A BILLION dollars is a lot of hay for knicknacks. But craftsmen and vintage collectors on Etsy, a dedicated online marketplace, are on course to sell wares worth that much in 2012. That is nearly double the tally for 2011 and three times as much as in 2010. Etsy’s gross merchandise sales exceeded $800m by the end of November, its first $100m month. December, with its Christmas shopping, is likely to be better yet. Etsy charges $0.20 per listing, of which there were 17m in November, and takes a 3.5% cut of the sales price.
To be fair, Etsy sells plenty of useful things besides bric-a-brac. But all products listed on the site must fit into one of three categories: handmade, vintage (defined as at least 20 years old) or raw supplies (like beads or ribbon and trim).
Handmade items predominate: 11m of those listed in November fell into that category. To qualify, a product has either to be created from scratch or present substantial creative value added with respect to its ready-made component parts. Bespoke creations are allowed, so long as a fixed price is set. Sellers themselves are required to do most of the fashioning or value-adding; middlemen are shunned. Members police themselves, flagging items that appear to flout the rules. (The humorous site Regretsy documents creations that pass Etsy’s test but fail on taste.)
This sort of artisan-to-customer connection was common in eBay’s early days, too. Craftsmen used the site to auction work they had on hand. But as eBay grew, diversified, increased fees and changed policies, the space for handmade manufacture shrunk. Such products still make up a sliver of its $60 billion in gross merchandise sales, but the behemoth provides no tools for sorting out hand-made and mass-produced items.
If eBay is a jumble sale, Etsy is a farmer’s market, says its boss, Chad Dickerson, stressing the importance of bonds forged between people who make (or source, in the case of vintage) things and those who purchase them. To encourage more makers to join, Etsy has built “community groups” around the world—1,200 so far—in which craftspeople gather to share ideas, and occassionaly collaborate. (Co-operatives are permitted under Etsy’s stringent rules.) Recently, the mayor of Rockford, Illinois, approached Mr Dickerson for help in spurring the creation of small craft businesses. Others would no doubt love to know how he built such a big online one.
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