"it’s not ‘free’ at all”
September 4, 2019 3:41 PM   Subscribe

“Why would you expect free shipping from the nice lady in Iowa who hand-knits afghans? Why would you think that she would be able to do that for you?” Sandberg asks, hypothetically, of the customers Etsy says it has polled in robust surveys over the past few years. “If I were sending something to her, it would cost me $12. I understand that. I’m a grown-up.” The lady hand-making afghans in Iowa has enough working against her, you know? Plus, as Sandberg explains, channeling the sentiment of Etsy’s 2 million sellers: “Etsy was supposed to be different.” Was Etsy too good to be true?
posted by everybody had matching towels (64 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Honestly, I can't really remember a time when Etsy hadn't lost its way.

I've been married 13 years. I enjoy the admittedly dubious tradition of "traditional" wedding gift categories. Some years, I think to myself: "I should look at Etsy, maybe I can get something interesting and handmade there". And then inevitably I find myself looking at search results full of items that I could literally buy in lots of 100 from Alibaba. This was before it IPO'd, even, though I'm sure that hasn't helped.

That said: Amazon has for sure fucked anyone selling items online as far as shipping goes. I have a lot of ties to indie boardgames, particularly published via Kickstarter (I've published a couple, spent a lot of time talking with creators, etc). There is a seriously virulent assumption from buyers that shipping, even worldwide shipping to literally every continent and all the tax issues therein, should be free or nearly so. It's to the point where your choices are basically, (a) don't play along and piss a lot of people off, (b) sell out to a big publisher instead of self-publishing, or (c) commit literal crimes of import tax avoidance and also probably lose money per unit for international orders just so you don't look "mean" by not doing so.

I don't know how to put that genie back in the bottle, but it means small creators are fairly shit outta luck.
posted by tocts at 4:08 PM on September 4, 2019 [18 favorites]


Free Amazon shipping has definitely impacted my game selling business. "Wait, shipping is going to be $14.35?? Too much, thanks" is a common refrain...
posted by Windopaene at 4:28 PM on September 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


I have skimmed the article, because Etsy problems are hitting a little too close to home.

However, I feel that ETSY is not the problem when it comes to shipping. And the idea of a producer just eating that cost is inaccurate. They're trying to keep up with consumer wishes and not lose sales. Shipping should get built into pricing.

I totally agree though that the way the algorithm will work into it is problematic. Especially since some items will have variable shipping and can't be built in. At the same time, while shopping on Etsy, I've come across exorbitant shipping costs from items that I KNOW don't cost that much to ship. I'd rather pay $40 for something than $20 + $20 shipping. And their surveys - and others - of consumer behavior support that idea. And Etsy isn't the cause of it.

And variable large shipping like furniture or heavy items is always and has always been a consideration for a small creator. It's not an Etsy specific problem.

Therefore I feel like the other issues on Etsy are actually the big problematic ones that Etsy actually controls. The items on offer and the algorithm have changed and they're focusing on income over curated items.

My year-over-year is way down, when all I've done is add more products. An item that I could hardly keep in stock didn't move for months all of a sudden. Many other sellers have reported the same thing. Clearly, it's not something I have control over.

They now don't pay you what you earn on a weekly basis and bill you monthly. They pay you a net of your revenue minus fees. That means your cash flow is completely interrupted. Many sellers said they needed the weekly earnings to pay for supplies and also used credit cards with rewards to pay their bills as a separate transaction. It's acting much LESS like an actual small business because your money is being held.

Any time I've reached out for support, I've gotten unhelpful and inaccurate responses from Etsy staff. For example, with the manufacturing partners - their TOS say they have to meet certain guidelines. I asked if XYZShirtPrinter was an approved vendor. They told me they don't have a list of approved vendors. It's just a case-by-case basis. There's no longer a vendor approval process like in the past, just a requirement to inform Etsy on the backend when you list your item. Theoretically, they could disprove at any point and remove that item and you don't know if they are an approved vendor until you have the product in hand and list it. That doesn't give me security if I'm going to invest in an item that requires some outside help.

Also, as mentioned, what's on offer isn't curated. There are SO many place that seem like they're mass produced items that you can find on AliExpress or things that are created and drop-shipped without much input from a creator.

I never went into Etsy planning to make it rich. If I covered costs I would be happy. But when your effort is met with huge losses and downturned revenue when all you've done is improve - well, it leaves me feeling lost. The problem is as online sales have grown, laws have become more complex. I can't manage all the intricate state-by-state tax laws on my own for a small hobby. It's not worth it. And it doesn't seem that there are many options out there.

The makers are being taken advantage of more and more as Etsy has grown. And it's no surprise that it's often women, stay-at-home parents, and disabled people who are being hurt the most by their policy changes.

I don't know where my shop will end up in a year. The majority of my sales come through Etsy search. And without a platform, you rely on your OWN marketing and social media which has its own algorithm problems, your OWN bookkeeping and tax law management, etc. And all of that is a huge gamble.

TLDR - They know they're a big fish and people don't have other places to turn.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:32 PM on September 4, 2019 [48 favorites]


I wonder what Amazon's cost to ship a package looks like as compared to my cost should I take a package to the post office (or UPS or FedEx) and ship it.

When I shop on Amazon and look at the cost of the goods I buy with "free shipping," it seems like Amazon's cost to ship must be pretty low in the sense that the price of the goods-with-shipping-priced-in generally don't seem appreciably higher than the cost of similar goods at a brick-and-mortar store or an online retailer that doesn't offer "free" shipping.

On the other hand, when I ship a package (which I only do infrequently, so perhaps there are cost-saving tricks/rules I don't know about), my costs are always shockingly high compared to what I can imagine Amazon being able to absorb in the sale price of their merchandise. (I am referring _only_ to the postage / shipping fee, not including things like packaging materials, my time and effort, etc.)

I am sure that Amazon gets better rates from the postal service and other shippers than a walk-in retail customer does, but I have to wonder just what kind of discount they really get. As far as I know, Amazon isn't making a loss on each sale, so I guess the numbers have to work out somehow. But it's hard for me to understand just exactly how it works.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 4:36 PM on September 4, 2019 [7 favorites]


In a fit of twisted luck, that same year saw the start of a global recession that made the case for Etsy obvious. It was a moment when people were reluctant to spend money but expressed some desire to spend it in venues where it seemed as though it might directly benefit another person, and Etsy sold $10.8 million worth of goods in November 2008, up from $4.2 million in November 2007.

That's a just so story that doesn't add up. The way Americans talk and act are pretty disconnected; cost (coupled with status) wins 100% of the time. People hate Walmart but they shopped there and the main street stores died. Amazon was modeled on Walmart; people hate Amazon but cost and now convenience wins 100% of the time and now big box retail is dying, outside of companies like Target who can one up Amazon in some way.

We're stuck with consumerism until the planet itself can give no more, which isn't too far off. On the consumer side, the social and material penalties for rejecting it are severe; you can't meaningfully escape it without moving to the desert as at a minimum your housing costs require you to participate on the production side as a wage earner. On the business side, if a company is publicly traded or takes VC funding they will be 100% sucked into the capitalist monoculture where there is no market of ideas much less competition; the standard approach is applied universally regardless of needs or outcomes. Companies that don't put downward pressure on labor costs as an example (like Costco, at least within their own stores, unsure about their supply chain) are 1 in a million. Of course Etsy was going to go in this direction.
posted by MillMan at 4:37 PM on September 4, 2019 [13 favorites]


The site’s first in-house counsel Sarah Feingold started selling jewelry on Etsy after graduating from law school, then bought herself a JetBlue ticket and explained to Kalin that his company needed at least one lawyer...

Etsy grew quickly, but with strings. The New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures put up a small amount of money in the summer of 2006...

He didn’t know what seed funding was when he took it, Kalin says. He didn’t really get what a startup was or understand the obligations of institutional money. Accepting the Union Square Ventures investment was probably the moment when things got away from him, he says now. “I didn’t have enough awareness of the context of what was going on there, in terms of if we take this step will it compromise the values.”
I looked up when Feingold joined Etsy as their GC and it wasn't until 2007, a year after they took the USV money. They were taking investor money without even consulting an attorney or apparently anyone with any experience in this area. That's crazy. No wonder they ended up in a mess.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:38 PM on September 4, 2019 [14 favorites]


I’m so sorry to hear about the problems Etsy sellers are facing. I’ve bought so many things I love through Etsy, all because of the greatness of the sellers I’ve found on there, especially jewelry and old kitchen stuff. Without the sellers, Etsy is nothing—I hope they realize that and wise up.
posted by sallybrown at 4:42 PM on September 4, 2019 [12 favorites]


I put my Etsy shop on vacation when I went on actual vacation on August 1st and since I've returned, I've not bothered to turn it back on. The hassle of redoing all my price-points and revamping my shop has made me wonder if I should just update my website and add a storefront there. I actually don't think that the pushing down of listings impacts me much - there are not a lot of people hand pressing medieval woodcut style blockprints of ufo abductions - but I do feel salty about the way the company has treated us sellers.

For the past year I've had my stuff in a local artist's collective-type shop and it's done pretty well. While my profit per item is lower, the lack of hassle dealing with shipping has been a balm to my soul. We're heading into the busy season here in Salem and I need to spend my time printing, not restocking boxes, printing labels, and running to the post office. My previous issues with t-shirts is likely going to lead me to just doing print on demand just so I can get the boxes of orphaned shirt sizes out of our guest room.

Etsy was (and might still be) a good fit for me because I felt it helped me sell my stuff without being too intrusive. Now, I feel like there is a Right Way to sell that my niche of a niche art will never actually fit.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:47 PM on September 4, 2019 [18 favorites]


I agree that the situation kinda sucks, but with flat-rate shipping I guess I don't see it as an insurmountable problem.

What people really hate is getting surprised at the checkout stage with extra costs and fees. If an item is $15, they want to pay $15. Not $15 + $8 S&H. And they'll even pay $25 upfront with "free" shipping rather than $15 and then get surprised by the $8—this is basically Amazon's entire business model.

You can do this as a small seller by using flat-rate shipping and just building the cost into the sticker price. Find whatever flat-rate USPS box your item will fit into, and add that into the selling price, and then give people a discount if they don't actually want priority shipping and are okay with regular ol' parcel post. This way things are a win-win: people who really care about "free" shipping get it, and people who don't care get a discount, which people tend to like. It also makes managing shipments as a small seller dead easy; I used to have a postage scale and printable-postage machine and a bunch of other stuff, but now I just do Priority Mail envelopes and a bunch of stamps (for stuff under the 13 oz Unabomber limit), or I go to the Post Office in the middle of the night and use the automated machine.

It does raise the sticker price a bit, but people seem to like built-in shipping costs enough that it's probably worthwhile.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:50 PM on September 4, 2019 [18 favorites]


What about the problem mentioned in the article, Kadin2048, of a heavy item that costs $20 to ship locally and $80 to ship across the country? How do you bake in a shipping cost for that?
posted by clawsoon at 4:58 PM on September 4, 2019 [9 favorites]


I'm reminded of a sign on a local restaurant: "Free delivery! Pickup discount!"

It's like you're saving money no matter what!
posted by clawsoon at 4:59 PM on September 4, 2019 [12 favorites]


I looked up when Feingold joined Etsy as their GC and it wasn't until 2007, a year after they took the USV money. They were taking investor money without even consulting an attorney or apparently anyone with any experience in this area. That's crazy. No wonder they ended up in a mess.

For real.
posted by praemunire at 5:00 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


As a Canadian, something that drives me nuts about shipping is that it's often included in the country of manufacture, but then that cost is not deducted from my purchase of the item. On preview, what kadin2048 is recommending, I hate.

For instance, if an item is $50 including shipping in the USA, the seller will charge me $50 + shipping. Well... no, that's not fair. Because some of the $50 you're charging Americans is covering their shipping. The item itself is really $45 or $40. Yet, I pay the cost of shipping to the USA AND shipping to Canada. This prevents me from purchasing lots of things.

This is even worse if it's an item that requires return. For instance, I ordered DNA testing for my dog, for which I have to return the sample. In the USA, shipping both ways is included in the price. I pay that same price + shipping and then have to pay shipping again to return it. I've essentially paid 2 USA shippings and 2 Canadian shippings for the same item.

***

One of the things I hate most about "what Amazon has done" to consumer culture is make it so that people assume every retailer will now ship.

I've run my own shops for years and have never shipped because shipping is a pain in the ass and I make a fine living selling only locally.

The sheer number of complaints I get from people both inside and outside Canada because I refuse to ship is mindboggling. For many of these people it's simply incomprehensible that I will not ship to them.

I sell records for a living. I do not ship. People have to come pick it up from me. Yet I get complaints from all over the world from people because I won't ship to them. I get called all kinds of names. "Don't you understand -- I'm trying to give you my money! Are you a fucking idiot?!"

I've worked retail for 35 years and never had these problems until the last 5 years or so. I've simply stopped answering the emails whereas I used to send a polite, "I appreciate the interest but I'm afraid I do not ship -- have you tried XX shop in your city? I hear they're excellent. Best of luck,' etc. Now I just hit delete rather than suffer the fallout.
posted by dobbs at 5:02 PM on September 4, 2019 [25 favorites]


I've been married 13 years. I enjoy the admittedly dubious tradition of "traditional" wedding gift categories. Some years, I think to myself: "I should look at Etsy, maybe I can get something interesting and handmade there". And then inevitably I find myself looking at search results full of items that I could literally buy in lots of 100 from Alibaba. This was before it IPO'd, even, though I'm sure that hasn't helped.

That reminded me of this previous post.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:16 PM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it's not so much that people want shipping to be "free" as they want to know how much it costs to actually buy the item and receive it. Because everyone's had the experience of pricing out something online and realizing at the last minute, after signing up for an account and verifying an email address and whatever else, that shipping costs made it totally impractical. Usually followed by a series of emails wondering why you left something in your cart.

On the other hand, it's totally true that people don't expect some "lady in Iowa who hand-knits afghans" to do free shipping. If you walked into a little shop while visiting Dubuque and ordered a custom afghan shipped to you at home, you wouldn't expect it to be free or even that they'd know the right price immediately for shipping it to Detroit or Miami. And you probably wouldn't phone up such a store sight unseen and order an afghan shipped to you.

But it doesn't feel like you're buying from a local artisan when you shop online, really? That lady is abstracted away, even if you've seen her Instagram. You don't get the experience of talking to her about how she knits and picking out your afghan. Even if there's an option to email her or chat her, you still might wonder if you're actually talking to her or you're talking to a bot and maybe if she even exists. Maybe despite your best efforts, you're really buying from a guy chomping a cigar on the Long Beach docks and forwarding your order to some massive factory in Shenzhen.

Shopping online is fundamentally a self-serve, supermarket style experience, more like going to Walmart than the corner store. You're dealing with machines, so you're trained to expect machine-like efficiency. Even asking a seller a question by email feels like a vaguely jerk move, like going into a supermarket and asking to see the manager to find out exactly where the tomatoes were grown. I'm not sure in the end how Etsy and other craft-oriented sites can bridge that gap.
posted by smelendez at 5:17 PM on September 4, 2019 [10 favorites]


You can do this as a small seller by using flat-rate shipping and [or] just building the cost into the sticker price.

Seriously. I don't understand why this is being framed as wringing extra money from the seller or Etsy losing its way (which I agree seems largely to have occurred) or whatever.

Last month I was trying to buy a bed on Etsy, and it was driving me crazy that I couldn't tell what my total price was going to be. The most popular seller (or the one paying to be promoted? Does Etsy do that?) was charging like $170 for the bed and $220 for shipping. Shipping cost substantially more than the item itself. I mean, I get it; I'm sure a lot of things I buy have embedded shipping costs that are higher than the original artisan received. But it felt like a bait-and-switch. On the other end of the spectrum, some sellers were charging a flat $300. It was so annoying to sift through all of that that my mattress is still sitting on the floor. At least Etsy could follow eBay's approach of making it easy to see the total price.
posted by salvia at 5:24 PM on September 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


Shipping cost substantially more than the item itself

Come live in Australia for a bit.
posted by pompomtom at 5:29 PM on September 4, 2019 [20 favorites]


Shipping might not be Etsy wringing extra money from sellers but having to go through their payment processing and using their ad service does. Ideally Etsy would be increasing its profit by more sales not more service charges to sellers.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:30 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


At least Etsy could follow eBay's approach of making it easy to see the the total price.
Amazon does this too, at least when buying used books. A seller listing the book for $1.99 plus $6.00 shipping will appear below someone kidding the book for $6.99 with "free" shipping.

As someone else noted, sellers can offer "free" shipping just by including the costs in the base price, though if Etsy is punishing you for doing that, shame on them.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:34 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


I never bought a lot off of Etsy, but on the occasions I used it I had great luck finding niche artisanal things that have worked out well. But the last few times I looked it seemed to have become mostly reselling of mass-produced stuff. I am sure the great stuff is still there, but they aren't making it easy to find.

Like it says in the article:

Etsy’s current CEO Josh Silverman says, asked about seller complaints that mass-produced, imported junk or boring, basically identical bridesmaid-font products are taking over the site. “If you look at the composition of products on the site, it’s the same. There is not an increase in products from bigger sellers.”

But I am looking at the site. When I typed “scarf” into Etsy, the first page of results included $6 pashminas and “custom satin edge scarves” with “Your Logo Here” photoshopped onto them ($9.99), and very few “handmade” listings that are priced anywhere near what an actual handmade scarf costs.

posted by Dip Flash at 5:41 PM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


This is why I only sell digital downloads on Etsy. Shipping and customer expectations have always been a huge problem, especially when shipping to other countries. Customs and taxes add to the aggravation of shoppers and sellers. Once it leaves my hands, it's almost totally out of my control. International mail can take up to 21 business days and anything time sensitive is difficult to deal with. Shipping across Canada is expensive enough, never mind shipping to other countries!
posted by Calzephyr at 5:46 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's a shame there's so much junk to wade through on Etsy - using the filters to show "handmade" items helps but it's still a slog to look over hundreds of items when maybe a handful are actually handmade and original pieces.

The new hotness seems to be Big Cartel webstores. A centralized search across all BC stores would be really interesting but I'm not sure if that's even possible, much less likely.
posted by reductiondesign at 5:49 PM on September 4, 2019


Many of the people with successful Etsy careers are based in countries where the cost of living is substantially lower - there's a few textile artists I really like in Eastern Europe and Russia, for example. The economics of handmade work are such that you pretty much can't make a living from handmade crafts unless you're selling to people who are really rich - or at least really rich relative to your own local standard of living.

And I've definitely been disappointed before when I see something I really like only to find out that it's going to be $50 and two months to ship the thing from Albania or wherever - I can't help but wonder how much of a part international sales played in Etsy's calculations here.
posted by Jeanne at 5:53 PM on September 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'm just gonna say as a person with experience in this, "just include it in the price" is not a panacea. For every person who wants an all-inclusive price with shipping, there's at least one other person who thinks you're crazy for charging such a high price (of course ignoring that shipping is included) and would really like you to know this, perhaps via some direct contact mechanism through which they can scream at you for being greedy.

There's a ton of people who, due to Amazon's assault on logistics, really, seriously, not remotely metaphorically, think shipping should be roughly free.
posted by tocts at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2019 [13 favorites]


Yeah, one of the things I've noticed about my roommate's side business with her Vulcan calligraphy work is that she wound up switching to print-on-demand services to make any money at it very quickly. While she does do artwork that doesn't mesh well on Etsy, most of it doesn't sell through there; it sells through the Facebook page when she puts it up. The Etsy storefront seems to function most as a sort of catalog of conveniently mass-produced things of varying quality* that can be bought and sold without much personal interaction, and the Facebook store is where most of her paintings and fabric work seem to be. Which makes sense: Facebook is where she talks to most of the people who love the linguistic work she's doing with Vulcan, and that's where she gets to be a person.

I do have to say, I never seem to have much trouble finding really gorgeous pieces on Etsy, but then I also tend to search by technique or niche interest when I'm off looking for things. And I never, never look for hand-crafted textiles unless they're amigurumi or other very small things unless I'm willing to spend some serious money for a very custom item, because I know precisely how much of the price added to the raw material in those items comes from work rather than skill. Hand-knits do not scale. I cannot really imagine being willing to buy a hand-knit afghan from anyone, because the sheer quantity of a good material + all the work being necessary to produce it are far too expensive unless I wanted something custom-made for me, and then frankly it really is easier much of the time to buy it my own damn self.

On the other hand, Etsy is definitely my first stop when I'm looking for smaller or niche sewn projects. I know exactly who I want to buy my next dice bag from, in part because she's clearly got her pattern down to a science and it looks incredibly handy. There are some amazing sellers of dog pajamas on Etsy, primarily serving the sighthound market, whose work I totally want to buy one of these days--my dog is a whiny pain in the ass when she's cold, and the big box chain ones never fit her well. Again, once you have a pattern down and you're comfortable with it, you can scale that with a good sewing machine. Embroidery done via machine is also a great thing to look for on Etsy at volume; it's the sort of thing that scales well once someone has her own machine to be programmed with relatively little future effort on the part of the creator and a lot of input skill. Exactly the sort of thing I consider a splendid value to buy.

There also is some phenomenal jewelry and woodworking there. Glasswork can be hit or miss: you run into more problems with cheap mass-produced things with smaller glass items (like the glass dip pens I'm currently eyeing up), but they're also pretty easy to make at scale for people working with glass, so the costs are down and you can get lovely unusual pieces if you're careful. And there's some lovely pottery that can be found there. The prettiest cat fountains are on Etsy, and the loveliest yarn bowls. Again, the sort of thing that scales.

And enamel pins! We are in something of a Renaissance of the good enamel pin. Those Etsy excels at, probably because so many artists do things where they'll go in on a kickstarter to get the initial run made and then sell leftover pins for their profit, and so there are lots of options and ideas and artistic exploration. They won't be handmade, of course, but neither will they be anything that will be everyday: usually they support a small artist or a small business that is working with a very niche product.

The core thing I notice, when I look at the Etsy stores I patronize, is that I usually go looking for items that are custom or niche but not necessarily items that are hand-made. I love those too, but frankly, I can't afford them. I have to wonder about what we expect out of this new world we live in when it comes to buying niche products from small makers online: what is sustainable in terms of producing a product? What is easy enough to make at volume that a small business can sustain itself and still produce something that, say, I the person could afford? Etsy shines when it's catering to that kind of business, and I think that it's really suffering because it can't tell the difference between reselling cheap twee mass-produced stuff and selling only one-of-a-kind handmade pieces.

the knee socks seemed like such a good idea, and then she ordered a test set and, well: don't ever buy print-on-demand socks; the pattern is lost immediately when you put the damn things on, and the heel is shit. A surprising amount of POD merch is printed on by effectively airbrushing over a white item, which usually has the effect of turning into greyscale nonsense if you have the audacity to stretch it in any way.
posted by sciatrix at 6:07 PM on September 4, 2019 [10 favorites]


As far as I know, Amazon isn't making a loss on each sale, so I guess the numbers have to work out somehow. But it's hard for me to understand just exactly how it works.

I only know the FBA side, but basically the vendor pays for shipping.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:20 PM on September 4, 2019


AMAZON’S FREE SHIPPING COSTS YOU $150 PER YEAR.

THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GIVING YOU FREE SHIPPING ARE LITERALLY PROVING THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FREE SHIPPING.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 7:03 PM on September 4, 2019 [22 favorites]


What Etsy (originally) aspired to be is basically what Ten Thousand Villages has always been.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 7:07 PM on September 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Boy do I miss Regretsy.
Etsy is mainly cheap junk made in sweatshops.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:15 PM on September 4, 2019 [8 favorites]


Etsy recently acquired Reverb, and I've witnessed people worrying aloud if and when the market there will be overrun with knockoffs and shoddy imports.
posted by at by at 7:18 PM on September 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


"I wonder what Amazon's cost to ship a package looks like as compared to my cost should I take a package to the post office"

Now that Amazon has their own delivery fleet in some markets, its harder to reckon what their costs are for a given item. But that's relatively new. For a while, you were getting UPS 2-day service for a $100/yr flat rate. That flat rate comes nowhere near covering the actual cost of shipping--you could get maybe 4-5 small items delivered at UPS' standard 2-day rates. So Amazon has been taking a loss on those shipments. They put those losses down in their books as advertising expenses, which is pretty smart.

We've got all these companies like Etsy, Uber, etc—I guess we call them "platforms," but we need a better word that means "monopolistic intermediary." Their whole schtick is taking money from both sides of the transaction. At some level I don't understand how they stick around, because what they are doing is not that hard, and it should be easy to undercut them. More to the point, it should be possible for the vendors on these platforms to form co-ops that work for them, and abandon the intermediaries. There's clearly some obstacle to this, but I don't know what it is.
posted by adamrice at 8:02 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I am so creeped out by the biz talk by the dude:
“You need to furnish your apartment. You need to prepare for a party. You need to find a gift for a friend. You need a dress. Handmade is not the value proposition — unique, personalized, expresses your sense of identity, those are things that speak to buyers.”
Eff you dude. I still want handmade items from Etsy sellers. I am usually looking for things made out of reclaimed materials - upcycled jewelry, cat toys made from scraps - so thankfully the likelihood of getting a page of identical items that are getting drop-shipped from the factory is fairly low.

It's really a lesson in what happens when your most excellent idea gets sucked into the vortex of finance, venture capital and stakeholder value. What if they could have grown slow and skipped the IPO, so that their "stakeholders" were the sellers still? There is no such thing as free shipping and there is no such thing as free venture capital.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:35 PM on September 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Venture capital that allows the platform to artificially depress prices so that smaller competitors can't compete. Among several other things.
posted by praemunire at 8:35 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Remember (last February) when Etsy was was just taking money out of sellers' accounts?

It doesn't seem to have cost Etsy anything. I would expected a serious lawsuit.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:12 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


AMAZON’S FREE SHIPPING COSTS YOU $150 PER YEAR.

First of all, no need to shout and second, what do you mean? Their free shipping has been free for me so far.

(In dollars anyway. Not in, like, conscience.)
posted by ODiV at 10:20 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


what do you mean? Their free shipping has been free for me so far.

Presumably a reference to the cost of an Amazon Prime account: $156 a year, if you pay monthly.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 11:02 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Etsy surveyed me ages ago to ask how I felt about free shipping. I wrote in the comments that there's no such thing as free shipping, and I'd rather see real costs for things. Also that I don't believe that Etsy's competitors are Amazon and Wayfare- how could they be if I'm looking for handmade and vintage items? Obviously the people in charge at Etsy don't see it that way. I've shopped at Etsy for years, but their search has gotten so bad and throws up so many useless results (it does not prioritize titles! WTH) that's it's far easier to shop for vintage on EBay (which has excellent search capability).

What people really hate is getting surprised at the checkout stage with extra costs and fees.


If you're logged in you see the shipping cost on the item page on Etsy before you check out.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:06 PM on September 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


How do you bake in a shipping cost for that?

I think they were referring to the marvel that is the USPS Flat Rate Shipping Box. They're of limited size, but as long as everything fits in and they're not absurdly overweight they'll go anywhere in the US for a reasonable price. Canada Post has them too, but they're more expensive and slower and seldom pushed by CPC as a delivery option (since Priority is a huge cash-cow for them)
posted by scruss at 11:12 PM on September 4, 2019


Presumably a reference to the cost of an Amazon Prime account

Oh. Is that required for free shipping in the US? I just assumed if I'm getting free shipping up here in the frozen North, presumably those in the US would as well. I think if I paid for Prime I could get it something laughable like 1 or 2 days faster in some instances, but who cares?
posted by ODiV at 11:24 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Etsy is mainly cheap junk made in sweatshops.

i'm sure all the etsy sellers right here in this thread discussing their shops are thrilled to hear your valuable and important opinion on their products.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:44 AM on September 5, 2019 [11 favorites]


This was a really interesting article - I've been frustrated for a long time trying to find anything on Etsy unless I have a really specific search. I make stuff across a range of crafts and buy some supplies on Etsy, as well as handmade things that I don't make (like my wallet and current earrings, and very nearly our wedding rings until we were given family rings), but I wish there was an Etsy Classic where I can get the weird, handmade, one-by-one stuff I really want. And I'm happy to pay shipping, even the whole way to Ireland, because someone's paying shipping somewhere and we're being wilfully ignorant if we forget that.

I've nearly set up a shop a few times (I have sold through markets and, ages ago, my own site) but it seemed uneconomical for a part time thing and cheaper to just...have hobbies where I make what I can use or give as gifts or do commissions for friends.
One seller pointed me to an interview with Etsy chief financial officer Rachel Glaser, which stunned her, because in it, Glaser said that the company is unconcerned when it loses sellers, even high-performing ones, because there are so many people who can come in and make up the lost revenue selling something nearly identical.
I guess it's time to work harder on search etsy store names to see if the sellers have their own site they sell off too, because this is so gross.
posted by carbide at 1:44 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


poffin: I’m sure there are lots of small etsy sellers doing the thing that etsy originally seemed to be centred around (i.e. connecting buyers of hand-made or small-run goods with sellers) but these days, whenever I go to etsy that’s exactly what my search results are dominated by - endless rebadged crap from Alibaba.

“Cheap junk made in sweatshops” is the Etsy norm.
posted by pharm at 1:47 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


AMAZON’S FREE SHIPPING COSTS YOU $150 PER YEAR.

Dunno what the situation is in the states, but free shipping from amazon is indeed free in the UK. Free same-day delivery means you need Prime, sure, but just free shipping? Legit free*.

*as in, at no additional cost beyond the sticker price of the item.
posted by Dysk at 3:12 AM on September 5, 2019


free shipping from amazon is indeed free in the UK

With the caveat that you have to order "least £10 or more of eligible books" or "£20 or more of eligible items across any product category". But the UK is obviously a lot smaller and so delivery is presumably cheaper.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:18 AM on September 5, 2019


Is that a caveat? I never claimed free shipping was universal, or available on all products. But it is in fact not something you need to pay extra for, like Prime (which gives you free next day shipping, but also not on everything or without exceptions or conditions).
posted by Dysk at 3:30 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


(At current exchange rates, Royal Mail doing domestic parcel delivery seem to charge the same as USPS doing domestic parcel delivery to zone 5. Zones 1-4 marginally cheaper, zones 6-9 more expensive (double the price of UK shipping for zone 9).*I have no idea what the zones mean or how they work, and these are all retail prices, but the idea that shipping is blanket cheaper in the UK because it's smaller just doesn't hold up)
posted by Dysk at 3:45 AM on September 5, 2019


I think they were referring to the marvel that is the USPS Flat Rate Shipping Box. They're of limited size, but as long as everything fits in and they're not absurdly overweight they'll go anywhere in the US for a reasonable price. Canada Post has them too, but they're more expensive and slower and seldom pushed by CPC as a delivery option (since Priority is a huge cash-cow for them)

As someone who has lived in 3 different countries and shipped in all of them both Canada and the US need to take a hard look at the EU postal services. In the UK there was inexpensive flat rate shipping in the UK and flat rate shipping to the entire EU. It's 3 to 5 times as expensive to ship in Canada and 2 to 3 times as expensive in the US and the shipping options are less fine grained.

The EU postal services definitely helps combat regional economic disparities by making remote small shipping businesses viable that otherwise wouldn't be.
posted by srboisvert at 3:49 AM on September 5, 2019


What about the problem mentioned in the article, Kadin2048, of a heavy item that costs $20 to ship locally and $80 to ship across the country?

It gets more complex if you can't fit your item into Flat Rate boxes, sure, but... if you're doing mail-order or web-order sales, this is sort of a critical component of the business. You need to optimize pretty much everything else around the shipping problem if that's how your customers are going to receive their stuff.

There are a bunch of different approaches. You can just design your product dimensions around the dimensions of the box (not that far-fetched when you consider almost everything you buy has been designed around some shipping constraint or other). You could decompose a larger item into two (or more) smaller pieces and ship them separately, each in a Flat Rate box, or at least limit the components that you are accepting rate risk on. You can use FedEx One Rate, which is like USPS Flat Rate but allows you to use your own packaging and is sometimes preferable for "balloon" shipments (items that are bulky but not heavy—the USPS packaging is advantageous for small, dense items). UPS has one too but I don't think it's popular.

At some point, e.g. if you're selling furniture, then you have to go beyond offloading the risk onto flat-rate shipping and actually take some of it on yourself; i.e. you need to make an educated guess as to where your average customer is located and build in that shipping cost, and accept that you'll lose a bit if the customer is further away but you'll eke out some profit if they are closer. In my experience this is sort of an iterative process—you might make a guess (I used to use Colorado Springs as my fake-destination Zip code) and then see how actual orders stack up by comparison.

Basically: you have to do logistics. There is no escaping this if you want to run a mail-order business. It would be nice if Etsy made it easier for its sellers to do logistics well; they could easily take some of the load off of sellers by e.g. allowing real-time shipping calculations for logged-in users and baking it into the displayed prices (I think even eBay does this now) but that seems to be the tip of the iceberg of Etsy's problems. But I don't think it's really reasonable for people to say "well, I don't want to do logistics, I just want to knit afghans"—that makes you a knitter, it doesn't make you the owner of a successful online business. You're running a logistics business that happens to deal in afghans, not the other way around.

As a bonus, the better you are at logistics / supply chain stuff, the less you rely on the sales platform, the more platform-independent you can be. A lot of the people I know who do well online sell through Etsy, eBay, their own web stores, etc., and have the same underlying order flow process regardless of where the order comes in. That's why I'm surprised that Etsy doesn't do more to help its vendors—it seems nice on the surface but would be a good way to lock-in vendors. On the face of it, eBay seems to do more. Surprising, that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:03 AM on September 5, 2019 [6 favorites]


I gave up selling my work on Etsy when they started allowing you to buy ads on Etsy itself so I had to compete with other sellers not just on quality of product but ad spend. Bribing Etsy to show my product, when I'm already paying Etsy to show my product. Bullshit.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:22 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


But I don't think it's really reasonable for people to say "well, I don't want to do logistics, I just want to knit afghans"—that makes you a knitter, it doesn't make you the owner of a successful online business. You're running a logistics business that happens to deal in afghans, not the other way around.

This is not what the earlier Etsy sellers signed up for. It might be what they need to be now, but "I want my hobby to pay for itself" was a very common goal for sellers. Crafters wanna craft, not master logistics and SEO across multiple platforms.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:31 AM on September 5, 2019 [16 favorites]


I used to do shipping analysis so I can speak at least somewhat authoritatively about how much it costs large companies to ship. If their negotiator is good or if they sign onto a organization that can get them discounted shipping, they can save about 70% over retail shipping prices. If there's a particular type of shipping that is used a lot, that one can be further discounted.

So before Amazon had it's own shipping fleet, they were probably paying something like 20-25% of what you'd pay if you walked down to the nearest store with a box and asked to ship it. (I figure, given their size that'd they'd be getting a better deal than my former organization could supply.)

Shipping is overpriced if you're not one of the big boys. (If you want more information on this and actual numerical rates, memail me.)
posted by Hactar at 5:36 AM on September 5, 2019 [9 favorites]


I love Etsy, but I don't buy from them very often because the things I like best are often very expensive (because they're handmade - I don't dispute the pricing). But every year it gets harder and harder to shop because so. much. crap shows up in my searches - often with literally nothing to do with the specific keywords I put in.

Part of the problem - which I suspect they think is a feature and not a bug because it makes it easier to serve you the garbage - is that their search function is so bad. On Ebay (which I probably shop from more that even Amazon), you can do a whole Boolean string and get almost exactly what you want, if it's out there and the sellers know how to describe their item properly. And they even factor in spelling errors now. I know when I want something on Etsy, it's going to take at least 20 minutes of wading through stuff I don't want to see, and it's just not fun for me. And I LIKE the chase of searching.

Free shipping would be nice, but that should be subsidized by Etsy, not the sellers, if it's so important for the corporate bottom line. I can't imagine expecting to get something handmade for free unless it's super lightweight (and even then, I'd be pleasantly surprised rather than expect it).
posted by Mchelly at 6:33 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


smelendez: Yeah, it's not so much that people want shipping to be "free" as they want to know how much it costs to actually buy the item and receive it.

Exactly. I prefer Ebay's approach, where - if you put in your postal code - you get price+shipping right on the search list for every single item, and you can sort by price+shipping.

Etsy would do well to try that. Sellers get to adjust their shipping per-customer based on actual shipping costs; buyers get to immediately see whether price+shipping is worth it for them.
posted by clawsoon at 6:40 AM on September 5, 2019 [11 favorites]


I never go to Etsy to look for things anymore because there's too much drop shipped bullshit on there to make it at all useful as a discovery platform. I do end up there occasionally because I've discovered an artist or crafter on some other platform (Ravelry, MeFi, FB, Insta, etc) and they linked to their Etsy page.

I think the thing that gets a bit lost is the difference between Etsy as a business and an Etsy business. The article notes that more than 50% of Etsy's revenue comes from seller services, as if this is somehow surprising. I'd honestly like to know what the other 50% is coming from -- I'm guessing it's just a different way of classifying some of the revenue they get from offering services to sellers. The people who run their businesses on Etsy sell things, but Etsy doesn't sell things, it sells platform services.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:08 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Earlier in this thread, I wrote ”I don't understand why this is being framed as wringing extra money from the seller.” But now I've changed my mind and see it as Etsy wringing extra labor from the seller and forcing the seller to take on extra risk. They're doing that instead of fixing their price display function to show the combined total price the way that eBay does. And to have that happen after fees were raised, I can see why sellers feel aggrieved.

It really bums me out that Etsy seems to have gone downhill. Imagine if it were more like a workers coop where core operations were overseen by an elected council of sellers (who were verified not to be reselling mass-produced stuff) and if sellers maybe got to vote on the improvements that their fees funded...
posted by salvia at 7:19 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


It really bums me out that Etsy seems to have gone downhill. Imagine if it were more like a workers coop where core operations were overseen by an elected council of sellers (who were verified not to be reselling mass-produced stuff) and if sellers maybe got to vote on the improvements that their fees funded...

OK, so why has "Notsy" not yet been established? Seems there is enough desire and goodwill out there for a site that is what Etsy was/could have been.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:29 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Alternatives to Etsy
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:55 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


One thing that's going to change my online buying habits soon is the adjustments that the International Postal Union is planning to make to postal rates from China. Last time they were set, China was very poor so the rates were set very low. But that is changing.
posted by clawsoon at 9:02 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


An issue I’ve seen with Etsy alternatives and it’s hard to find a clear answer on is how they handle various regulations and tax law. I’m a registered business in my state and owe tax in my own state for sales within my state. But for any states that require the seller to collect and remit sales tax for any online purchase - Etsy does that as Etsy is technically the seller. I’m only responsible for my own state tax law. And that doesn’t even begin to handle international tax laws. If all of that were on me - it would be impossible to handle.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:36 AM on September 5, 2019


Most of my AliExpress parcels these days are arriving via Malaysia or some other not-China country. The shipping company is quoted as something like "YanWen Air Express" or whatever. Container loads of pre-addressed parcels leave Shenzhen for Malaysia or Estonia or wherever, and then get bulk dropped into the mail system there.

The sellers have seen the writing on the wall on the postal union changes for literal years and there's a huge startup industry that will keep bypassing it.

I think it's kind of pants to be able to order a pin badge from AliExpress and have it picked, packed and shipped from some warehouse in China for a total cost less than sending a postcard across Toronto with a stamp, but that's globalized capitalism, like evolution, always finding a niche and exploiting it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:04 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


Other recent changes at include Etsy taking five percent of the shipping costs paid by Etsy buyers (plus a 3% transaction fee) rather than just a percentage of the sold item cost, which while perhaps cutting down on the occurrence of inflated shipping pricing was followed by Etsy completely changing their postage and shipping tools overnight. This really screwed a lot of sellers—they didn’t add much of any instruction on the new postage and packing slip tools until well after the tools had already been changed and moved around. Many of us were forced to move away from using Etsy for postage purchases altogether just to get our orders out—but Etsy still gets a cut of the shipping costs paid by buyers regardless. Since their customer service is awful (and now outsourced), panicked sellers had to rely on the forums for help from other sellers when this sudden change occurred—unfortunately, they also recently revamped the forums to make them harder for most people to use.

By asking sellers to fold the cost of domestic shipping into their prices, the new “Free Shipping Guarantee” program screws international buyers (who must pay the cost of domestic shipping in the item cost as well as still having to pay for international shipping), sellers with items that are large, heavy or fragile (requiring extra packing materials), and buyers of multiple items (who must pay the cost of shipping in the item price as if each item were sold individually, rather than the combined shipping rates many sellers offer).

Not only does Etsy no longer seem to understand who their actual customers are, they are ignoring the important distinction between manufacturing costs and selling & distribution costs to its sellers and their accounting practices. I initially opted in for the new shipping scheme as it made very little difference to my shop—I already offered included shipping for orders over the same total price point— but the more I thought about it and read what other sellers had to say, I opted back out again, because fuck being threatened with search deprecation. My search results are already garbage anyway. And it's been suggested that the whole "free" shipping thing violates the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, which states: “A purchaser has a right to believe that the merchant will not directly and immediately recover, in whole or in part, the cost of the free merchandise or service by marking up the price of the article which must be purchased.” It also may violate the EU Directive on Consumer Rights, which applies to both EU sellers and merchants who sell to the EU market.

They also very recently (and with zero notification) removed the visibility of shop names from search results in the mobile app, making it look more and more like a generic clearinghouse rather than a collection of individual stores run by real people. I have conversations with my buyers and with the sellers I buy from all the time—it’s one of the things that used to make Etsy have a boutique feel compared to eBay or Amazon. Many Etsy sellers cite the difficulty of dealing with Amazon buyers, as opposed to Etsy shoppers, as the reason they don’t sell there. (And if I wanted to be in competition with Amazon sellers, I’d sell on Amazon.) Most Etsy sellers are individual makers, and don’t have the desire or capability to scale up their inventory. They just need a shopping cart interface and a way for buyers to find them. How many afghans to they think Iowa Grandma can have in stock at a time anyway?
posted by obloquy at 12:29 PM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


Hactar: If their negotiator is good or if they sign onto a organization that can get them discounted shipping, they can save about 70% over retail shipping prices. If there's a particular type of shipping that is used a lot, that one can be further discounted.

The free market is theoretically supposed to work best when prices are transparent, but I'm willing to bet that all those deals are covered by non-disclosure agreements and the companies involved would hooooooowwwwwwl if there was a hint that they might have to reveal what they're paying.

Every big-money transaction that I've been adjacent to has been like that. Nobody involved wants anybody else to know what deal they settled on. It's like they need to hide what they're doing in order to keep their level of profit. And it's not seen as a bad thing, it's seen as standard business practise!
posted by clawsoon at 12:47 PM on September 5, 2019


Former Etsy employee here:
Sangermaine: I looked up when Feingold joined Etsy as their GC and it wasn't until 2007, a year after they took the USV money. They were taking investor money without even consulting an attorney or apparently anyone with any experience in this area. That's crazy. No wonder they ended up in a mess.
It's true that there was no in-house counsel before Sarah, but it's not the case that no lawyers were consulted before accepting the USV funding.
posted by Cogito at 3:07 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


So, I sell handmade jewelry on Etsy, and I think their recent changes are bullshit but ultimately don't affect me much.

Because Etsy's search is garbage, virtually all of my traffic comes from my own social media. I charge for shipping separately, and will continue to do so, because I want my buyers to have an incentive to buy multiple items -- they're more likely to buy two or three pairs of earrings for $20 apiece, plus $3 shipping, than if the same earrings were $23 apiece.

I know that's also the case for a lot of the Etsy shops I routinely buy jewelrymaking supplies from -- I am much more likely to buy a bunch of stuff if they offer combined shipping.

I keep using Etsy because the interface is easy to use and the fees are relatively low compared to other options that don't make the listing process as smooth. That's really all that's keeping me there, and if that changes I'll probably leave.
posted by nonasuch at 4:17 PM on September 5, 2019


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