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NNY crafters see opportunity in Etsy’s new definition of ‘handmade’

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Etsy, the handmade and vintage e-commerce site that has nearly a million sellers of everything from wool scarves to soap, has struggled with its identity as a mecca for small-scale artisans for its nearly decade-long existence. The struggle was captured in a terms of a service policy that grew to 14,000 words in an attempt to enumerate all of the gray areas in what qualified as “handmade.” Then, in September, Etsy changed its guidelines, allowing sellers to hire help for production or shipping, and even to forge partnerships with manufacturers.

The change has generated some anxiety among artisans who want to preserve the site’s small-scale, human-driven provenance and raised fears that larger sellers would infiltrate, taking a cut of these crafters’ livelihood.

But many sellers, including a number of north country merchants, believe the changes will help creative businesses grow and will perhaps change little about the site, which is expected to exceed $1 billion in total annual transactions this year.

“I think if it’s handmade it’s not going to be an issue,” said Thelma L. Hamilton, who has been hand-crafting holiday ornaments from her Watertown home for more than 20 years. “We’re already competing with worldwide merchants.”

She recently bought a bracelet on Etsy that was handmade in China and which shipped to her within a week. The transaction, she said, serves as an example of the difficulty of the “handmade” classification and shows that merchants already compete in the global marketplace: As far as she knows, the bracelet was handmade by an artisan in China, not made by workers in a warehouse.

“People can decide for themselves if it’s something that they want to buy,” she added, noting that Etsy already allowed people to sell vintage items 20 years or older and supplies, neither of which are handmade. “Personally I don’t care whose hands are making them as long as they’re handmade.”

Etsy’s announcement, which comes with the bold-type assurance that “handmade will always be the heart of Etsy,” states that the new policies “are crafted to support a diverse community of makers, designers and curators — from the solo artisan just starting out, to the full-time seller hiring staff, to the artist who partners with a manufacturer to bring her creations to life.”

“I think when your shop is doing that well, you should definitely be able to hire people,” said Olga Patterson, a Fort Drum wife who spends about 10 hours a week making wreaths and scarves. She started selling on Etsy — the only place she sells — last February. “It’s a good opportunity for them to learn.”

However, Erika M. Parody of Watertown, who sells scrapbooking supplies on Etsy, said that she hasn’t encountered anyone who has needed to hire outside help and that shipping through Etsy is “very simple”; she thinks the changes will have little impact.

“The majority of the people on Etsy do their own hand-crafted items that they produce,” she said. “In my opinion, I think it’ll pretty much stay the way it is.”

Roxann Ojeda, owner of Retro Roxy Sewing, Watertown, said she thinks Etsy’s changes will benefit small-business growth but agreed that the changes may have little impact on the site.

“How do we know what the sellers on Etsy are doing behind that computer screen anyway?” she asked. “Maybe some of them already have support staff. When it comes down to it, we all have competition, big or small. It’s up to us as business owners to sell ourselves or we will never survive in this business. So I think it’s OK for Etsy to let small businesses grow.”

Ms. Ojeda has been in the crafting business for about 12 years, the last four in the north country, and sells her products primarily at craft shows and festivals in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties and off a Facebook page. She plans to start selling on Etsy or Square Market, an offshoot of Square mobile payment technology, this winter because she started crafting full-time in July.

“I think there’s a whole customer base that isn’t being reached when you sell only at local craft shows,” she said.

Before deciding to delve into the crafting world full-time, Ms. Ojeda did shows only on Saturdays and in 16 shows earned a quarter of what she did in her full-time job, after expenses. She started vending at farmers markets in July after quitting her other job and said she has done about 18 shows so far, with at least seven more scheduled, and has already made more after expenses in the last four months than at her other job in six months.

While most crafters adhere to the rule of making 10 times the booth fee for a good day at shows, she said she is “not one of those crafters.”

“I feel in order to make money at a show and to cover expenses, a $400-plus day is the goal,” she said. “I felt that providing good customer service and unique, fun and quirky items is what keeps my customers coming back.”

Ms. Hamilton has been selling her ornaments — most of which cost $20, or more if customized — on Etsy since 2010, at which time she said the site wasn’t that well known. She sold more on her personal site, www.thelmalhamilton.com, than on Etsy in her first year. But in 2011 she doubled her sales on Etsy, and then doubled that number again in 2012.

Ms. Hamilton, who also sells at trade shows, from her home and from her website, said Etsy sales are only about 20 percent of her business. But she has applied to sell wholesale through a site Etsy is developing. She estimates that if she starts doing so, sales through Etsy could grow to 50 percent of her business. Etsy describes its wholesale site as a “private, juried marketplace where buyers can discover unique, hard-to-find products from artists and designers.”

Selling wholesale would also enable Ms. Hamilton to attend fewer craft and trade shows, cutting down on travel expenses. It would also help her generate revenue for the first half of the year, her slow season as a primarily Christmas ornament vendor, because gift retailers typically place orders early in the year and like to have them stocked by August.

“You’re really putting yourself out there — you may go and have the right product, you may go and not have the right product. You’re taking a chance,” she said of traveling to craft fairs. “Where with Etsy you stay in the comfort of your studio. Your biggest expense other than time is 20 cents” — the fee Etsy charges to list an item.Etsy also charges a transaction fee of 3.5 percent of the item price. For multiple quantity listings, the 20 cents is levied once, then subsequently only after each is sold.

Ms. Hamilton said she feels “extremely grateful” for the service Etsy offers. She said selling on Etsy differs from selling through her website in that buyers want “immediate gratification” — a response within hours of contacting her.

“The buyer wants that personal touch,” she said. “They want to really be involved with the maker of the goods.” Etsy’s iPad app has enabled her to respond to orders on the go, she said, making that demand less arduous and “actually kind of fun.”

That desire for a personal touch might, in the end, be enough to preserve Etsy as a site in line with its original dictum.

“I don’t feel like I’m competing against big corporations,” said Watertown crafter Michelle M. Clifton, who operates the sewing and embroidery business Stich N Art part-time and hopes to grow the business more after retirement. She sells online only through Etsy, and at craft or vendor shows.

“It’s too soon to tell, but I don’t feel like it’s going to be a big change where it would be devastating to those that don’t have employees or don’t have those contacts.”

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