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.