Illustrator Samantha Hall begins drawing animals for holiday products in May.
It’s August, which can only mean one thing: the Christmas season is upon us. The small business community is notoriously early to prepare for the winter holidays: gift guides and advice for small sellers have been thick on the ground in recent weeks, with many crafters taking to social media to share sneak peeks of new winter merchandise. This year, however, the global pandemic sits like a lump of coal at the back of every small maker’s mind, along with its resultant store closures, market cancellations, and shipping delays. In light of COVID-19, crafters are gearing up for a holiday season that may be unlike any they’ve experienced before.
There are many reasons why small makers can be spotted each year churning out Christmas stockings and Hannukah cards while their families are still hitting the beach, but the biggest one is the financial precarity of running a micro-business. Small sellers often make their profits in the last three months of the year, and simply can’t afford to wait until the last minute for holiday preparations. Their one-person operations mean a limited production capacity, and personal conflicts have the potential to put the whole business on hiatus. For this reason, small sellers adopt the holiday planning philosophy of ‘the earlier, the better.’
Being featured in Country Living UK was a big moment for illustrator Samantha Hall. To get featured in a gift guide holiday prep has to start early.
“Many makers actually begin their holiday prep far earlier than August,” says Natasha Hatcher, the wildlife illustrator behind Hatchling Makes. “Some sales platforms and magazines send out gift guides for the holidays, and so makers usually have to submit their products including photos and pricing in May or June in order to be eligible for possible placement in those guides.”
She adds that a slow selling season in midsummer makes August an ideal month to square away winter plans and start preparing in earnest for the holiday rush.
This year, however, holiday planning is accompanied by financial and logistical stresses resulting from the uncertainty around COVID-19. While many parts of the world are seeing reduced case numbers and gradually reopening economies, it’s unknown how global public health will fare in the coming months. For this reason, organizers are reluctant to schedule the traditional holiday markets and craft fairs which normally drive significant business for small makers. In their place, many sellers are turning to online alternatives.
“With all of my events canceled and shops closed, I have had to really push my online sales,” says Samantha Hall, an eco-friendly textile designer from Brighton, UK.
“I am putting more time and effort into making sure my website, Etsy and my other online stockists are up to date and looking good. I am also taking part in online markets. I find these events so valuable as they are great opportunities to find new customers.”
Eco-friendly textile designer, Samantha Hall, packages an online order.
Online shopping boom
There may be a silver lining for crafters this year: online shopping has experienced a boom during lockdown, particularly on sites featuring handmade gifts and goods. Etsy’s second quarter was the most profitable in the company’s history, with its gross merchandise sales totaling $2.7 billion. That’s a 146% increase compared to the same period last year, and a sum larger than the company’s sales during the entire year of 2015. A recent article released by Etsy also noted that “this year we expect the holiday shopping season on Etsy to start earlier than ever.”
It’s likely that Black Friday– the typical opening day for holiday shopping– will look very different this year in light of social distancing measures. Sellers can prepare in advance for a prolonged and overwhelmingly digital holiday shopping season by emphasizing product photography, updating shipping policies, and offering quarantine-friendly gifting options. Hall notes that the nature of her sales has changed since COVID-19 took hold.
“I introduced ‘letterbox gift sets’ in the spring as lockdown hit the world. These letterbox sets are gifts that combine my best sellers and a card that can have a handwritten message inside,” she says. “These sets have been so popular, as people still want to give gifts but can’t physically meet up with each other.” While before the pandemic she mostly sold items individually, Hall now plans on offering these gift bundles throughout the holiday season. Hatcher adds that preparation is key for sellers facing the upcoming holiday rush.
“Make sure you have your packing materials ready, double check your website is charging the correct postage, [and] make as much stock as you can if you handcraft your products,” she advises. “The last thing you’re going to want to do is be frantically running to the post office to buy boxes or even spend your time writing newsletters.” Instead, she recommends preparing content like newsletters in advance and scheduling them to go out automatically. Also vital to this year’s holiday success is accounting for the postal delays that have cropped up worldwide.
“Postal services are running slower due to the pandemic, so factor that into your arrangements for your final recommended posting dates,” says Hatcher. “You want to communicate those to your audience as early as you can, so they can prepare as well.” While a typical year may see sellers advising customers to order their gifts by mid-December, this year’s recommendations may be as early as late November to ensure packages arrive on time.
Ultimately, sellers can only guess what this holiday season will bring. But with proper preparations, it still has the potential to be a success.
“I think it’s important to get inside the head of your customer and to think how they would shop in these uncertain times,” Hall says. “For me, I expect my customer to have a smaller family Christmas and to spend more money on loved ones close to them and far away. I am preparing for this by making sure I make it as easy as possible for my customers to buy what they want online.”
Natalie Wallington is a freelance political journalist and maker based in the New York City area. She has professional interests in social and environmental justice as well as investigative reporting. She is also a freelance editor and copywriter, and runs a small Etsy shop where she sells stationery and embroidered gifts. You can find her website here and her Etsy shop here.