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!


  1. Hmmmmm. No comments yet?

    Guess I'll start off.

    My many-decades-old Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary entry reads, simply:

    "hand·made (hānd'mād')
    adj. Made by hand rather than by machine."

    Obviously, handmade, or hand-crafted, items can be made with the aid of machines, but what sets them apart, in my mind, is that they are not only made individually by hand, but also are also (ideally) designed by the creator.

    Handmade can encompass a wide variety of product types, mediums, and materials. It can be represented by built-or-created-from-scratch items, up-or-re-cycled products, or hand-altered merchandise.

    Not really being an artist, I can't speak to whether or not being included under the umbrella of 'handmade' is a disadvantage, although I do love the idea of the arts residing side-by-side with other types of handmade. Does art need or deserve a specific, separate mention? I am interested in reading opinions from those who create all types of traditional and digital art.

    As a writer, I think that creative writing can comfortably co-exist with handmade, though it is a craft of the imagination, not of the hands. I also think that indie audio/visual materials can be an enriching addition to a handmade site. The trick is in finding a venue that can give all three of these - art, fiction, and a/v (music, films, etc.) - the proper acknowledgment and representation alongside handmade.

    Judging from what I've read in forums, 'hand-assembly' is kind of a sore point with a lot of folks. We've all heard the clichéd example of placing a mass-produced pendant on a mass-produced chain and calling it handmade. That is obviously the extreme. At the other end of the spectrum are those who meticulously craft elaborate, original objects out of pre-made commercial components. The reality is that the majority of us use some, or all, factory-made components or supplies in the creation of our handmade products. So, I don't think it is reasonable to try to completely segregate or exclude hand-assembled from handmade. But I also don't know whether it would be feasible, or even advisable, to impose a certain standard, or level, of 'handmadeness' on hand-assembled products. How could something like that be monitored? I'd love to hear from others on this point.

  2. I'm glad you have written about this topic on your blog. The thread on the Etsy forum was closed (which I think is a real shame) as I didn't see anybody mention a specific shop in the entire thread, even though Rob White implied that they did. I was very disappointed that Etsy staff seemed more interested in maintaining the status quo than in engaging in a true discussion of the issue.

    I agree with you that segregating the use of assembled components is not necessary.

    The definition used by most art/craft shows I think is good enough as a definition "No buy/sell manufactured items not made by the artist, and no commercial molds and kits."

    I'd say that if an artist wants to employ one or a few assistants to help meet demand that is reasonable because those people are still basically hand-making the pieces. I don't even object to someone selling art for her mother, sister, or friend.

    What I don't think should be allowed on Etsy are obviously factory-made items that are manufactured by more than a few and unrelated people, then bought and re-sold by somebody else (or some company representative) who cannot even name the actual makers.

    Since Etsy hsa made it clear they're all powerful on that site and what they say goes, they could use that same argument to police their website, make a judgment call based on the information they have, then allow the shop to prove that they are not a mass re-seller if they want to appeal their decision. I doubt that Etsy will be heavy-handed in this process (knowing how they have been up until now). That is not to say they will never make a mistake and kick somebody off who is not a re-seller, but it's much more likely that they will miss some rather than unfairly target innocent artists.

    Alot of this depends on sound judgment calls, as the staff can't necessarily go to a person's house, or brick and mortar shop to investigate their suspicions.

    Even so, there are ways to be reasonably sure someone is buying already made items and re-selling them.

    If you have seen those prefab plaster of paris figurines in schools, camps, and OT programs, and then you see one on Etsy exactly the same except for the glaze then you know that's a kit-made item.

    If a seller makes inconsistant statements in their profile or shop announcement indicating that their items are not their own or openly admits selling items they had bought while in another country, for instance, that's a slam dunk case.

    Etsy claims they need to hire more staff first, but they don't need more staff to get rid of the clear cut ones that have already been brought to their attention. They could pull the plug on those now. That would be a good-faith action they could start immediately to show that they really are taking our concerns seriously.

    I'd be interested to know their time-frame for these proposed new hirings.

  3. Thanks for commenting GiftBearer.

    I agree that Etsy really needs to crack down on the glut of illicit listings and shops that are peppering the site. But I have to wonder if it isn't past the point of no return. Not because it is an impossible task (very difficult - yes; impossible - no), and not because of staffing issues (much of the process can be automated), but because Etsy doesn't seem to know how to approach it. Not only does it seem unable to brainstorm and address the problem effectively on its own (like so many other issues), but it has also overlooked the many freely-given suggestions and offers of help from the rather knowledgeable community.

    I realize that designing, operating, and managing such a site is no easy task. Just trying to think of the basic list of topics in my Introduction gave me the tiniest sense of how complicated it all truly is.

    But, the reality is that if you *are* going to offer a service and expect your users to abide by the rules you lay down, you must a) be able to deliver on the service end, and b) be willing to aggressively and consistently enforce your own rules. Proclaiming the humanity and fallibility of your staff may garner a bit of initial sympathy and affection, but without follow-through and a mature sense of business responsibility, ultimately, it will frustrate your users and prevent them from taking you seriously.

    Doubtless, someone, someday, will have done the necessary and meticulous research into the specific challenges and expectations (both administrative and user-related) associated with running a handmade-focused e-commerce venue, and will burst onto the scene ready to blow the competition out of the water. In order to become and remain successful, those in charge must fully understand and respect their target market and also be willing to adapt - and quickly - as needed. Longevity and sustainability are *not* givens. They cannot be taken for granted. The powers-that-be must always be planning, tweaking, and nurturing. Etsy, on the other hand, has been riding on its laurels since its inception, rather than being innovative (in a practical sense) and keeping up with, and being receptive to, user demand.

    Of course I'd love for Etsy to get its act together and become the amazing, full-featured site that we all envision - but I just don't have much faith in that happening.

    So, I'm hoping that other venues and/or entrepreneurial spirits are paying attention to what the actual *users* need and want in an ideal handmade e-commerce site.

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