Saturday, August 16, 2008
Unless someone told you where to find Irene Suchocki's shop, you'd never know it was there. The photographer has no sign or storefront, yet she's got a steady stream of clients coming in to buy prints - nature and landscape photographs that she digitally edits into dreamy, poetic works of art.
As far as she's concerned, the location couldn't be better: It's on the website Etsy.com, a bustling international bazaar for handmade goods.
Suchocki, a technical writer who lives in N.D.G., opened her shop there about a year and a half ago.
Brooklyn-based Etsy has been around three years and already it has blossomed, attracting about 185,000 artisans from 172 countries.
Many Montreal artists and crafters are hooked: 800 shops based here have registered on the site, selling funky clothing, art, handbags and jewellery.
Artisans in other major cities have hopped on in even greater numbers: 1,630 New York shops are registered, 1,150 from Toronto and almost 1,000 from Vancouver.
Suchocki could be an Etsy poster child: She sold a print to a buyer in the U.S. the day after she opened her shop (irenesuchocki.etsy.com). Business has grown to the point that she quit her job in May to focus full-time on selling her prints.
"The speed with which it happened is phenomenal," she said. Although she might supplement her income with writing contracts, it's not bad for a digital artist whose only business goal was to cover the cost of her camera equipment. "Eighty to 90 per cent of my sales are from Etsy," says Suchocki, who also sells prints off her own website (www.irenesuchocki.com). "Without Etsy, this would just be a hobby."
Most of her Etsy buyers are in the U.S., but she also ships prints as far away as Europe, Australia and Singapore.
The site opens doors to a global market of individual buyers, boutiques and galleries. She was once contacted by someone who saw her work in a gallery in Brighton, England.
As an Etsian, she is also part of a virtually infinite network of artists. Suchocki's prints caught the eye of a jewellery maker in California, who now makes pendants out of them; both artists sell them from their Etsy shops.
"I don't think I would have gone into a creative career really young," Suchocki says. "I didn't train for anything artistic but, even if I had, I don't think I would have had the courage to pursue it ... (Before the Internet) it was a lot of knocking on doors and begging, and trying to get into galleries, and that's not for me. Whereas this ... the intention wasn't even to become an artist or to leave my day job, it was, 'Oh, this is fun.' "
The site is a dream come true not only for artists who don't like the idea of starving, but also mothers who are trying to fit a small, creative business around children's schedules.
About 95 per cent of the site's users are women, an Etsy survey found. The average age of sellers is 35; buyers, 32.
The vendors are only part of the story: The site is a magnet for anyone who loves browsing unique, handmade products. There is a quirky new avenue of Montreal talent on Etsy, but it certainly doesn't have the profile of St. Laurent or St. Denis Sts.
"I kind of like that it's my secret place," says Virginia Champoux, co-owner of Mortimer Snodgrass boutiques, which are located in St. Lambert and Old Montreal. Through her artistic and retail connections, she's been aware of the site since its beginning and "could spend hours" on it.
A die-hard crafter, Champoux has bought handbags, children's clothing and stationary on the site; she loves supporting creative, indie businesses. "The more people who buy from Etsy, the more people who get to make a living from something they're passionate about."
Pierrefonds resident Lysa Wierzbicki, who runs a jewellery shop on Etsy (opusandtoula.etsy.com), likes that buyers can often personalize orders. For her son's baptism, she had the invitations designed to include a photograph of him by a graphic designer in Chicago. She also used an Etsy feature called Alchemy, where buyers post requests for custom-made items, and artisans bid on the opportunity to make them. Wierzbicki posted a request for her son's baptism set (including a cap, onesie and towel) to be embroidered with a design appropriate for a Greek Orthodox ceremony. She says about 10 vendors bid on the project, and the end product came out looking even better than she expected.
Champoux also sees the site as a gauge of retail trends. For instance, jewellery made from old typewriter keys and Scrabble tiles was hot on Etsy before they became much more widely available.
Stuffed monster dolls are another popular Etsy item, and Champoux says they were everywhere at the recent Toronto Gift Show, an event for gift retailers.
While Etsy's Montreal vendors say many people they talk to are typically unaware of the site, it is grabbing mainstream media attention.
Etsy has shown up on the Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray shows, and is on the trend radar of fashion and decor magazines.
Indeed, there are people employed on the site to track and establish trends, says Etsy spokesman Adam Brown. "Owls are very popular now for some reason."
But building a happy, healthy marketplace for handmade goods has always been Etsy's mission. "We don't do a lot of traditional advertising," Brown says. "We feel it's better to have a vibrant community that will sell itself."
Building mostly on word-of-mouth, the site went from 13,000 sellers after its first year to 60,000 sellers the second to about 185,000 sellers now. (See story on Etsy's beginnings, Page J2).
The site strives to make it as easy as possible for artisans to open shops. There's no startup fee, but sellers need to post digital pictures of their products, and to have a credit card for billing purposes. Sellers pay 20 cents for each item listed in their shop, plus 3.5 per cent of each sale.
Etsy cultivates the feeling of a warm, fuzzy community that's all about helping shop owners succeed. It's packed with guides on photographing products, the art of pricing, customer service, as well as legal information and articles with names like Pimp Your Store for 2008.
Its forums allow Etsians to bounce ideas off others, report bugs or suggest ways to improve the site. Of course, not everyone plays nice: Some vendors copy others' products and some may try selling things that aren't within the site's definition of handmade. Users can anonymously flag stores that don't seem to be following the rules, and can contact Etsy's legal counsel about resolving these issues.
Success stories like Suchocki's "are a happy byproduct" of the site, says Brown, but not everyone will be able to ditch the day job.
All of the resources on the site make it clear that vendors can't just open a shop, sit back and wait for sales; strategy and marketing is required. With thousands of vendors opening stores daily, existing shops quickly get buried.
To remain visible, Suchocki and other vendors re-list (or repost) their products on the site several times daily so that they remain high in up in their categories. The site's home page changes often, featuring "treasuries," or galleries, of users' favourite products. Suchocki says that being spotlighted on the home page fairly often has boosted her traffic.
Many vendors build up their profiles and contacts by staying active on Etsy forums, blogging and networking online.
"Etsy buyers like to see that there's a face and life behind a product; that's what they're buying," says Suzanne Gerrior. She silk-screens children's T-shirts in the garage of her N.D.G. home and sells them on her Etsy shop, Hip Kid
(hipkid.etsy.com). Gerrior says that maintaining a personal blog (www.hipkidtshirts.blogspot.com, where she talks about everything from her T-shirts to the kind of day she's having) on her own website has helped drive traffic to her Etsy shop. Buying an ad for your store or product doesn't work, Gerrior says. "What brings people to your shop is when another blogger recommends it."
Starting her Etsy shop has opened many doors and been a life-changing experience; a Beverley Hills-based online store called 90210 Organics now carries her T-shirts. For now she's happy operating "this little lemonade stand," on top of working full-time and being a mom.
"It's not really the sales that give me validation, it's the emails I get from people." Her first sale was to a woman from Spain. "She emailed me quite a bit; she was really lovely and then she sent me a picture of her son wearing his T-shirt; I get that all the time with my cowboy T-shirts."
There's also a personal connection for Beaconsfield resident Celia Cruz, who sews every stitch of the handbags and pillows she sells through her Etsy shop, Paco+Lupe
"Each bag I send out, I tissue paper it, and say, 'Goodbye' ... I'm always thinking, 'Are they using it?"
For her, it's crazy to think "there are about 200 Paco+Lupe bags running around in the world right now."
The former IT consultant says she's been selling non-stop since last November, and she wishes she had known about Etsy before she spent a lot of time building her own website. "I don't think you can get any bigger exposure than the international exposure Etsy has."
While Cruz has used the site to pursue her lifelong passion for sewing and fabrics, many mothers are finding Etsy is a haven for a home-based business after having children.
Julie Pedersen is a case in point. The N.D.G. resident, who makes spice racks, gourmet spice kits and other housewares, started her business, Purpose Design, in 2004, selling to bricks-and-mortar shops in Quebec and Ontario. Now she sells only online, mainly through her Etsy shop (purposedesign.etsy.com) because she's got two young children. "Sales come in when they come in." But she no longer has to travel to each store and no longer has to pay a middle man. Buyers come directly to her and the profit margin is higher. "I'm out tonight and I've probably made sales while I've been gone," she says. "I love that about it."
While Etsy is helping many artisans set up shop, it's still a good idea to establish a local presence, says Valérie Parizeault. The graphic designer and jewellery maker is one of three women behind the Montreal Craft Mafia, whose goal is to support and draw local artists out of their basements. The five-month-old business (www.craftmafiamontreal.com) is the local outpost of an international organization of Craft Mafias. It held a craft fair that featured 60 artisans during this year's Fringe Festival. The plan is to hold marketing seminars and networking events. She has an Etsy store herself (wittyworkshop.etsy.com), but Parizeault believes it will become more difficult for artists to rely solely on the site as it gets bigger: "You have to be known in your community ... and have something tangible."