Craft: State of the Market

Craft: State of the Market

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Depending on whom you ask, the marketplace for handmade goods is either booming or busting. As fleets of inexpensive mugs fly off Etsy's virtual shelves, five-figure ceramic bowls gather dust in galleries while belts tighten and collectors dwindle.

At least that's the bad dream of some established craft dealers. But the truth is this: As consumers become more comfortable with online marketing, so do artists, vendors, and gallerists. And they must, if they want to weather a stormy economy and a changing virtual landscape.

Craft in the United States is a $29 billion industry, according to a 2010 Craft and Hobby Association report, which also found that 32 percent of makers are selling items on the Internet. That outstrips the 26 percent who sell at craft shows and lends credence to what experts say: An online presence is crucial to marketing a brand. Makers agile enough to craft their work as well as market it online, through virtual boutiques, blogs, websites, and social media, fare best. Neglect­ing the Internet is neglecting an army of potential customers from every nook and cranny of the globe. The customers buying mugs and high-end ceramics may seem miles apart; but as Etsy approaches 1 billion page views a month, and high-end auctions see a surge of bids coming in online, the selling strategies across retail venues are more aligned than ever.

Here, experts ranging from e-commerce site founders to gallery owners to researchers tell us what's selling, what tactics are working, and how online venues can complement brick-and-mortar galleries.

What's Selling?
It's hard to generalize about what is selling now. In 2010, jewelry comprised 22 percent of the inventory on Etsy, according to a report by the Craft Organization Development Association (CODA). Coming in at a distant second were accessories, at 6 percent.

Etsy, of course, dominates a particular niche at the lower end of the craft marketplace. Still, by virtue of sales, forecast at $400 million for 2011, it would seem to be a significant indicator.

Jewelry might be hardier than other products in a tough economy, in any event. "Artisan jewelry is not generally bought on price," says David Weiman of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine. Jewelry is almost always a splurge - one many people seem comfortable with even when money is tight.

Among jewelry lovers, there has been a shift toward statement pieces worn directly on the body, such as large cuffs and earrings, as opposed to more traditional brooches, says Patricia Faber, co-owner of the high-end Aaron Faber Gallery in New York. "We are seeing people buying very, very special pieces," Faber says. "But the middle range is not as strong."

Still, jewelry isn't a clear standout everywhere. "We are selling work in every category," says Lisa Bayne, CEO of Artful Home, a curated site that saw online sales increase more than 50 percent last year, following a marketing push and a significant expansion of its apparel collection. In addition to jewelry, top sellers are furniture, glass, and clothing.

And while sales were up more than 20 percent at this year's American Craft Council shows in Baltimore, Atlanta, and St. Paul, director of shows Melanie Little says they were driven by increases in sales of fashion, furniture, glass, mixed media, and wood art.

3 Keys: Online Presence, Branding, Relationships
If it's hard to generalize about what's selling, what can sellers of craft bank on? For one thing, the need for a carefully crafted, dynamic online presence - be it a shop, website, Twitter account, or Facebook page. Whether sellers are actually selling online, they need to be marketing online.

Patricia Faber considers buying jewelry an experience that is best done in three dimensions. Yet her gallery's website - offering stories about artists and their work - provides a different sort of engagement before and after purchasing.

"Our website really functions as a billboard or an introduction and helps, we hope, to make the work more understandable," Faber says.

If your primary venue is a booth at a show, a strong online brand is equally valuable. "Having an online presence is a way to make a customer before and after the events," says Renegade Craft Fair founder Sue Daly.

And if you sell primarily on the Internet, branding is more important than ever - the best way to stand out among more than a million craft sellers online, says Dan Christofferson, who leads marketing for Big Cartel, a site with nearly 200,000 shops. "Our goal is to help makers push their brand more than their product," he says.

At the end of the day, no matter the venue, at the heart of a sale is a relationship. "People are interested in buying the work of the artists and makers they like," says Ryan Deussing, co-founder of Supermarkethq, a handmade goods site founded in 2007. "They don't really care if they buy it on a website, [at a] craft fair, or [in] a store. It's the relationship they have with the maker that makes that purchase special."

"The more that our collector meets the artists or gets to know the artists," Faber says, the greater the impact "when they look at the work." Fostering community through events, well-kept blogs, and personal touches such as goodie bags at fairs is key to building a meaningful brand, Big Cartel's Christofferson says. The result? "People who really admire your brand and stay with you."

Brick-and-Mortar vs. Online
The jury is out on whether online shops will ever completely take the place of brick-and-mortar galleries. For now, experts say, the synergy is palpable. "I don't think gallery owners, or fairs, should be worried about being [put] out of business by the Inter­net," says India Hart Wood, owner and principal researcher at Hart Business Research, which produced The CODA Review 2011: Craft Artists, Income, and the U.S. Economy. "I would think of it more as cooperative competition."

Still, if you're starting out, you're smart to plant roots online first, then follow up with a physical space only if the margins allow for it. "It's easier to set up an online shop and see what's working and what's not working and then jump into a brick-and-mortar from there," Christofferson says.

Neither venue is a silver bullet, though. Online, it's hard to make a mark; in a gallery, it's hard to make a profit. "There is so much overhead with rent and staffing and utilities, it's hard to break even," says Renegade's Daly, who runs a Chicago boutique as well as craft shows.

Doug Heller, director and co-owner of Heller Gallery in New York, says he sees the Internet as a supplement to his gallery - and a "game-changer." Yet his brick-and-mortar store will not be going away anytime soon.

"I think one complements the other. I am not a believer in the solely online gallery. It is too ephemeral," Heller says. "No, you can't click our website and fill your shopping cart, but you can contact us. We want a dialogue with people."

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt
As consumers become more comfortable with online purchasing of both low- and high-priced goods, how sellers adapt is a creative process all its own. And some are taking big leaps.

For Garth Clark, co-owner of Clark + Del Vecchio, a Santa Fe web-based gallery specializing in high-end ceramics, morphing his successful gallery into an auction business in 2009 was a calculated risk that ultimately paid off. Without a physical gallery, Clark now deals exclusively in auctions and private sales.

"Auctions are very successful in building new markets," he says. In his June auction, for example, there were 360 bidders from 15 countries. "We have been in this business for 30 years and knew less than 15 percent of the bidders," he wrote on his blog. The vast majority of bids come not in person but over the Internet
or the phone.

"You have to reinvent," Clark says. "There has to be a migration to a younger market. It's very exciting; it's like jumping off a cliff - just as long as there is a mattress underneath."

Meribah Knight is a journalist based in Chicago.