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Online retailer Etsy gives artisans a marketing boost

Etsy merchandise has started to appear at Indigo stores in Canada.


When fast-food chain Domino's starts selling "artisan" pizzas, and David's Bridal, a retailer with more than 300 stores, offers monogrammed mason jars, it's fair to say the very notion of authentic, hand-made goods has been twisted to suit marketers' purposes. One online retailer is hoping that exhaustion with this trend could give its own marketing a helping hand.

Etsy, an online forum for independent craftspeople to sell wares including jewellery, pottery and art, is spending much more on marketing – both to consumers and to brick-and-mortar retailers.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company has built a network of roughly one million sellers whom it charges 20 cents (U.S) a pop to list more than 20 million products for sale on the website – everything from felted cat beds to bracelets with horseshoe pendants and handcrafted wallets. It takes a 3.5-per-cent commission on any products sold.

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Etsy is betting on two things for growth: Taking some of those products offline and into major stores, and building its presence in priority international markets including Australia and Canada.

Last year, the site generated $1.35-billion in global sales, and aside from its U.S. base, Canada is one of its top markets, chief executive officer Chad Dickerson said during a visit to Toronto on Tuesday. Etsy has always advertised online, but is now experimenting with advertising on the Toronto transit system, and is considering other forms of advertising such as television commercials, potentially, in the future. Etsy has also boosted its marketing budget in Canada this year, although the company would not specify by how much.

"It is significant," Mr. Dickerson said.

He predicts that in five to 10 years, the majority of transactions will come from outside the United States.

Part of the driver of that growth will be more partnerships with retailers who are looking for that artisanal touch. Merchandise from Etsy sellers has already started appearing in furniture retailer West Elm, in Nordstroms in the U.S., and at Indigo stores in Canada.

The partnerships are both a chance for retailers to broaden their selection of merchandise (without having to manage individual deals with a variety of craftspeople themselves) and for Etsy to expand its brand presence. The products at brick-and-mortar stores appear under an Etsy sign and frequently include displays telling the story of the individual who made the products.

"Ninety per cent of retail still happens offline," Mr. Dickerson said. "... It exposes people to Etsy, and helps our sellers market themselves."

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On Sept. 27, Etsy is launching a "Made in Canada Day" and will help sellers in at least 31 cities across the country organize pop-up shops.

And the company says further retail partnerships, including with some "Canadian darlings," are coming hopefully by the end of the year.

"Retailers don't just want more merchandise ... they want merchandise with a story," Mr. Dickerson said. Etsy sells those partnerships based on consumers' growing desire to support local producers and to know more about the products they are buying – and offering them an opportunity to avoid more fatigue with mass-produced items dressed up as artisanal.

"What you're seeing with the mass market emphasizing that kind of messaging is, consumers want that sense of connection when they buy things ... but we don't have to manufacture a story around connection to artisans," Mr. Dickerson said.

"Offering artisanal, or non-mass products, for our customers is something we do with the majority of our Indigo brand lifestyle assortments, and has certainly been well-received by customers," said Tod Morehead, Indigo's executive vice-president and group general merchandise manager.

While Etsy's crafts are unique, some have also pointed out that there are plenty of offerings on the site that are downright silly. For a time there was a blog, Regretsy, that lampooned items such as a cat hairball necklace and a painting of a corn dog. It was later turned into a book.

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But the site has also allowed independent craftspeople to connect with a consumer base that wants to support small-scale production.

The ads that Etsy is spending more on in Canada are based on that message.

"There's a real emphasis on uniqueness, and connection to the maker," Mr. Dickerson said.

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