15 March 2010

The Perfect E-Commerce Venue for Handmade: Part 3 - In Support of the Individual: Membership Eligibility (or, How big is too big?)

Personal Note: I apologize for not posting last week. I had a lovely and long-overdue visit from my sister, and opted to spend my time away from the computer, reminiscing, regaling her with tales and pics of last summer's trip to Japan, baking wispy, minty chocolate cookies, and wandering the aisles of a wonderful Mediterranean market.


Strictly speaking, many of the products we buy day-in and day-out may, in fact, be made by hand. While there may be many differences between those products and the items being offered for sale on 'handmade' sites, the most distinguishing point is often that of being handmade 'by the seller' of the goods, rather than being mass-handmade in a factory.

When setting up a site for handmade-by-the-seller merchandise, one of the big and slippery questions is 'who is allowed to sell here?' Seems like it should be obvious. Clearly, a single person designing and constructing her/his wares is an ideal client. But, there are also legitimate small-scale operations of two or more people who work in concert to create handmade objects in their collectives or cottage-industry studios. So, the next question that logically follows 'who?' might be 'how many?' or 'how big is too big to be considered handmade?'

Should someone who designs an item or items, but has no hands-on-part in the construction of it/them be allowed? Most would probably agree that a partnership consisting of a designer and a maker who work exclusively with one another would still fit the definition of handmade. But what if the designer had two or more people working to make many of the objects s/he designs? Still okay? And if the designer had no affiliation with those makers other than that of an employer? Those items would still, strictly speaking, be handmade. But should a line be drawn separating true handcrafters from those who may be running a small-scale factory of sorts? And what about those who design a product and have it completely fabricated elsewhere, then have the finished products shipped to them so that they can, in turn, sell them? Is 'designer' roughly synonymous with 'handmade'? If so, what would stand in the way of well-known designers of clothing, handbags, shoes, and housewares, etc. from selling alongside those individuals who do everything from conceptualizing, to construction, to listing and shipping? Like a brick-and-mortar mall, does a handmade mall need anchor, or Big Name, 'handmade' shops? What about shops that grow from a one-wo/man operation into a thriving employee-dependent company - should they stay, or be be required to leave once they are no longer doing the bulk of the work?

Whatever the answer to these questions might be, I'm of the opinion that such scenarios should be anticipated prior to the opening of a site to paying members, and a plan for handling such events be written into the TOU. It is the only way to equitably protect the interests of both the venue and its users.

While there are virtually unlimited outlets for selling factory made, and even factory handmade, on the internet, there is a steadily growing demand for sites which provide individual makers with a dedicated space to sell their creations. And while the notion of handmade-by-the-seller is gaining in popularity, there are very few venues specializing in such merchandise. (And even fewer that provide the proper environment/interface, the appropriate array of tools/options - for both sellers and buyers - and the necessary traffic. These issues will all be discussed in future articles.)

I'm very interested in hearing how handmade sellers and buyers feel about this week's topic, and what you would consider the optimum arrangement/limitation in order to preserve the intent, and the integrity, of the handmade site.

01 March 2010

The Perfect E-Commerce Venue for Handmade: Part 2 - To Jury or Not To Jury

One of the biggest hurdles facing handmade venues is how to keep out merchandise that violates the terms of use. Even with a juried system, unless each and every listing is carefully vetted by the site admins, there is likely to be an ongoing battle against illicit items. Knowing that, I am interested in hearing from sellers who create art and handcrafted products whether you would rather have a strictly juried system, or an open system where accounts are auto-approved, or whether you feel that the answer lies somewhere in between.

A few possible scenarios:

  • Full jurying - Shops and listings are juried for both content and quality. Not all artists and makers of handmade will be approved, even if their art and craft meets the official definition of handmade. This type of venue is concerned not only with offering handmade artisanal products, but with a certain aesthetic and level of skill.
  • Partial jurying - Shops are required to submit virtual examples of their products and listing descriptions prior to account approval, but only to substantiate that the shop will be in compliance with the TOU, and not so much for quality or skill. After initial approval, shopowners list at will with no further admin intervention, unless there is a reported violation.
  • Administrative approval with a non-refundable deposit - Shop applicants submit a one-time deposit along with their shop application. Upon approval, they may begin listing at will. After a pre-determined probationary period, if a shop is found to be fully compliant, the deposit will be applied toward the monthly bill. Shops not in compliance will forfeit the deposit and lose their accounts.
  • Open membership - Shops are not individually approved and listings are not pre-screened for compliance. Shopowners are self-policing and admin will not intervene without a violation report. (While all venues must be prepared to handle illicit listings as they arrive, an open membership system in particular must have a strong, efficient, and effective anti-violation program in place to aggressively combat content violations. This will be explored in greater detail later in this series under Preserving Venue Integrity.)

There are pros and cons to all of these systems. I look forwarding to hearing from others what you feel are the strengths and pitfalls that are likely to accompany each type of venue, and which you, as creators/makers, feel is best suited to the handmade movement. Feel free to propose and discuss other venue types as well.

Also, to include buyers in the discussion, I'm curious whether those shopping for handmade items prefer to shop where content and quality is strictly controlled, or where there is a varied representation of both products and skill-levels - or if such considerations even come into the equation at all when making a purchase.

22 February 2010

The Perfect E-Commerce Venue for Handmade: Part 1 - Defining Handmade

Before I start the discussion in earnest, I'd like to say that, obviously, there really isn't any such thing as a 'perfect' venue. There will always be something in any multi-seller site that falls short of the absolute ideal. Still, I feel that there is much to be gleaned from an honest and comprehensive conversation about what sellers and buyers most want and need in a venue specializing in handmade.


For one, it will help in deciding which venues are best suited to us, personally, as sellers and buyers. For another, it will help solidify in our own minds which features and tools are the absolute essentials and which things are possibly less critical - which in turn may help us make more targeted and prioritized requests for improvements and upgrades at our various venues. Thirdly, this will hopefully provide a wealth of usable information for the admins of current venues and for those who may be considering creating future handmade e-commerce sites.

Obviously, the best way to be in complete control of options and features is to own and manage one's own personal website - but many sellers and buyers prefer the traffic, visibility, and variety (and often the camaraderie) that are likely to come from having a shop, and shopping, on a mall-type venue. With that in mind, I will open the discussion with the first topic and several related questions:

What is handmade?
  • How can it be best defined, described, or categorized?
  • Are fine or visual arts disadvantaged by being sold on a site that headlines 'handmade' products?
  • Should there be a set of standards placed on the degree of hand-assembly that qualifies as handmade? Why or why not?

This is possibly one of the most hotly contested and subjective topics surrounding handmade. While it isn't necessarily easy to arrive at a universal consensus, any venue that purports to be all about handmade should thoroughly explore this question, and be ready articulate, and to stand by, its own definition.


Again, please feel free to suggest other topics, or questions relating to a particular topic, in the comments.

Let the discussions begin!

13 February 2010

The Perfect E-Commerce Venue for Handmade: A Discussion in Several Parts - Introduction

Disclaimer: I am not a web designer or technician and I am neither an expert in the arts and/or skilled crafts, nor a historian. I am a self-taught craftsperson and writer with a personal interest in the set of opportunities and challenges facing individual creators and sellers of art and craft online. My aim is to gather a full-spectrum of perspectives from others (experts or not) who are similarly interested.

Humans have been handmaking art and crafts, as well as functional objects, forever. Originally, mankind had no choice: it was either do-it-yourself or do without. But, as time wore on and mankind's ingenuity turned toward ever more industrial and technical pursuits, handmade became less desirable. Factory-made became the preferred standard. Instead of seeking unique and/or skillfully hand-constructed products, people wanted to possess things that were easily recognizable, well-branded, and uniformly identical. True, visual and sculptural arts, and certain artisan crafts, have always enjoyed a certain level of appreciation and demand among specific demographics. And local galleries, markets, fairs, bazaars, etc. have long provided small-reach opportunities for artists and handmakers of a variety of products. But making (or supplementing) a living by one's own hands and creativity seems to have been discouraged in direct proportion to humanity's progress in mass production and automation.

But now, handmade is coming back into vogue. And with that has come the desire for the makers of such to be in control of their own creations, from concept/visualization and realization to placing them into the hands of expectant buyers - but without the many limitations of physical venues. There has been a small proliferation of online markets to facilitate and capitalize on this movement. Some are better than others. But, rather than discussing the pros and cons of those existing venues, or comparing them to one another, I'd like to know what sellers and buyers would consider to be the ideal venue, if one could exist, for transacting in handmade.

This introductory post is to gauge interest, and to gather additional topic suggestions. If I decide to go forward, I'll be introducing one or two topics of discussion per week, to try to keep things somewhat organized and coherent.

Preliminary Topic List

Part 1 - Defining Handmade: What qualifies?

Part 2 - To Jury or Not to Jury: Pros and cons of open membership versus approval-only. Is there a happy middle ground?

Part 3 - In Support of the Individual: How big is too big for a handmade venue?

Part 4 - Companion Merchandise: Which products, if any, are a good fit?

Part 5 - Venue Interface: Aesthetics and Navigation

Part 6 - Categories and Meaningful Taxonomy

Part 7 - Shop Essentials and Basic Seller Tools: Listing, Editing, Basic Management, Etc.

Part 8 - What Buyers Want: Basic Tools and Account Options

Part 9 - Technical Functionality: A Search that works

Part 10 - Technical Functionality: An efficient, buyer-friendly Shopping Cart

Part 11 - Customer Service: The absolute necessities

Part 12 - Forum Essentials: From lay-out to sections to posting options and moderation

Part 13 - The Community-Admin Connection: How important is it? How much involvement, in either direction, is too much?

Part 14 - Preserving Venue Integrity: Combating illicit shops and listings

Part 15 - Marketing: Onsite opportunities and external advertising

Part 16 - Extras and Fun Stuff: Non-essential wish lists
I look forward to an interesting and insightful discussion!


Please note that healthy debates and respectful disagreements are both inevitable and welcome. This is not, however, a place for denigrating either the views or crafts/skills of others, nor for disparaging specific venues. This is an information gathering endeavor and meant to be a positive exercise. A lot can be learned by considering all opinions and perspectives. Thanks!