By Fauzeya Rahman
Her artist friend’s cellphone vibrated and chirped all through lunch, each electronic “cha-ching” alerting the table that someone had purchased an item from her through the online marketplace Etsy. For Cindy Jones, it was the sound of opportunity.
While Jones had never sold or made anything before, she decided Etsy might be a natural fit for her.
“Growing up,” she explained, “my mother would take me garage-saling. We’d load up the Chrysler, and there we’d go.
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Four years after that noisy lunch in Atlanta, Jones, 55, has made her way back to Texas and opened midmodncool, selling vintage items she’s found while scouring antique shops in Liberty County and other spots around the Houston area. Her Kingwood apartment doubles as her warehouse, and her inventory is stored in blue bins from Big Lots and stuffed into a closet before it’s shipped out. Bubble wrap, she said, is one of her biggest expenses.
She reports 500 Etsy sales so far. That’s not enough to “quit her day job” as a health-care administrator, but there have been months when those sales were almost enough to cover the rent.
Jones is part of a growing Etsy community that generated a combined $186 million in online sales during the first nine months of 2015. Though it and the newer Handmade at Amazon represent a fraction of total retail sales, experts say artist-made/personal gifts are gaining popularity this holiday shopping season. One consumer survey found that all 50 respondents planned to include something handmade in their gift-giving this year.
“It’s a crafty Christmas,” said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist who conducted the survey and author of the book “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.” She added that this is its first year as a “solid, flat-out trend.”
“We’re yearning for something very real, something connected to humans that’s not machine made,” she said.
To be successful, Etsy sellers carefully balance low overhead costs and mastery of the shipping game with quick fulfillment times and attentive customer service. Many of the 1.5 million active Etsy sellers operate their online enterprises from a closet or their garage, on the weekends and during lunch breaks.
Company representatives wouldn’t share the impact holiday business has on their revenue, but most sellers interviewed for this article said it accounts for 20 to 30 percent of their annual total.
Jones said 20 to 25 percent of her annual sales happen during the holidays, and this November was “the best month ever.” To make the most out of the season, she’s focused on her workflow. For example, since inventory can range from tea sets to 5-foot-tall tobacco tins, Jones spends her weekends searching for the just-right box for her items and now prints her shipping labels at home. Before, she’d be standing in line at the post office “every single lunch break.”
She’s tried in-person markets, but most of her business still comes from her Etsy store. Jones also tried eBay but found the fees too high compared with Etsy’s 20 cents per listing and 3.5 percent service fee. She photographs her inventory in her apartment, tags each item and works on search-engine optimization. She advertises on Facebook and Pinterest.
Jewelry artist Adriana Soto’s 5-year-old Etsy shop, Adriana Soto Jewelry, just recorded its 6,000th sale. Business has steadily picked up, and she can now afford studio space off Harwin Drive in southwest Houston, where a lot of wholesale businesses are located. She’s thinking about hiring part-time help next year.
Soto learned early on what worked and what didn’t in a crowded handmade jewelry market. When she first began selling, her pieces were labor-intensive and complicated, and often didn’t sell around town where she had them displayed.
“I got my feelings a little hurt, but I snapped back into it,” Soto, 39, said. “I showed up in one shop, totally on clearance.”
Now, Soto focuses on simpler items that women would want to wear every day, such as Zodiac charm necklaces. She also sells through Etsy Wholesale, a division that connects artists with small boutiques throughout the world.
Etsy regularly features her products in email blasts, but Soto heavily relies on Instagram to market her creations. She turned there after Etsy changed its algorithm a few years ago and traffic to her store fell. She regularly posts and participates in giveaways, and she mentors other sellers.
“Don’t depend on anyone to bring you your customers,” Soto said. “You need a social media page.”
After going public in April, Etsy announced a manufacturing division through which sellers can apply to have a third-party vendor complete some of their products. Soto, who used to hand-saw a lotus pattern for her metal earrings, now contracts with a vendor to laser-cut the pattern. She details the metal and adds wire to complete the look.
“Last Christmas I thought my arm would fall off,” she said.
Soto advises new sellers to grow slowly and budget for returns and other expenses.
“People think when they start out they’ll be able to pay themselves,” Soto said. “We didn’t profit for a good year, year and a half.”
The artisanal niche may not threaten traditional retailers, but Rice University marketing professor Utpal Dholakia said sites such as Etsy represent a valid business model. People who buy something handmade often do so for the personal connection to the seller, he said.
“Many people can make a living,” he said.
Yarrow agreed that the “intimacy of that transaction is rewarding to people.” This has led mainstream retailers such as Nordstrom to even have special “curated” sections with unique items.
Longtime Etsy shopper and new Etsy seller Erin McCormick sees the handcrafted aesthetic in more mainstream stores.
“It looks like Pinterest exploded all over Target,” she said.
McCormick, 29, makes prints using a linoleum block hand-carved into various designs. She also did at least half of her Christmas shopping on Etsy, where she was surprised to see the variety of products: “Dr. Who”-related artwork, vintage jewelry, Houston-themed pillows or housewares. Instead of hunting in antique stores all around town or hitting up several markets, McCormick hit the search bar and found specific items when an idea came to mind.
Jones noted that Christmas ornaments don’t do as well this time of year as old toys and games.
“It’s whatever takes you back to a better time during the holidays,” she said.