After Black Friday’s electronics binge, consumer attention shifts to shopping for mothers-in-law, bosses, bffs, favorite nieces — in other words, people who get that a gift is much more than a product. The quest for special handmade gifts for those people leads many buyers to shop online marketplaces like Etsy.com. There, you expect each purchase to come wrapped in the story of the independent artist who created the item.
But Etsy’s growth (a billion dollars in total annual transactions this year), comes with a downside. You’ll still find artisan makers from around the world offering unique, well-crafted, handmade items. You’ll also find sellers working the gray around the site’s definition of “handmade.”
So how do you find a truly unique, handmade gift on Etsy? Here are some tips.
Know the keywords. Scroll to the bottom of a listing and look at the keywords under “Related To This Item.” The first one on the left side tells you something about how the seller classified the item — as Handmade, Vintage or a Craft Supply. Those are the three categories allowable under Etsy’s Terms of Service for sellers. Vintage is supposed to be 20 years or older, so it’s perfectly legal to resell a Cliff Huxtable sweater from the thrift shop as long as it’s tagged Vintage and you don’t pretend you knit it yourself. Craft Supplies don’t have to be handmade to be sold on Etsy. When they are handmade, sellers try to tag tag them with that keyword when they list the item. So if you’re looking for handmade yarn, hand-dyed fabric or artisan buttons for a gift, you want to see “Handmade” in the first three keywords. Theoretically, if you don’t see Vintage or Supplies there at all, the item should be handmade. Theoretically.
Read the Shop Announcement. That’s the information directly below the shop banner on in an Etsy shop. Look for first-person language like “I make” or “I create”. Some shop announcements are short and sweet, others include a blue link where you can “Read More.” Click that link to read the full shop announcement. Often, that will end with this line: “Want to find out more? Check out this shop’s About page.”
Read the shop’s About Page. You’ll also find a link to a shop’s About Page in the left-hand column.
However you get there, this is where the artist gets room to show and tell a little about their process.
Again, look for first-person language and photos that illustrate how the artist makes what they’re selling. If multiple makers are associated with the shop, you should see them all pictured on the right side of the About page. That’s also where you’ll find links to the maker’s web site and Facebook page.
Read the shop owner’s profile. Not all shops bother to complete an About Page, even though it’s free. You may find enough information to satisfy you in the owner’s profile. To find that, look in the left column on the shop page for “Shop Owner” and click the blue link below the profile picture.
About that profile picture… Some shop owners use pictures of their products instead of pictures of themselves, and have good reasons for that. They may also have good reasons for masking their true identity. You can’t fault makers for employer policies that impact how they present themselves in a side gig like Etsy, or for wanting to stay hidden from crazy exes. But in this marketplace, coyness about your identity can read as “having something to hide.” Engage the critical thinking skills you were supposed to develop in high school English classes and ask yourself, “How much of this rings true?”
Read the Shop Info. Below the Shop Owner info in the left-hand column, you’ll see “Shop Info.” Look at when the shop opened, and the number of sales it has had. Then ask yourself if the person represented as the Shop Owner could, realistically, have made all of the items sold in that length of time. Balance your reaction to that with the type of products sold in the shop. After all, a knitting pattern that buyers download upon purchase can push those numbers way up without indicating anything other than hard work by the maker who produced a popular pattern.
Search strategically. Don’t let the 20 million listings on Etsy scare you off: The site has awesome search capabilities, once you learn how to use them. This page is a good place to start. It shows how to filter your search results.
On the left side of the search results page, click on “Handmade.” It’s not quite as effective as a string of garlic against a vampire, but it will keep you from wasting time on Vintage listings. The same search feature lets you limit your query to shops in your personal list of Favorites.
What are Favorites? Think of Favorites as your own personal list of trusted sellers.
Once you’ve read their Shop Announcement, About Page and Seller Profile, you want to keep track of them. There are several ways to add a shop to your list of Favorites:
- On an item listing, click the box with a gray heart at the top of the page under the shop’s name.
- On a shop’s page, click the box with the gray heart to the left below the shop banner.
- Or look under Actions in the left column.
Avoid attractive rabbit holes. When you land on the front page at Etsy.com, you’ll see an enticing collection of “Handpicked Items.”
Be careful, Alice. Etsy’s front page is curated by people who gather listings into treasuries. There is no requirement that items in treasuries be handmade. While they may be pretty to look at, they may not help you find the handmade items you seek. Your time may be better spent picking a category from the column on the left side of the page. Let’s say you click “Gift Ideas”. That opens a new page with subcategories at the top. Click one of those, for example “For Her.” Now we’re getting somewhere. But you don’t want to shop “All Items.” Instead, click “Handmade.” Keep filtering until you can’t resist the temptation to look at all the product listings that show up.
What if you keep seeing the same products in different shops? I won’t open that huge can of worms here. It’s a drama involving resellers, copyright infringers, more than a few sweatshops copying whatever they think they can make cheap and sell a bunch of before getting caught, some folks who just don’t know better, and some honest mistakes. There are plenty of other fish in the sea, and maybe you let a good one swim away now and then. But if you suspect a seller isn’t living up to the spirit of Etsy, move on. Go find a bona fide maker who will love you for your purchase. And keep this in mind: Some things are copied because they’re easy to copy. Some things that are hard to copy are harder to find because nobody is copying them. But you can find them. Remember to click “Handmade” in your searches.
Too much to think about? Not really, and there are huge benefits to shopping thoughtfully on Etsy and elsewhere. First, you’ll find really great stuff. You’ll also develop critical thinking skills that come in handy in many other situations. In fact, you may want to get your kids involved in the process: Have them review the shops you’re thinking of purchasing from, search for their own, and then compare your results. Learning how to recognize honesty and filter out manipulative BS are useful skills at any age. But if you just don’t have the time, you can always purchase an Etsy Gift Card and leave the critical thinking up to the recipient.