Saturday, March 27, 2010

La Times : Independent artisans are crowding onto the Web

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Lure of a global marketplace has craftspeople competing for shoppers through such sites as, and 1000 Markets.


March 01, 2010|By Cyndia Zwahlen

The online indie craft scene is getting crowded as home-based entrepreneurs move beyond craft fairs or networks of friends to tap customers from around the globe.

Merchants offering handmade items are flocking to online websites such as Etsy, ArtFire and 1000 Markets to find buyers. Etsy said last week that it now has about 400,000 active online shops. They offer items ranging from the kitschy to the sublime.

Most sellers, some who own more than one online store, don't typically make a living from their handiwork, whether that's hand-painted silk scarves or hand-painted cow skulls.

And many find that selling online is tougher than expected. Competition among sellers has grown as more crowd online in response to the increased demand for handmade items. A recent search for "necklace" on, for example, turned up more than 600,000 results.

"It is a great vehicle, but because of so many jewelry shops on there, it's hard," said Eagle Rock jeweler Rose Braunstein, who has an online shop at Etsy.

Yet she and other artisans are drawn to the online marketplaces because of their reach and because the shops are inexpensive and easy to set up. Sites such as Etsy also make it easy to tap into a network of other crafty entrepreneurs for tips and support.

"Right now I have a very small craft empire, but one day I hope to be a very large craft empire" with the help of her online shop, said Erin Korda of Sherman Oaks.

There is no charge to set up a storefront on most sites. Sites make their money in part by charging sellers a percentage of each sale. 1000 Markets, for instance, takes 5.5% plus 50 cents. Etsy charges 3.5% and 20 cents to list an item for four months.

That may not sound like much, but listing fees can add up if sellers follow sites' advice to relist items daily so they show up higher in search results.

A popular site, Etsy has also attracted spoofs such as a Sherman Oaks site Regretsy that makes light of some of its offerings.

No one tracks the sales of handmade or vintage items, but the Craft & Hobby Assn. said consumers spent $27.3 billion on arts and crafts supplies in 2008. That's down 14.5% from 2008.

The interest in handmade goods, which some experts attribute to consumers' reaction to society's over-commercialization, has helped artisans such as jeweler Braunstein.

She quit her day job two years ago to make seed-bead mosaic rings and sterling silver jewelry, which she sells on Etsy, in brick-and-mortar shops and at craft shows.

Etsy, the largest online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, has had growing pains since its launch in 2005. With the millions of transactions, buyers and sellers find things to complain about, including clunky searching and only bare-bones tools for sellers.

Changes meant to address some of the concerns are afoot at the company that reported gross sales of $180.6 million for 2009, spokesman Adam Brown said. The website's former chief executive, Robert Kalin, 29, who co-founded the company when he was 25 and remains its chairman and major shareholder, returned in December as CEO.

Etsy is hiring engineers to improve its search functions and create new seller tools, Brown said. The private New York company is also hiring customer-service workers as part of its plan to launch phone support this year.

The site works for Karen Koenig of West Los Angeles, who creates frog-skin leather cuff bracelets, among other leather goods, for her Unearthed sites on Etsy, 1000 Markets and ArtFire.

"We aren't Balenciaga," she said, referring to the luxury fashion brand. "But we are paying our bills."

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