A few months ago I opened my first Etsy shop. I have never tried to sell my work through an e-commerce website, and I didn’t know very much about it. So I thought it might be helpful to other artists or makers if I wrote about the 12 things I learnt from opening my Etsy shop, in the hope that my lessons will save other people time!
Of course there are lots of other online e-commerce or market places you can use to sell you work, and I wasn’t sure if I should use Folksy instead. However, as I am just starting out I thought Etsy might be a good site to try first, as they have so many users and I was hoping I might find an audience for my work through this. For the sake of this article I’m going to talk about Etsy as that’s the platform I use, but I think you could apply most of these points to any other online shop platform.
So, once you’ve chosen which platform you want to use, signed up and finally settled on a shop name what next? I hope the 12 lessons I learnt from opening my Etsy shop below offer some help to make your own shop become a successful place to sell your work!
To research similar shops and sellers
I’m sure there are lots of people like me who know they want to open an Etsy shop, and so have spent time browsing all of the many wonderful products available, liked shops and items and assumed this is sufficient research. Etsy, like every market place, has its on conventions and I realised it’s best to try to research these without getting distracted and ending up shopping. I wrote a list of all the features I thought my shop would have, for example: papercuts, nature images, prints, cushions, greetings cards etc. Then I specifically looked these things up and under each heading made notes about the angles and settings of the photographs, and also the details of the products that the sellers had included in the descriptions. It wasn’t the most exciting activity, but I think it helped to make my shop seem informed and professional, and I’m sure this makes people feel more confident about spending their money! It also helped me see what I don’t want to do, which really helped to inform my next point.
To use my Etsy shop to sell specific products at a certain price range
As I spent time looking at other papercutting artists on Etsy I realised that my work was quite different from many. There are LOTS of people on Etsy selling handmade papercuts at extremely low prices, which I just can’t afford to do. I also saw that there is a big trend for papercuts of a certain style, often featuring quotes or motifs. Now its not that I don’t respect these artists, but my work isn’t like this at all and it would be silly of me to try and fit into a trend that just doesn’t suit my style. I was also surprised at how little people were charging – for digital prints especially – and knew that I wouldn’t be able to make my time or money back if I did this. I thought about this, and came to a few decisions.
Firstly, I decided that I wouldn’t sell my original papercuts on Etsy because I know the price of my originals would seem too high in this setting and I would find it difficult to find customers. Therefore I decided instead to sell prints, cushions, bags, cards, notebooks and other products with my images or designs on through Etsy, and for now to sell my originals in exhibitions and galleries until I can set up a space on my website for original artworks. Secondly, I decided to sell my products at a price which meant I would make a bit of a profit! There is a whole post I could write about this, but simply I decided to price my products at a level that would reflect their quality, rather then trying to cut costs in the quality to appeal to a different audience. I may not make as many sales, but I am hoping that the people who see my art and love it will be happy to pay these prices to support my work if they can afford to.
To use high quality images of my products
It becomes clear when looking at Etsy that high quality, clear images are extremely important. This is something I am still working on myself with the money and resources I have available. Ideally I would like to get a professional photographer to photograph my products for me, but at this early stage in my business it’s not something I can afford.
Instead I use my digital camera which is not the best as it’s quite old. However I use a high quality image setting (at least ‘L’ (large) or ‘RAW’), and then photograph using the ‘Manual’ setting so I can control the white balance, f-stop, shutter speed and focus. I also try to use natural light, but as this isn’t always possible in gloomy Cumbria I also have a cheap studio light with a daylight bulb and light diffusing cover which I have found extremely useful over the last few years. Sometimes I just also use my smartphone camera which I have found extremely useful for taking photos of products day to day.
Finally I edit the levels of my images with the open source image editor GIMP (again I’d love to use Photoshop but can’t afford the monthly package at the moment). I then export my images as a high quality .png, but will make these a smaller size and save them as a .jpeg for uploading to Etsy.
I’m not a photography expert, but if you’d like to know more you can learn more about all of these things easily through online tutorials – that’s what I did! As I said, my images aren’t the best and I could still improve my lighting consistency and colour levels, however hopefully for now they will do and will appeal to customers rather then put them off!
To ‘style’ the images of my products
If you are buying something online what would you want to know? I would like to know what is looks like obviously, but also how big it is, if it’s a bag or cushions how it opens and closes, if it’s a notebook what the paper is like inside. Therefore when I took images for my Etsy shop I made sure I thought about these things and used a variety of angles. However, what else might you be wondering? Maybe, will this work in my house? How big will that print actually look when I’ve framed it? I’m not very comfortable with the term, but I do think ‘styling’ the products in my photographs is a really good way of answering those questions for the people who visit my shop.
It took me some trial and error with all of this to find a way of styling my photos that I felt comfortable with. I wanted my work to be accessible to people with different tastes, so I decided that bright natural lighting, a light background and simple set ups were important. I also chose to use plants in many of my images as I love houseplants, and they represent a lot to me about how inspired I am by nature in my work and my life. Finally I found that if I chose a few of my favourite objects like ceramic plant pots and vases that I’ve picked up charity shops or the blankets from my sofa, they worked well with my images because – of course – I really like them and everything I choose to live with or make has a similar ‘feel’ to it. A cheap and easy answer to the problem!
To set up a business bank account
I know this is a bit of a boring one, but I realised if you are setting up a business where you want an online shop you really need a business bank account. Not only is it useful for your taxes, but it makes it so much easier to track your business incomings and outgoings. Etsy will also ask for an account to take their fees from and to put money into each month from your sales, so it’s best to do this bit first. This sounds easy but it took me ages to decide which bank I wanted to set my business account up with, and get round to arranging it all. Eventually I chose a bank that had a branch in my town so I could easily get out floats and pay cash in from fairs and stalls. I had to go to a meeting with the business advisor to set it all up, but I preferred this to just setting something up online as I got to ask questions (I always have lots of questions!). One tip, when they send you all the information about setting up your online banking do it immediately! I got really confused as I just chucked everything in a pile, and then it was a bit of a headache when I tried to set it all up properly so I could start using my card and taking payments online. It wasn’t hard to solve, but being organised from the beginning would have saved me time I could have spent making art.
To title and tag my products correctly
As I said earlier, Etsy has a very specific system (or algorithm) for searching their database of products and shops. Unfortunately with Etsy it seems to be much like Ebay – the main search is conducted by title relevancy. When I first set up my shop I wanted it to be simple and classy, so I just titled my images with their names. But this won’t help anyone to find your shop, and if you want to find customers through Etsy’s huge number of users (one of the main reasons I chose it) then you have title your work well. For example, when I titled my prints their actual names such as ‘Blackbird in Blackberries’ people would probably have only found my work if they had typed in ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Blackberries’ or ‘Blackbird blackberries’. Which is a bit weird and unlikely. Now that it is titled ‘Bird papercut – Blackbird in Blackberries – print from an original handmade art work‘ it doesn’t sound or look so nice, but it is much more likely Etsy’s algorithm will find it.
However, Etsy also allows you up to 13 tags to use with each listing. A ‘tag’ is a word or short phrase that describes your item, so it opens up the things that people might be looking for. These are really important, but I didn’t use them for a long time because I saw them as an unnecessary extra and a bit too crass. Now I know that tags are a tool to help people find your shop and buy your things which, let’s be honest, is the whole point in putting all that work into setting up your shop! Since I’ve made these changes the number of people who find my shop through Etsy every day has risen significantly. You can read more about how titles and tags work on Etsy here.
To have lots of ways to share my shop
Of course I knew early on that you can’t just rely on Etsy or any other online marketplace to get all your sales for you. Another good way to get people to visit your online shop is by sharing your work, your inspirations and your daily practice with them through social media, online and in person. For Stories In Paper I have an artist’s Facebook page, an Instagram page, a Google+ account and a Pinterest account where I share my work. I also have a blog (this one) and a website. I have a mailing list who I email regularly with updates and offers when I run them too. To encourage people to visit my shop I often offer discount codes, sales, and give away items in competitions or offers. It all takes a lot of time, but without these things even the people that know and like my work would forget to visit and see what’s new. It’s really not easy either, it can feel a bit arrogant or pushy constantly self promoting, or sometimes I’ll work hard in publicising an offer and get no response. But I do now think it’s essential to remind people (nicely and without the hard sell) that your shop is still there.
Finally I have business cards and postcards with my Etsy shop web address on that I take to every show or fair, as people may not buy something at that moment but they might pop back another time if they know where to go. I carry these everywhere in my wallet by the way, because I can’t count the number of times people have asked and I’ve had to scribble my email address or website on a piece of paper which I’m certain they are more likely to lose or forget. All of these things have finally begin to result in sales from my shop by people I don’t know, and I can promise you this is very exciting indeed.
To only sell products I feel confident about
I am quite a perfectionist, so it took me a while to get my prints, cards and other products printed exactly as I wanted them, and I am forever making changes to improve them. A big part of this this is that I know if I were to sell anything I thought was less then perfect it would make me really worried the customer would think this too! If you are taking people’s money and sending them something, you need to have confidence in it as they haven’t been able to look at it in a shop setting and make the choice themselves. I know we are all shopping online a lot these days, but I feel like the people who buy things from me have placed a great deal of trust in me and I don’t want to let them down. It’s a lot easier to ask for another set of proofs then it is to worry someone won’t be happy with the birthday present they ordered from you I think!
To accept I would need to spend money to get started
In some ways I was quite naive at the beginning of this venture, and I saw using an e-commerce website as a wonderful free way to sell my work. What I’ve now learnt is that any kind of business will require you spending money to get started (I find it less stressful to look at it as ‘investing’). With Etsy there are very low initial costs – you just get charged $0.20 USD for each item which you have to renew every 4 months, and they take 3.5% of the selling price. However, I wanted to sell a range of professionally printed products with different images on them. This meant buying at least 3 of each print, getting bags and cushions made and shipped, and getting a batch of 200 greetings cards printed. None of this was free, and because I only got things done in small batches due to my income it wasn’t particularly cost effective.
You also need to package your items, so you need to include the costs of buying plastic envelopes, printing thank you cards and business cards, and the costs of any other packaging like information sheets or print edition certificates. Finally there was the cost of backboard for prints, envelopes for cards, and essential packaging items like padded envelopes, labels and tape. In total setting up my stock for my Etsy shop cost me about £500, which I was happy with as I also needed these products for art fairs and exhibitions. A cheaper way to get started might be to print your own digital prints, but a professional printer and inks is also very expensive, so you would be best getting them done this way if you knew of a local printer who would do them for you on demand.
To package and present my products in a way that looked professional
I know this sounds quite easy, but it took me quite a lot of work to make sure I had packaged my prints and other items in a way that looked somewhat professional. For example, presenting a print sounds like very simple task, but I had to spend some time looking at other artists prints to feel confident about my own. Each print is packed backed onto a piece of archival quality mountboard, and I also include a printed information sheet explaining the quality of the print, and thanking the person for supporting my work. Each print is hand titled, signed and numbered. Once everything is put together it goes into a cellophane display bag with a self sealing tab. It takes a certain leap of faith to order the minimum 100 or so cellophane display bags you have to buy together, but compared to wrapping each print in cellophane sheets it will save so much time. There aren’t many other ways of presenting a print to keep it clean and in perfect condition, but if you are worried about the environment like me you can get bio-film and polypropylene clear display bags to present your cards and prints in which are supposed to be biodegradable. I then pack the print between two pieces of card in a padded envelope so it doesn’t get damaged, and include a handwritten thank you card. Finally I print each address and add this to the envelope with a ‘Please Do Not Bend’ label and a Stories In Paper sticker.
To leave time to package and post orders
Another learning curve for me was the realisation that it actually takes quite a lot of time to prepare all of these items ready for shipping and to take them to the post office. One of the answers I’ve found is to allot a few hours to prepare and pack prints and cards at once (putting on music helps to stop it from seeming like a boring task!). I think though that there are so many other places that people can easily buy mass-produced objects which don’t support makers that it is important to be prepared to make a little bit of extra effort if someone wants something packaged in a certain way. I’m always more then happy to do this, as I really appreciate people supporting my work and a little bit more effort won’t take too much of my time up. Ideally what I would love to do is develop all my packaging and thank you cards so they are hand printed, but it isn’t something I’ve had the time to do just yet. Like everything, I’ve realised these things only become really stressful if I don’t leave myself time to do them, but you have some control over this as Etsy does let you define how long you need for shipping and you can set it to ‘Vacation Mode’ if you need a break for a few days.
To be patient!
I didn’t expect my shop to take 5 minutes to set up, but I was surprised by how much time it has taken to make the products, order them, photograph them, style them, list them and promote them! And I didn’t think I’d be making huge sales within a week, but it has taken a while for people to slowly start finding my shop and this has involved a lot of time and effort on my part to publicise and share it. So I guess the biggest lesson I have learnt is that it’s essential to be patient, and to have other sources of income as relying on your new Etsy shop to help you pay the bills immediately is going to cause worry and frustration. I now understand that a part of every business is just putting the work in and waiting for this to ‘pay off’ financially. But I have really enjoyed setting up my Etsy shop and I love making my art, so in that sense I don’t feel I can really lose.
I hope that has been helpful to some of you, and if you have any questions or other useful suggestions please feel free to share them in the comments below. Thank you for reading!