Etsy shopkeepers prepare for the holidays

Once traffic starts coming through their virtual doors, Etsy shop owners learn to be business people, fast

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Around the holidays, Allison Glancey sets aside extra time to deal with shipping issues. Customers from around the world order gifts from her design and silk-screen studio, and they worry the presents will get misdirected in the sea of goods crisscrossing the planet.

The owner of strawberryluna has lots of packing materials on hand for sending Christmas orders. She knows the exact hours of the Bloomfield post office that sits at the end of the road where her home-based business is located. And she's ready to handle the "where's my package?" emails that take on added urgency as December passes.

"During the holidays, a lot more packages go missing," she said wryly.

Strawberryluna sells through trade shows and through the business's own website, but a significant portion of the orders for the handmade art prints and rock posters in the collection come through, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods.

Etsy, founded in 2005, reports $895 million worth of merchandise was sold through its shops last year. There are more than 1 million active shops on the site, with a location-specific search showing the Pittsburgh area well represented.

Keeping all those owner-operated shops stocked means artists and crafters are laboring away in their mostly hidden workspaces, like the one in Ms. Glancey's Friendship home. And with the year-end shopping push coming, many have been stocking up on their inventories, trying to finish knitting enough caps or making enough wood carvings to handle the orders they hope will show up in the e-mailbox.

Not that hoping for sales is enough.

"People think you can just put a shop up and the buyers are going to come," said Cathy L. Hartmann, who runs Sparkle City Jewelry out of her Mt. Lebanon home. "It just doesn't work that way."

Etsy holds the tantalizing possibility of reaching millions of potential customers, but those who have shops report they can spend as much time on promotion, shipping and keeping the books as they do on what they really love -- creating the products they believe others will find more compelling than something mass produced in a factory.

The online marketplace recently stirred up its users with a policy change meant to accommodate shops that have grown to the point they need more help to keep up with demand. Sellers can ask for approval from the site to sell items made in collaboration with manufacturers, which Etsy defines as any outside business a seller uses to produce wares.

Some fear the new policy allowing more hands to help with manufacturing could open the door to "resellers," or people who get goods from China and then put them on the Web for sale.

"I suppose it's too soon to tell," said Ms. Hartmann. But, she added, "People selling on there are concerned it's going to wind up being another eBay."

Fame and almost fortune

Strawberryluna's bright, colorful prints are born of the skills of Ms. Glancey and her husband, Craig Seder, who also has a full-time job as creative director for art at the Smith Brothers ad agency on the North Shore. The studio's Etsy shop opened in January 2006 and has since picked up more than 10,000 admirers, along with 3,883 sales.

The inventory ranges from a set of $18 alphabet prints that start with Aardvark and ends with Zebra to an extensive portfolio of posters done for concerts by musical groups. The first band for which they designed a concert poster was the alternative rock group Garbage, but the neatly stacked limited edition posters available for purchase include a wide range of artists, including Joe Cocker, Ingrid Michaelson, Death Cab for Cutie and Sara Bareilles.

Early on, Ms. Glancey connected with a music promoter and now she's also got a presence on the website

At this point, she is making a living with her art, with about 70 percent of her revenue coming online. She generally ships between 15 to 30 orders weekly, but that can grow to as many as 100 orders a week during the holidays.

Her operation wasn't always as successful. In the early days, there was plenty of scrambling and learning to be professional.

Take the time several years ago that Real Simple magazine found her shop on Etsy and decided to include its prints in a guide featuring 50 gifts under $50. The magazine reached out in June and asked for samples, although there was no guarantee strawberryluna would make the short list. It wasn't until September that Ms. Glancey learned she made the cut.

Meanwhile, she had hurried to finish the alphabet designs and create stockpiles just in case the prints ended up being featured. She made 100 prints of each letter for a total of 2,600 prints, all by hand.

"I really did need a kick in the butt," she admitted.

And the mention was valuable for sales, too. "It just exploded."

That was also when she learned to get more professional about shipping and stopped hand writing each label.

This year, following a move into a new house, the couple is a bit behind in stocking up for the holidays. A board sitting near the airy attic workstation where Ms. Glancey does her screen printing listed the items that she still needed to work on: Nightingale, Seahorse, Quail, Owl, Inchworm and more.

Working the system

Seventeen magazine discovered Sparkle City Jewelry on Etsy earlier this year, giving Ms. Hartmann her own shot at the kind of exposure that could boost sales.

The maker of colorful beaded and resin jewelry got an email one morning in April explaining that the magazine would like to feature her work in its August issue. She'd been making jewelry for years but hadn't opened her Etsy shop until March 2012. She overnighted 10 pieces that the magazine specifically requested by the next day.

Two pieces appeared -- one in August and another in September. Ms. Hartmann even got the benefit of a little celebrity starpower since a necklace was shown on actress and singer Ariana Grande.

So far, the sales impact has been subdued. "I got one," reported Ms. Hartmann, who said the order came from a woman in North Huntingdon who saw the necklace in her daughter's copy of Seventeen.

Sparkle City isn't supporting its owner yet -- Etsy lists 118 sales for the shop and 1,661 admirers -- but the artist-operator has learned about online selling, something she didn't do much before joining the site. Her shop had about 240 items in mid-October and she had set a target of 300 by November. She has a broad range of prices, from earrings as low as $10 to necklaces that can go up to $150.

Ms. Hartmann has a workspace outfitted with Ikea furniture, along with storage trays and boxes stocked with beads of all sorts and bottles of things used to decorate cakes and cupcakes. Items made using resin are crafted in layers, with inspiration coming as she works.

"I just do it out of my head. That's the fun part," she explained as she leaned over a 2-inch-by-2-inch mold that she'd partially filled with blue and white coloring. A tiny snowman and a tiny tree turned the blue into sky and the white into snow, then she added silver sparkles to create a snowflake effect.

It would take several more hours of letting the resin set up -- she cures the pieces on her kitchen counter, since it's the flattest surface in the house -- and then another round of decorating before the piece could come out of the mold and the edges be smoothed down.

Each listing on Etsy costs 20 cents for four months of exposure, and the site takes a 3.5 percent commission on each sale. New listings, or just renewed ones, tend to move up in the displays shown to customers, so she sometimes renews listings before the four months is up. "It does pay off," Ms. Hartmann said.

Sparkle City has also joined promotional teams, in which shops that have reached a certain number of sales or followers can work together to promote each other's goods with posts on different online platforms such as Pinterest, Facebook or Twitter. "We help each other," she said.

Hobby with potential

Sara Baldauff isn't trying to make a living -- yet -- off her CraftySara shop, which joined Etsy in the summer of 2009. At the moment, the small business is a fun way to sell items that she's found in yard sales, at flea markets and from estates.

For the most part, the Avalon mom is selling "vintage" items like glassware, toys, clothing and jewelry. A recent check found a 1982 "Fisher Price Garage Complete Box 930 Plus Extras" available for $105.31 and a 1950s-era "Pyrex Snowflake Casserole Blue 1.5 Quart with Lid" at $27.94.

Etsy reports the shop has had 1,190 sales and picked up 937 admirers.

"I learned a lot about photography," Ms. Baldauff said, noting that Etsy customers tend to prefer artistic, styled images over the barebones ones that sites like eBay are filled with.

She tries to post five to six new items on the CraftySara shop daily, stepping up to 10 to 12 items during the holiday season. "In 10 years, it will be a full-time job," Ms. Baldauff predicted, noting her children will be older then and need less of her time. "I would like to take it to the next level."

If vintage goods don't exactly seem like something that would bring many Christmas sales, she explained that many people are looking for things that remind them of their grandparents. Those can be good gifts.

"I really think November is the biggest month for online," said Ms. Baldauff, although December can be busy until the point where people aren't sure shipped items will make it on time.

She hasn't had too many problems with the distribution side of running an online shop, although she sends enough glass items to be extra careful with her shipping materials, especially with hard-to-replace vintage items. "You have to package them like they're going to be thrown down the stairs," she said.

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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