Arts

The Etsy Strike: What's next for artists (and shoppers) who leave the platform?

The risks and rewards of boycotting the biggest online marketplace for crafters.

The risks and rewards of boycotting the biggest online marketplace for crafters

Scene from the Etsy Sellers Market in New York's Times Square, April 16, 2015. (Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for NASDAQ)

If you, like me, have been known to spend an hour researching hand-made scrunchies, then you've likely seen a headline about the Etsy strike. What's it all about? On Monday, as many as 17,000 Etsy sellers boarded up their virtual shops as part of a week-long boycott of the platform, urging customers to look elsewhere for jewelry and greeting cards and whatever artisanal wares are on their wish lists. The campaign is commonly known as the Etsy strike, and craftspeople from around the world have joined together in protest of recent changes to company policies, notably a spike to their usual vendor fees. 

For every sale made through the platform, Etsy now collects a 6.5 per cent commission. That's an increase from their previous five per cent cut, and it's the second time they've raised their fees in the last four years. (The new rate went into effect at the beginning of this week.) Meanwhile, Etsy itself has thrived over the course of the pandemic, and their gross merchandise sales have been breaking records; the platform pulled in $3.8 billion in 2021, up 154 per cent since 2020. They've also expanded, acquiring two more online marketplaces: Elo7, often referred to as the "Etsy of Brazil," and Depop, a resale site that's preferred among Y2K-obsessed vintage shoppers. 

A petition to end the fees has earned more than 74,000 signatures as of writing, and the campaign outlines a list of further issues that are hampering vendors' ability to make a buck. Among their demands: they want offsite ads to be optional (at present, ads are automatically placed by the platform, and sellers must pay Etsy a 15 per cent commission on sales generated through clicks). Another program they want scuttled: "Star Seller," an initiative meant to boost exposure to seller pages, provided they meet Etsy's standards. A few examples of the criteria: to qualify, vendors must make at least 10 sales a month, maintain a five-star rating and offer services such as instant customer response and shipment tracking. 

Kristi Cassidy, an Etsy seller from Rhode Island, organized the online petition, and as she writes on its campaign page: "Rather than rewarding the sellers whose hard work has enabled Etsy to become one of the most profitable tech companies in the world, Etsy gouges us, ignores us and patronizes us." 

Etsy itself has stood by the fee increase. In a statement made to CBC News earlier this week, the company said the money will go toward improving their marketing and customer support services, among other things. That same CBC report unpacks the reasons behind the boycott and what participants hope to achieve.

There are some 378,000 active Etsy sellers in Canada, according to a company census released at the end of March, and for 35 per cent of those folks, creative work is their only source of income, whether they sell it through Etsy or elsewhere. So for those taking part in the boycott, the question remains: if Etsy doesn't listen to sellers' demands, is it still the best place for them? And what alternatives are out there?

Where can makers sell their work?

The answers are obvious, but not necessarily simple. A maker can, of course, build their own website and use an e-commerce platform to sell their products — and living through a pandemic, as we are, having an online presence is a must. Prior to 2020, Vancouver-based artist Lisa LaRose made the majority of her sales in person, tabling at craft shows and comic cons. Those opportunities vanished in 2020. Meanwhile, she says: "I saw my Etsy sales triple during the pandemic." 

Now on strike, she's busy developing her own online shop. "It's a good time to finally launch a Shopify store," says LaRose. And over in Kingston, Ont., another Etsy striker, Payton Wagar, has already chased the same impulse. Upon hearing of the fee increase, Wagar — who designs costume patterns for cosplayers — began building a site using Wix eCommerce; they launched it in March.

Payton Wagar built an online shop earlier this year in response to the news of Etsy's fee increase. (www.cospayton.com)

Kness, a Montreal-based artist known for her ceramic critters, had already quit Etsy by the time the strike was announced. She left in 2019 after nine years selling through the platform, prompted by changes happening on the site at the time. (Pressure to offer free shipping was a particular sticking point for her.)  And through her personal blog, she's advocated for sellers, urging them to explore their options beyond Etsy. Among her suggestions: research Big Cartel, an ecommerce tool for creatives, and Ko-fi, a crowdfunding platform that includes the option of building an online shop.

What's the upside of leaving Etsy?

For Kness, Etsy served her needs when she was a rookie seller, but over time, as her sales and online reputation grew, it became clear that she could boost her earnings by moving elsewhere. "When I looked at the numbers," she says, referring to Etsy's fee structure, "I saw that I gave them a really big chunk of my income." 

The cost of operating her own online shop is significantly lower than what she was previously paying Etsy, she says. "If I sell something on Etsy, I would get $40 on $100 that a customer pays," says Kness. "And on my own website, I get more like $73 out of the $100." 

Capybara figurines by Montreal artist Kness. (Kness)

Her experience is her own, however, and according to Kness, there's no one-size-fits-all solution for sellers. "It was better for me to switch platforms. Maybe for some people it's better to stay on Etsy." Still, she thinks vendors should always follow one rule before signing up with the platform: "do the math." And if you stand to make more elsewhere, go that route.

What if you're just a shopper?

For shoppers, the same principle applies. Calgary artist Heather Buchanan has been on Etsy since 2008, and she's run her own online shop for nearly as long. As a full-time artist, she's never felt entirely cozy with the idea of relying on a single platform for sales, Etsy or otherwise. And like many sellers, the prices on her Etsy are different from what you'll find on her website. 

Inflation, shipping costs, listing fees: all those factors and more go into the price a vendor sets. "A lot of Etsy sellers have to mark up their prices because Etsy takes so much," she explains, and she wishes that shoppers made a habit of Googling makers they discover on the platform before adding an item to their cart. 

"See if that artist has a shop elsewhere and consider buying it from that shop," she says. "Even if it's not a better price, it's usually way nicer for the artist if you buy it from their own website instead. The artist will make more money because up to 20 per cent won't be going into Etsy's pocket."

Lisa LaRose sells a variety of products based on her artwork, including jigsaw puzzles like this one. (Lisa LaRose)

As for the risks of quitting Etsy ...

If a maker has something to sell, there are certainly alternatives out there, but as Kness puts it: "There aren't many platforms that do what Etsy does." There are other marketplaces, both general (eBay) and niche (iCraft, Folksy, the now-dormant Witchsy). But if you're hunting for something handmade, Etsy is likely the first destination.

"I say I have an Etsy shop and instantly every single person knows what that means and everything that goes along with it," says Buchanan. As a result, Etsy has proven invaluable when it comes to finding new customers — "customers that I couldn't find on my own, through my own reach," she says. "It's a really amazing way for absolute strangers to discover my work. I have shipped work all around the world — even my very first sale was to someone in Germany."

It's a feature that's kept her on Etsy all these years, even as her earnings have shrunk. As someone who mostly sells paper goods, Buchanan ships orders through regular letter mail, a detail that excludes her from the Star Seller program. As a result, she estimates her sales have dropped by 30 per cent. "I've satisfied about 14,000 customers and I can't be a Star Seller?" she laughs. "It's just really insulting."

Greeting card by Heather Buchanan. (Heather Buchanan)

Without Etsy to reel in new customers, self-promotion is entirely the artist's responsibility. Wagar pushes their website on Instagram and TikTok, and occasionally buys paid ads driving to their shop. "It's a big time and money investment when you consider everything," they say. 

And growing a customer base is even more crucial if you've taken your Etsy shop offline and all your repeat buyers don't know where to find you. "You build up an audience there," says LaRose. "Anytime you switch platforms, you lose people. If your income is dependent on that and you have to start over, that could be devastating."

That said, starting over takes some know-how — skills that not everybody shares. Etsy's barrier to entry is low — literally $0.25 to place a listing — and building a shop page is as simple as filling out a template. "I'm an artist, but I'm not a web designer. So it was an easy way to set up an e-commerce site," says Tracy Falukozi, a Calgary-based Etsy seller who creates bespoke mermaid tails and related aquatic accessories. 

Tracy Falukozi is a Calgary-based makeup artist who creates custom mermaid tails. She's sold her creations on Etsy for eight years. (Tracy Falukozi)

Falukozi joined the strike in the hope that makers will earn "a seat at the table," so to speak — a chance to be involved in Etsy's decision-making process going forward. "I don't necessarily want to leave the platform," she says. Without it, she thinks she'd lose more than customers — she'd suddenly lack a support system of fellow makers, who connect on forums hosted by the site.

But ultimately, the biggest risk in leaving the platform comes down to money. Wagar says they earn 75 per cent of their income through Etsy; their online shop has earned maybe 5 per cent. The site is still new — only one month old — but the pivot is still a gamble.

What do makers hope to get out of the boycott?

"There's a lot of fear of changing to a different platform," says LaRose. "There's a lot of worry that you're going to just be losing out on sales or you'll be paying $30 a month or more on Shopify and not getting the same level of sales."

"I really hope that no matter what happens through this, whether Etsy listens to us or not, that we're able to form a community and that we can work together," says Wagar. "I believe something good is going to come out of this regardless."

"You know, we're artistic people," says Falukozi. "We'll find something else, we'll make something else. We'll figure it out."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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