Etsy has been causing frustration in my business for year, but it didn’t start out this way. Etsy’s structure gave me the ability to find financial independence outside the typical 9 to 5 work week. I had been seeing growth year by year as a result of my hard work while “playing by the rules.” A few weeks before the strike, I heard about the fees increasing and simply thought, you’re joking. I didn’t realize until I was deep into the strike and spoke with a reporter about my “bottom line” how much my fees had increased even before the latest significant jump. I told the reporter, “it went from an average yearly percent of 6% in 2019/2020, to 8% in 2021.”
The first of many realizations I had when I began digging through my numbers, and it led me to reflect on how my time with Etsy has been. In 2017, after the surprise I was pregnant, I took a serious look toward my life’s trajectory. I was working two jobs, one to pay for my Master’s degree and the other to pay bills. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my degree when the first year of a Master’s really dashed my career hopes. I knew that I needed to figure something out and Etsy provided that answer. To sum up my mindset, as I was making the 45 minute trip to the hospital the day my daughter was born, I had to drop off packages first. My store began with crocheted items but once the store grew faster than my hands could make, once again there was the choice that I would shift to try digital art based products.
In 2020, I turned my store off for several months because I was, like so many others, sewing masks. I wasn’t selling them online, I was just making them and distributing them to local hospitals or to whoever needed one. This impacted my store as I was not able to fill orders with how time consuming sewing had become. My daughter also couldn’t participate in the usual activities so I became the cruise director to get us through the worst. I wanted to give her the best semblance of a “normal” childhood. She was in diapers when this all started and now she plays Minecraft. It was clear that 2020 and what came after changed everything.
Once I fully reopened my store in 2021, I had to dig into how Etsy worked and how I could be noticed while adapting to changes. I rolled with it and found that the art community was a great place to be. The creative space is so accepting and encouraging, truly with open arms I was accepted. I opened my .com store, and have diversified to sell on other platforms but Etsy was always my largest source of revenue. Previously, I was faced with personal choices. I needed income and for my career I felt pressure to have some “relevant work experience” I could put on a resume. Now it was about where I was in relation to the platform. The first obstacle was the “free shipping” push.
July 30th 2019, Etsy had placed priority search result placement on listings that had free shipping. In simple terms, if you have free shipping set up, you will show up sooner on the search results than someone who does not have free shipping. It was outlined to sellers, “added shipping costs can get in the way of buyers making a purchase. To better meet US buyers’ expectations when it comes to shipping price, you can set up a free shipping guarantee for your shop.” The broad brush was painted over us all, if we want to make money we would need to keep up.
Now, I was all by myself in Etsy’s desire to compete with Amazon. I believed that in order to stay on pace with what everyone else was doing, I had to do what they said when my store was just me. In some ways we are competing on Etsy as well. If I’m one of the only stores that doesn’t provide free shipping, I worry it may drive my buyers away. It made me undervalue my work time and time again. The weight of such a simple choice can be crushing. To some it’s simply about the pros and cons, but to others it’s a pillar of their livelihood.
Then it was the “star-seller” program. As Etsy outlines, “Star-Seller is a way to recognize and reward Etsy sellers who consistently provide an excellent customer service experience.” The criteria to receive a badge on your store’s page is you have to respond within 24 hours to messages, consistently receive 5-star ratings, provide tracking on all orders, and the nebulous “consistently go above and beyond.” In theory this sounds like Etsy is looking out for their customers and rewarding shops that do the best, no exceptions. I sell small paper items, mostly stickers that fit perfectly in letter envelopes. I don’t mind doing the tracked labels that are reasonably priced for US orders, but my international customers don’t have a solid tracked option that is cheaper than what they are typically paying for my products. There is not an exception for shop owners who are in my situation.
For me to send a few stickers to the UK, it was close to $15 for the tracking portion. For my store, my customers pay shipping and I don’t inflate the cost of the item to cover shipping. On Etsy, there is a tool where you can raise all the prices in your store to provide free shipping. I prefer showing what each costs so my customers know. That is just personal preference but it did not feel I had a choice if I wanted to rank highly in search results. I currently do not provide free shipping and I don’t believe it negatively impacts me as it was advertised to do so. On Etsy’s site it states, “Enjoy priority placement in search when you offer free shipping.”
The shipping aspects, free shipping and star-seller, had been an issue I pushed past. I made my choice and I don’t believe what Etsy says to be true if you are in a niche. I rank well in my niche and perform consistently with regular growth. I feel for shop owners that do have more competition because it would impede their growth if they cannot feasibly provide free shipping. There is the caveat of “free ship guarantee” where the customer has to spend $35 to qualify and your store can still rank highly. Unfortunately for me, my orders rarely exceed $35 for physical products so it isn’t exactly applicable to me when my average order is typically $10. It feels in a way dishonest to try and force my customers to buy more just to get free shipping when in reality I charge $1.50. I happily provide free shipping on my .com store because I’m not dishing out the same level in fees.
With the newest program, I earned “star-seller” two months consecutively. This was an added layer of complexity involving shipping. After trying to figure out tracking and hoping I wouldn’t get international orders, I did give up on hopes of continuing to keep the badge. How sad is that? Wishing you don’t get international orders! It wasn’t worth it, but in the back of my mind I thought about how likely it would affect my search results as soon as Etsy decided to make it so. Even though I have come to terms I won’t receive this ranking, it caused me immediate anxiety to get a message notification. Pavlovian conditioning, I needed to respond as quickly as possible so it can be recorded and I get my treat.
I have this negative voice that talks to me at times. I tell myself, I want to be more than just a Mom.The words sound overly critical. I have found it is incredibly difficult to find balance between self acceptance and pushing myself. Being a primary caregiver is all about sacrifice but also investing in yourself. Having a business is somewhat similar to having a baby, you’re so excited and happy but also terrified you may fail what you love. The idea of failing my daughter keeps me up at night. She is my top priority but I have found I can do both. Humans are capable of being more than one thing.
In the community I have found online, I see myself in so many other parents who start a small business. Other shop owners can relate with waking up before your kids to work on orders and then being the last one awake doing the same. My days are filled with caring for my daughter. Today I was sitting on top of the slide because I was “the rope” that she needed to climb its height. This is why an online store is perfect for me, I am making extra income and I am investing in myself but also my daughter. As a woman too, the dreaded work gap on a resume.
I’m not naive to believe Etsy has to be aware of the power they hold. They know who they “employ” and in some ways I believe that’s why they feel they can make the choices that they do. It is easy when the people that work for you have their back up against the wall. The platform would not exist without the handmade items of the sellers. It also brings larger social issues into mind when the largest percentage of their sellers are women. Etsy has told me to jump and I have said, “how high.” I get a good deal of my self worth from my store. Every sale, big or small, I am truly appreciative when anyone finds my items and buys them to support me. Even so, I am in a precarious situation.
As Etsy’s “workers” we are exploited based on our needs from what the platform can provide. If you have taken a philosophy class you may believe we are in neo-feudalist times. We are penalized for raising our kids while trying to cater to corporate America. With the pandemic, this idea has emerged to the forefront. For me personally, I was running my Etsy store and working when I had my daughter. I went back to work before I was even cleared after a c-section, a story I have heard from many other mothers. Again, Etsy knows this. They have survey feedback even from my own store saying why I use the platform and how it is important to me.
When looking at the bigger picture, I will continue to do what I can for the movement as it continues. Where we are is only the beginning. This is what I have thought over the last week and reflected on what it means to me to stand-up for myself and for others. I truly do not want my daughter or any children to grow up in a world where exploiting labor is something that is commonplace and accepted. The philosophy that hard work fixes everything isn’t the case when the cards are stacked against you. It also isn’t as simple as “if you don’t like it you can leave.” We rather should be considering how we can use this opportunity to show our influence.I believe customers/consumers drive the experience when demand shapes the landscape of business. I don’t believe Etsy truly takes the best interests of the customers into account. Our shops have been under duress, compounded with the pandemic, and are not going to provide a quality experience in these conditions. It pushes us to cut corners and make compromises that negatively impact consumers. I’m appalled with what’s happening to sellers but the average Etsy buyer is unaware of the wizard behind the curtain. This is what the strike calls on and wants to hold Etsy accountable. As Dorothy says, "if you were really great and powerful, you would keep your promises."
Customers have good intentions where Etsy takes them to forcibly twist their spending power against the sellers. The buyer wants to support us which is clear behind all of the signatures the petition has received. The more the word spreads, the wiser the customers will become. They are coming to our .com stores and supporting our efforts and the negative press for Etsy is generating sales for the strikers. The continued support will help continue the movement.
Furthermore, I’ve discovered that this is just another way in which I will adapt. When asked about my Etsy store and “is it worth it to start one?” I’m telling people that if I had to do it again, I don’t know if I would. It causes me to think about the time I have put into Etsy when maybe it would have been more beneficial for me to build my own brand. Myself and others have the ability to figure out what the future can hold for us. I am excited to look into how I can better diversify my business and pull the curtain back on the wizard. Etsy should not have underestimated those that make a living off being creative.