What Happened When We Tried Listing our Handmade Products on Other Marketplaces
This article is a guest post for our Skill Share series from artisan Walnut Studiolo, a husband-and-wife leathercrafting business based in Oregon. This is the last in a five-post series. Read the others here.
Picking up where we left off: in the 2010’s we learned an important lesson by listing our products on dropshipping sites. We learned that you have to consider the likelihood of the site’s success before you sink your labor time into their business.
Both dropshipping sites and marketplaces promise to bring customer traffic and sales in exchange for a commission. But unlike dropshipping sites, we thought that if we tried other marketplaces the time investment would really be worth it, because we would be in control of the orders and the customer relationships.
In this post, we’ll talk about experience working with other marketplaces as alternatives to Etsy, both big and small.
Niche marketplaces focus on a particular product angle, such as city-made goods, American-made goods, or handmade.
“Dead End” Marketplaces
The first alternative marketplace we tried was a new, niche marketplace. A new company reached out to us about their great new marketplace they were building. It had reasonable fees, an appropriate niche for our business, and nice branding.
So we signed up: we invested several hours of time uploading product listings and copying our product photos to their online forms, filled out a company profile, and waited for the sales to roll in.
Like so many dropshipping sites, this new marketplace was another “dead end” for our business. Our labor was spent populating their site with our products. Our products fleshed out their marketplace and made them look like they had a good selection. They even relied on our high quality photography for their homepage.
But in the end we had basically volunteered to build up their website for free. And when they failed a year or so later, we had nothing to show for our efforts: no sales, no reviews, no new customers for our email list.
New marketplaces struggle to attract enough vendors to create a vibrant marketplace with good product options for customers, and enough customers to make sufficient sales for all the vendors. It’s not an easy balance, so they must have something that differentiates them somehow from the competition.
It should seem obvious after our experience with dropshipping, but we had to learn this lesson twice: think critically about their “value proposition” before sinking your time into their business. Ask yourself: Is there enough of a customer base? Is their selling niche a really, really good match for your products? Do you trust the management to do a good job with marketing? What is special or different that is compelling to you as an artisan, but also as a shopper?
Trust: Or Read the Fine Print
One problem with many upstart marketplaces is that, just like you, they’re just getting started and they make mistakes. You have to be able to trust the people making the decisions, or you need to read the fine print in their policies.
We tried at least two niche marketplaces that set such crazy policies that we dropped out.
One niche marketplace set a “Perfect Order” policy. (That’s literally what it was called!) Any order that had undesirable problems would be deemed “Imperfect”. A scoring chart was displayed on the seller dashboard showing the percentage of imperfect orders.
The Imperfect list included very common problems that are outside the seller’s control, such as returns or cancellations. Early versions of the policy also included reasons such as lost mail or non-delivery, and banned sellers with an “Imperfect Order” rating of more than 5%. Over the years, the policy has become a bit more reasonable, but the obnoxious widget is always there on the dashboard – it looks negative even when it’s positive.
Another niche marketplace we tried seemed to have real promise: over a million urban customers and a new Shopify channel for easier integration (more on that in a minute). We “pushed” our products onto their channel and waited for the sales to roll in. And waited…
And as we were waiting, they sent out a message to all the shops announcing a policy change. Something about the message was eye-catching, so we actually read it. It’s a good thing, because the policy was alarming. They were shifting all costs of returns and risks of fraud onto the sellers. If an order was fraudulent then they wouldn’t take any responsibility.
This is a major red flag on a marketplace or a dropshipping site, because you have no control or access to information about the customer before you receive the order.
WIth your own website there are tools to determine whether an order could be fraudulent, but marketplaces and dropshipping sites control that info. You could do your job as promised in good faith, fulfilling the item and shipping it at your expense, and be paid nothing for it.
We even wrote them a message trying to clarify if that was really true, and they said yes, and so we left the channel. Easy in, easy out. They later sent a message walking back the policy, seemingly in response to seller backlash, but by then the damage was done. The channel is no longer available on Shopify today.
Major marketplaces promise the audience factor: they’ve got a big list of active customers and a critical mass of sellers. But handmade products aren’t always a good fit, and they are so big they can be hard to navigate.
On the other hand, the more sophisticated marketplaces usually rely less on your free labor and make onboarding easy with integrations. One-way integrations save you time is by importing product listings from the other sites you use, such as Etsy. However, whenever you make a change to the product, you’ll need to update it in both places.
Two-way syncing is even better, because it continues to integrate your listings automatically. When products are synced in real time, they can adjust the available inventory with each sale, fix typos or change a price in both places at once, automatically.
The best-designed marketplaces we’ve worked with were published to our Shopify website as “channels.” This is a web development step beyond integrating or syncing product listings. It actually syncs with everything on our Shopify store: products, orders, customer data, and more. Orders flow seamlessly right into our regular workflow and reporting, with no separate bookkeeping, communications, emails or PDF attachments.
Channels require complex development and coding, so only the biggest marketplaces can afford to have channels already set up on places like Shopify. But from those that do, it was very easy to just plug in our products from Shopify and give it a try, like eBay or Walmart.
Etsy itself was originally created as an alternative to eBay. So when eBay became a new channel on Shopify, and we could publish products to eBay with a quick click of the button, we decided to finally give the platform a try.
Unlike Amazon, which is built for re-selling, eBay is built for one-of-a-kind and unique listings, which is more handmade-friendly. And with the Shopify plug-in, it was super-easy to list. The fees weren’t unreasonable, 10% to 12% in our categories, and the fulfillment process has been fine, unremarkable even, since it is all managed through Shopify. Shopify automatically syncs the inventory and listing descriptions and photos with our website.
But we have had fewer than a dozen sales in two years. It’s struggling with the same seller dissatisfaction issues as Etsy and dealing with them in much the same way (which makes sense, since the same guys — and yes, they are mostly dudes — are in leadership in both places).
It costs little to no time, and doesn’t charge a monthly fee, but we discontinued our presence anyway, because it wasn’t producing enough sales to be worth the distraction.
Don’t laugh – yes, we actually tried selling our handmade goods on Walmart.com. When they added themselves as a Shopify channel, we applied to their seller program. Oddly, they had a very difficult and opaque application and approval process, and similar to Amazon, it wasn’t easy to list new items. After investing a few hours into trying to apply and opening a few support cases, we decided it wasn’t ready for prime time and discontinued our effort.
Our Battle-Tested, Opinionated Criteria For An Alternative Marketplace for Handmade Sellers
To recap all five posts in this series: in our never-ending search for income diversification and alternatives to Etsy, we’ve now tried:
- building our own website
- Amazon and Amazon Handmade
- dropshipping sites for American-made goods and “city” small business goods
- niche start-up marketplaces and big marketplaces like eBay and Walmart
What’s missing from this list? A cooperative marketplace for handmade sellers.
In twelve years of searching, there has not been a single viable marketplace for handmade goods like Etsy that meets our now quite-cynical criteria:
- A good brand match / niche for our handmade goods
- Fair commissions
- Trust in the leadership
- Good potential for sales success, with a strong mix of vendors and a robust customer base – or with compelling potential if it’s a start-up
- Reliable and fair policies that don’t unreasonably burden the artisan
- Seamless workflow for accepting, printing, and communicating orders
- The ability to interact directly with customers
- An easy onboarding integration so we don’t waste our labor time building up somebody else’s website only to find another “dead end”
Today, we want to add one more criteria for the perfect alternative marketplace:
- Cooperative ownership, so we can have democratic control and economic participation rights
With privately-owned companies, the entrepreneurs are just building it to sell, most likely to Wall Street. And with Wall Street ownership, the policies and fees degrade with each quarterly shareholder report, getting more and more punitive to sellers. It’s a well-established path that we’ve lived over and over again.
That’s why we at Walnut have joined with a group of other handmade sellers to create the Artisans Cooperative: a co-op alternative to Etsy. We’ll own it, we’ll manage it, and we’ll all benefit from it, together.
Skill Share Series
This series of guest posts support artisans with skills and tips from experienced artisans and outside experts. Do you have a skill or knowledge to share? Contact us at email@example.com.
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
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