Thursday, June 25, 2009

Etsy.com Peddles a False Feminist Fantasy — Well, does it?

I am sure this article has been floating around the etsy world for a while now, but I just discovered it and thought it was worthy of discussing. It basically makes the argument that etsy.com as company peddles a fantasy to women that they can start their own home business and quit their day jobs. It's a fantasy because vanishingly few are actually able to do this, according to data which etsy has gathered. The article also observes that vanishingly few men sell stuff on etsy. Why? Because they can't make enough money there. It's a valid observation and explanation.

You can scroll down to the bottom if you'd like to read the original article.

So here are my off the cuff thoughts on the essay based on my experience selling on etsy, paying attention to what other sellers do and say (in the forums especially) and seeing how my own small niche in its marketplace has panned out over time.

First off, I think the article is dead on. Yes, it generalizes about how many etsy women are basically SAHMs who are being supported by their breadwinner husbands. Truth be told, I am not so far outside of that category. But there are plemnty of women who sell stuff on etsy who don't fit that mould.

Why are male sellers not well represented on etsy? Sure it may have something to do with there not being a lot of money in it. Now, I am not a "top seller" by any means, and I have not quit my day job, but I have made at least as much as the seller highlighted in the article, so I consider that a tremendous success.

That being said, I do not make even close to enough to make what I do a full time job with health insurance, etc and not be dependent on a second source of income. So, yes, I think the etsy allure of a feminist dream is pure fantasy. However, etsy as a company does not sell it so much as the community (of women) wanting, expecting and asking how to realize that dream.

I have a hunch that most of the people who sell on etsy do not have a marketing or business background and so are unprepared for exactly how to make their arts & crafts a truly profitable endeavor. And most probably have no idea or do not accept the fact that it is difficult if not nearly impossible to make self-employment truly work, let alone operate a profitable business from home that is based on arts and crafts. Perhaps in the 'good old days' it was more possible but now with cheap, foreign-made crap ubiquitous, all it takes is our disposable culture to make it damned near impossible to sell handmade goods at a price the market will bear.

Why buy a $95 handwoven scarf when you can get a perfectly decent scarf for $10 at any number of Big Box stores? And why buy handmade paper at $3 a sheet when you can get ten times as many sheets for the price by buying handmade paper that has been imported from Nepal? Sure, some people can afford the high-end handmade stuff that is Made in America. But there are not enough of them.

Figuring out what to charge for any given item is but one problem, but I see it as the biggest one.

The vast majority of sellers on etsy severely underpay themselves and undervalue their work. Prices are ridiculously low for the time it takes to make the items sold. Some women admit to charging only for the material/supplies! Many charge a modicum for their time. Perhaps they do this becasue they know the market will not support a higher price, for reasons I just stated.

But perhaps many women simply undervalue their time. It is as though that old shampoo ad motto never sunk in: Because I'm worth it!

This is a generalization, but I think men are less inclined than women to undervalue their time and so when they find out that the etsy marketplace (with its attendent competition with other sellers there and from brick and mortar stores) does not support the higher prices they set for their work, they ditch etsy altogether or find another venue for their work where they can get the price for their work that they demand. I'd love to see data on whether men start and then abandon etsy storefronts at a higher rate than women do.

When it comes to pricing on etsy, I think women are more likely to just lower the price of their work and accept less.

We have learned to do this our whole lives. I think if women demanded more for their work and set prices that gave them fair compensation for their time, prices on etsy would be higher. But the marketplace competition does seem to drive prices down, and without being able to mass produce more creations at a lower profit margin, the end result is that no one can make very much money there at all.

I've seen the going rate for certain things I sell cut in half when a new seller moves in who undercharges for (her) time. I know how long it takes to make the things and am unwilling to accept less for my time, so I just don't sell those items as much anymore. I'd rather do that than undervalue my time.

But...

I am a feminist.

And I have a day job.

And I have no delusions about the chance of successfully working from home selling arts and crafts.

But, I still really wish women would demand more than $4 an hour for their time! It's a tremendous disservice to everyone.


Here's the original article:
http://www.doublex.com/section/work/etsycom-peddles-false-feminist-fantasy

6 comments:

Virginia Burnett said...

"But, I still really wish women would demand more than $4 an hour for their time! It's a tremendous disservice to everyone."

Amen!

This is an issue that we constantly address in our local Arts Council gift shop/gallery, as well. Happily, our director is great about encouraging artists to raise their prices if they are truly undercutting the market and devaluing their own work. I insist on charging $10 - $25 an hour for my time, less for simple skills or things I am new at and more for complex tasks or skills I feel I am an expert at. I would charge even more in a stronger economy.

I am often frustrated and offended by buyers and other sellers who would like me to de-value my time. I refuse to lower my prices in response to mainstream bargain lust so I have several gorgeous pieces that will probably never sell. Does this bother me?

Only a little bit - I don't ever make anything I wouldn't want to keep for myself and sometimes, a friend or family member will get an incredible (and almost priceless) gift as a result of society's inability to value handmade American arts and crafts.

The sad thing is, Etsy is in a unique position to help turn this attitude around but I see very little discussion about it beyond occasional forum posts complaining about a mass producer who snuck in during a weekend here and there.

ArtFire, on the other hand, has a a place for artists to tell how many hours each piece takes to make and encourages discussion of the process and inspiration in each listing. Instant value increase.

Sheryl Karas said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective. I hate to admit it but I totally agree.

The Pretty Peacock said...

I loooove this post!! You are so right-on...sadly!

I do the mental limbo on pricing every time I see a new seller on Etsy selling anything remotely similar - but I'm not lowering my prices because, in my mind, those 'undercutting' shops are the Wal-Mart's to my Bloomingdale's - and that may seem incredibly pretentious, but just based on craftsmanship and materials - it's true.

I feel that those of us who came to making our creative endeavors into our careers after having worked in 'Corporate America' are at an advantage as far as knowing how (or at least being resourceful enough) to run our businesses. But, I never gave much thought to how few male sellers there were on Etsy and the 'why' behind it...

Now I'm irritated. :) Which adds to the annoyance I already feel towards those sellers who are just "paying for their hobby". UGH.

Sycamore Moon Studios said...

I have had to change my view of my etsy shop: I post my items and figure that it will sell when the right buyer stumbles upon it.

I used to hope to make more consistent sales, but I just don't have the time to devote or the energy to expend in order to advertise efficiently.

My items take time to make as well and I am not willing to send "freebies" out or lower my prices in order to make the sale.

They sell, if they sell, in due time.

Good work!

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bluesea22 said...

I agree totally. I also think that etsy actively promotes the possibility of supporting yourself full-time via the Quit Your Day Job series and such. In reality the possiblity of supporting yourself through etsy is a fantasy. Sometimes I think my devotion to etsy is a bit like being addicted to poker machines - the flashing lights and cute sounds tell you that you can WIN!!! but there's no damn way you can win. So I feel a bit cheated by etsy in a way, because I fell for the fantasy and dreamed I could be successful on etsy.

Unfortunately art has never been a surefire way to support yourself. Traditionally, artists have always starved, and I don't think the artists on etsy are any different. Etsy just gives more artists an opportunity to try. And starve.

Taking a feminist perspective, women's arts - the handicrafts such as embroidery, crochet, knitting, quilt-making and so on - have always been valued so poorly against other forms of art! I mean, they're not even called art. They're called craft!

It seemed too good to be true, (and it is), that society might suddenly be valuing not only artists, but women artists creating traditional women's forms of art.

But maybe etsy is a step in the right direction. Who knows!