Requiem for an Etsy Shop
After almost six years and hundreds and hundreds of sales, I finally closed the SaltZCo Etsy shop. Why would a modestly successful seller leave Etsy?
When I founded SaltZ&Co in 2017, joining Etsy to promote my new business and sell products seemed like a no-brainer, even though I had already launched our own website through Wix. Just about every crafter I knew was on Etsy. It is touted as a platform dedicated to vintage, handmade and unique goods, where sellers of any size can advertise and sell products and reach a much broader audience than they would on their own. I can't say I wasn't warned about Etsy's high seller fees (then more than double those of payment processors like Square and PayPal), but the naysayers were drowned out by online influencers who claimed that selling on Etsy had rocketed their microbusiness to thousands of dollars in weekly sales with virtually no effort. The fact that these same shop owners were mostly promoting their Etsy success techniques in paid webinars and online courses didn't faze me. If Etsy worked for them, it could work for me, too.
I spent dozens of hours adding extensive product descriptions, tags and pictures to the SaltZ&Co Etsy profile, with the help of instructions from the site's blog. I started with their basic, "free" option which meant this process had to be manually repeated over and over. I scheduled time in my calendar every week for Etsy updates and listings maintenance. Sales eventually trickled in, as did spam - lots of messages soliciting donations, offering questionable collabs, and even asking if our natural creams were suitable for erectile dysfunction (with images of the problem helpfully provided). Then Etsy suddenly informed me that they were deactivating three of our gift basket listings because they violated Etsy policies.
Information was hard to come by, but eventually I discovered that these baskets contained items I had not made myself - a nail polish, a pumice stone, even packaging (no, we don't make our own cosmetic jars). Citing other Etsy sellers' bath and body gift baskets that contained only mass-produced drugstore products did not result in a restoration of our listings (or even removal of theirs, which was never my desire but would have at least constituted a form of justice). Not one to give up easily, I meticulously added the "partnering" companies who had manufactured the containers and add-ons in our baskets, and eventually tried paying for offsite ads with little improvement in sales. And then the pandemic struck.
Etsy soars during pandemic times
Investopedia now calls Etsy a 'test case for a pandemic play after the pandemic ends' since their stock price has plummeted from the meteoric rise it enjoyed during the years when much of the Western world was locked down, and people were forced to shop for unique gifts online rather than supporting small businesses and craft marketplaces. But from its humble beginnings as "the worst IPO in 2015" according to The Motley Fool, just five years later, Etsy's popularity suddenly exploded, taking the stock price over $300 a share, and our little shop shared in the bounty. Our low-priced at-home pedicure kit was selling out by the hour; many of the buyers were American, often customers well beyond the reach of our own social media efforts who were willing to pay more for shipping than for the product itself. We were run off our feet sourcing packaging and ingredients in a time of supply constraints and extended shipping delays. Angry messages from Californians expecting next-day delivery to Louisiana pinged the shop's inbox, and while so many bricks and mortar small businesses were becoming casualties of Canada's draconian government policies, I was very grateful for the income and SaltZ&Co's exposure to a global audience.
Etsy becomes a pay-to-play platform
Eventually, the boom came to an end. The world blessedly, though belatedly here in Canada, opened back up, and despite uniformly good reviews, our shop was no longer showing up in search. Of course, algorithmic bias is hard to prove, but our sales didn't just slow down; they stopped completely. Etsy's suggestion to the dramatic change? Spend on ads to increase SaltZ&Co's reach. Etsy's policies make it clear that they are invested in protecting the interests of its buyers, which is noble, at the expense of its sellers, which is not.
I had seen the writing on the wall - Etsy had been increasingly pushing additional paid services and upgrades for a long time, without which any shop was almost certain to languish below those who paid for boosted search. But when Etsy upped the ante by raising their fees a whopping 30% in spring of 2022 - fees on everything, not just sales, but listings fees, postage fees, conversion rate fees, even fees on the tax paid by purchasers - many Etsy sellers went on strike. Selling a $100 gift basket and being informed that the bank deposit would be $76 was disconcerting, to say the least. The strike had had no effect. Etsy sellers handle their own inventory, shipping, and customer service, prompting many to ask, "What exactly is Etsy doing for my shop that justifies these enormous fees?" But Etsy never answered the question; they didn't have to. For every seller who leaves the platform, a dozen more spring up to crowd their products into its already-saturated categories.
Key Etsy stats
Today, Etsy is doing just fine. According to recent statistics from Business of Apps, Etsy posted a $493 million profit in 2021. and despite the many disaffected Etsy sellers, 96 million active buyers on the platform still have 7.5 million Etsy shops to choose from.
The last straw for me as an Etsy seller
As a maker and a seller, I'm hardly anti-capitalist, so why leave Etsy? Their profits are none of my business; I could have chosen, as so many sellers do, to artificially inflate prices to cover those excessive fees. But the last straw came in January 2023, when I was informed that another of our listings had been taken down for "policy violations" prohibiting the sale of... banned insecticides.
Etsy tells sellers to visit their dashboard to find out which of their listings has been axed, so I did this and discovered our all natural insect repellent stick for kids had been deactivated by Etsy. The tags, ingredients list and product description all explicitly stated that the active ingredients are naturally insect-repelling essential oils, that the product contained no artificial ingredients, and specifically was free of insecticides like DEET. I tried to appeal the decision and within seconds, a bot kindly informed me that there is no appeal when Etsy removes a seller's listing. For any reason. Period. No human would ever review my case, and deactivation for a policy violation is permanent.
Of course, there are workarounds. I could delete the listing and then laboriously find and re-upload the product pictures, rename the listing, add new tags that danced around what the product actually is and does. But what would be the point? In a world where it is virtually impossible to contact, let alone challenge, any of our tech overlords - be it at Facebook Ads or Google Adsense or YouTube or Instagram - vaguely applied, seemingly arbitrary rules can switch from benign "community guidelines" to menacing threat with one wrong move, and you might never even discover what that move was because no one seems to think you're owed an explanation. The lack of accountability is, quite frankly, maddening. The feeling of powerlessness brought on by the inability to question a nonsensical decision was a good reminder that I crave a different world, one in which it's still possible to have a discussion, raise an issue or get clarification from a real person who listens and cares.
Is that realistic in 2023? I think so, because I and so many other small business owners do it for our customers, employees, partners and suppliers every day. I'm sorry that Etsy doesn't feel the need to. In the end, the platform is a great place to practice setting up an online store and interacting with the public. If you pour heart, soul and a great deal of money into it, it might really produce the amazing results those seminar hosts talk about. But too much of Etsy's business model is opaque, entirely out of a seller's knowledge or control. It's no longer the right platform for us.
See you at Saltzbaths.com!