Six Degrees, The Etsy Store

I’ve written about my/our Etsy Store, Six Degrees a couple of times lately. It’s relevant to this site in general because the site and our shop were both in existence long before there was a Silver Comet cycling project to dominate the last year and a half. And, it’s relevant to the project because the shop reviews are the tangible thing I have in my current life show that I deliver on promises and follow through to make people happy.

I’m going to go ahead and give the store, and the challenges it has presented recently, its own full post here so people who are interested in that can read it. People who just want to see that I can successfully run something can click on the links. And, people who aren’t interested in either can skip to cycling.

At one time I was concerned that if a lot of people clicked on the Six Degrees site, people who weren’t interested in finding that long lost treasure or trinket that they remember their great grandma having, it would destroy my conversion rate, but I’m not really sure it matters anymore. I’ve recently found out that if a seller’s store goes viral or gets an atypical boost in traffic, Etsy throttles it, sort of. The store disappears from showing up in search until the boost is over. I’m sure there is some rationale, but none of the sellers I’m aware of who have experienced it were able to come up with positive comments on the matter. Last time I subscribed to an SEO service, I was shocked that my rank in worldwide stores was so high, because my financial return on effort is so low. It’s not the only mystery I’ve tried to figure out. Some people are making huge money with Etsy, but the cliff drops fast.

The shop is near the front of my thoughts now in part because the last quarter is always supposed to be the busy season and this year it wasn’t. That’s not just for me either. And, it’s not just about changes created by the pandemic. Shipping has become a real burden and a pressure point for many sellers. According to Etsy, 50% of buyers who choose not to buy on Etsy give high shipping cost as the reason. There was a time when some sellers on some sites padded their prices with higher than cost shipping fees and added in handling to increase their margins while making the purchase price initially look low. It was pretty clear what they were doing. Buyers quickly learned to look out for sticker shock on the bottom line and hit cancel. Those times are long gone though, and shipping just keeps on getting more “extra” for buyers and sellers in every way. Now Etsy pushes sellers to cover shipping, or part of it, with their item prices. Unless my shipping is “free”, I get a notice saying my shipping is too high on every single listing I publish.

Low volume sellers of things that are average size and weight (like me) are feeling the shipping pain the hardest. Sellers who offer small expensive things like fine jewelry can absorb shipping expense most easily. Their costs have increased the least, and covering that increase goes unnoticed to the buyer. Those who sell bulky or heavy items at low cost are struggling to stay in business. In this case, large means packaging more than a square foot in area that weigh over 4 pounds.

Many sellers, including me, have taken large numbers of heavy or bulky listings out of their shops because shipping them is too expensive, and, I haven’t taken enough of them out. With the 4th quarter USPS price hike, I cancelled orders totalling $20 and $40 because the shipping (on a small teapot and a medium small bowl) was going to be $70 and $80 respectively. When the losses were lower I’d eat my mistake and ship anyway. Now I offer the buyer the chance to pay additional shipping before canceling the order, and I send a screencap of the shipping cost when I do it because the cost is so incredible. Amazon is a completely different animal and customers don’t understand why Etsy sellers can’t be the best parts of everything that Etsy was in the beginning while also being the best parts of what Amazon is now. How could you expect them to. They can order thing from Amazon or Target that come in oversized boxes and weigh way over 4 pounds and do it repeatedly. They can’t truly appreciate the effect that “custom” or “unique” has on the number of hours it takes to produce an item and get it in front of them either. Makers and sellers are having trouble coming to grips with it. Many craftspeople and sellers don’t do the math, and they’re there for the whole process!

It’s not just the cost of shipping something that stays sold either. Returns cost everyone, but not everyone sees it. I walked on Kennesaw Mountain today behind some ladies talking about ordering a lot of swimsuits and cover ups in several sizes. One of them said “It beats trying them on in the store, and if I don’t get to go on the trip, I can just send it all back.” As a shopper, I so get it. I don’t want to risk being stuck with something that doesn’t work for me, and companies like Amazon, they found that pain and fixed it. They take that risk away from the buyer, but, that only works for high volume companies selling mass produced goods at a high enough markup to cover losses from returns.

Small sellers without repeat customers can’t charge membership fees to cover part of the overhead or have a delivery fleet with the footprint of Amazon. And, on top of that, the delivery services give significant… read that HUGE, commercial shipping discounts to the big volume guys. Sellers who drop ship through sites like Amazon get all the big discounts and if it’s coming from overseas, they get international benefits from the Postal Treaty and still have to triple the markup to cover returns. They rely on the economy of mass production and high volume sales for their profit margin. How on earth can a buyer understand that they can get free shipping from China, but it costs $80 to go from Atlanta to Seattle? Things are upside down, like they are in so many other parts of the economy. Sellers like me don’t get big discounts. We make them possible for the big guys to get them instead, and my trips to the post office take half an hour at best because the close post office location closed. When my turn around time is short, I’m usually going for only one package. The same story repeats itself in every facet of the business.

The early emphasis at Etsy was on small makers of original works or curated vintage and unique supplies with sellers who often work from home, the opposite of what Amazon does best. But, Etsy now allows “production partners” and pressures sellers to become more like Amazon every day. It’s becoming increasingly hard for buyers who are not makers themselves to recognize the difference between hand made and mass produced. The entire nature of the beast is changed.

It’s not that I couldn’t find a thing to sell and make a profitable business from Etsy or some other platform now. It’s that once I was able to make it support me, I wouldn’t have my heart in it. Whether I’m making it, or saving some little known object from an obscure death, I love feel and weight of old things. I love tiny little stitches wrought with love that make a project take an enormous amount of time to complete. I love keeping tools and furnishings that were made when resources seemed limitless out of the scrap yard. Those things take time to find, clean, research and bring to the customer. I love the rabbit hole I fall in when I discover some something that I didn’t know about. When I get a customer who found a pot her deceased aunt made it makes my day, not just my day, really it keeps me going. One of my dream jobs would be to do research for History Detectives.

In order to sell enough at a high enough price to support myself, or even make a profit would require me to spend my time and my mind on things I care much less about. It wouldn’t be the empowerment to makers working from home that Etsy was in the beginning. It would have to take advantage of economies of scale with a large proportion of passionless performance of marketing tasks and spending large amounts of advertising cash. If I was going to do that, I would rather work someplace more secure and less fickle for better pay and, most of all, a higher purpose. We each carve out freedom for the things that are most important to us in whatever way we can make most meaningful. I have happy customers and time to meet other obligations with my current Etsy store, but it isn’t supporting us, or even me, and that isn’t a sustainable way to make my life work.

So, the Etsy store, at least for the near future is on probation, a dream I don’t want to give up, but can’t really afford to keep either. If I create cycling project related items, it makes sense to have an established site from which to make those available. I have an unreasonable amount of “treasure” to sell (as well as things I can’t fathom why I ever bought). As long as I can, it makes sense to put as much on the site as possible with focus on items that have never been listed. Listings are quarterly. I’ll slowly stop renewing the listings that have been renewed the most. So, for now, we’ll still hang around between lemonade and wait and see mode. It’s been an interesting journey filled with hope and learning experiences, just like whatever we do next will be…