baby mobiles to decorative magnets that indicate whether a dishwasher holds either clean or dirty plates.
But having all of those items under one Etsy shop shingle began to worry her. Was it “just looking nutty” to have such disconnected goods lumped together, she thought? It was time for a breakup.
Now, she has two stores, one for each batch—Metallic Muse and The Tulle Box. In just a few months, sales have more than tripled. “It took me forever to figure it out, but it seems to be paying off,” Simmons says, laughing. “I just realized I was isolating part of my clientele. People who’d come for semi-precious jewelry probably couldn’t care less about baby stuff.”
What began in 2005 as an online collection of artisans has now expanded to an estimated 400,000 sellers, with 1.5-billion monthly page views, and sales of more than $375 million through the first half of this year. And while many of the individual enterprises are small, some of their concerns mirror the same faced by small business everywhere, like marketing, customer relations, and cost efficiencies.
So, here’s some advice from the pros on how to navigate the world of Etsy.
DO: Become a better photographer. How to get that crisp, modern look with just a point-and-shoot? “It starts with understanding your camera. It sounds dorky and all, but pull out your manual and read it,” says Cathy Derus, a Chicago CPA by day and shopkeeper of Fiscally Chic in her free time. “You need to understand what those settings are besides ‘auto.’ It’s a lot of trial and error.” She also bought a GorillaPod tripod to steady her shots and downloaded the free Photoscape editing software to help create the right look. Why all the white backgrounds? Etsy sellers are more likely to be added to users’ Treasuries—individual galleries curated by members of projects they admire—if the items look like they’re related, says Marcia Turner, author of the forthcoming book, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Selling Your Crafts on Etsy. Her advice: Turn off the flash and head outside to shoot your product in natural light.
DON’T: Post everything all at once. Like on other social-media venues, an all-out barrage is overwhelming for viewers. Keep it at a steady trickle of new material, adding items at a rate of one a day, ensuring that your items will show up at the top of the search box on a daily basis, Turner says. When to tune in? Try times like Sunday nights, Monday mornings, and weeknights, when the biggest number of surfers are online.
DO: Spell out your shop’s policies. What’s your window for returns or exchanges? What are acceptable forms of payment? What’s your deposit policy for custom work? It’s a lot to think about, but whatever you do, don’t over-promise, several Etsy sellers say. Longer exchange allowances may encourage serial finicky buyers to change their minds, making their indecision your costly and time-consuming headache. And don’t say you’ll ship everywhere (more on this later).
DON’T: Ignore local and state business rules. “This is a business. Even if you only see it as a hobby, the government doesn’t,” says Cathy Stein, a Dallas-area owner of the EDCCollective and Eclectic Skeptic shops as well as a longtime entrepreneur and small business operator. Check with your state, city, and even your county: Rules vary all over the U.S. about the need for registering a DBA—a Doing Business As certificate—for your virtual shop. (Plus, it keeps others from taking your name.) Also, you’ll need a sales tax license. “Federal tax-wise, you have two choices: You either treat it as a business and hope you’re going to make a profit in the timeframe the IRS needs to be able to declare it as a business. Or it has to be hobby income. But it needs to be one or the other and it has to be done right,” Stein says.
DO: Get a good scale and make friends with your local post office staff. Be smart about the weight and dimensions of what you’re about to ship, and what it will do to your profit-margin calculations. Consider the costs of your packing materials and what will take to safely ship your goods. If a box surpasses the size that your advertised shipping rate reflects, the difference is going to come out of your pocket. And beware of padding the price: Turner says Etsy shoppers are well aware of the difference between “shipping” and “shipping and handling” costs, and often move on if they feel they are being charged unfairly.
DON’T: Underestimate your international shipping/Customs/VAT costs. Remember the words above about spelling out your policies? While the Internet brings your shop to every shopper on the planet, several countries have unusual Customs restrictions on the importation of some seemingly everyday items, like feathers, furs, and, in the case of Italy, hats, leather goods, and used textiles. Stein says it’s wise to put the onus on the buyers, stating upfront that any additional fees will be left to them to cover, including value-added taxes, and responsibility for Customs compliance is also theirs, not yours.
DO: Be social about how you do what you do. It’s not just about your finished project. It’s a chance to engage an audience. With video or a camera, you can give exclusive access to your process. No need to give away secrets, but open the door just a bit. “My pieces look intricate and people have asked how I do it,” says Julie Wylie, an Arkansas-based jewelry maker and owner of Moonlight Shimmer. She’s also opened a Facebook account, where she’s shared videos and says the feedback from customers has been positive. “Don’t limit yourself to just telling people that you have a new item for sale. Your followers will start ignoring you if the only thing you do is attempt to sell to them.”