Pillow made from repurposed Mexican dress by The Bird and Pear.

Photo courtesy of The Bird and Pear

In October of 2015 Amazon launched a new division, Handmade at Amazon. A handpicked cohort of makers was invited to sell their handmade wares to a potential audience of 285 million Amazon customers. Crafters scrambled to learn how to navigate the Amazon seller interface and get their shops ready for what they hoped would be an onslaught of sales, especially as the holiday season approached. For the first time in its ten-year history, it seemed that Etsy had a real competitor.

Handmade at Amazon has been live for six months and we wondered how crafters have fared. What is it like to sell handmade goods on Amazon? How does it compare to Etsy? We checked in with three creative business owners with shops on both platforms to find out.

Liz Leatherbury was in the first Handmade at Amazon cohort of shops. She repurposes Mexican dresses into handmade home goods such as can cozies, zippered pouches, pillows, and tea towels in her San Antonio studio. Leatherbury has a shop on Etsy, The Bird and Pear, and remembers how she felt when she first heard about Handmade at Amazon. “I was so excited. All this traffic and a tightly juried handmade marketplace? It sounded so good.” Leatherbury’s Etsy sales were steady, but she’d become frustrated with certain aspects of the Etsy ecosystem. “Etsy is just not all that well-policed. There are things on there that are obviously not handmade,” she says. She was hopeful that Handmade at Amazon would be the perfect storm of a high volume of traffic and tighter curation.

“I launched my shop on opening day and nothing. No views, no traffic, no sales. I worked on SEO, changed my titles, and took all new photos. Still nothing.” Leatherbury recalls. She was disappointed, but decided to hang in through the holiday shopping season in the hope that things might pick up.

Lisa Copen’s shop on Handmade at Amazon, left, and on Etsy, right.
San Diego resident Lisa Copen also has an Etsy shop, Gutsy Goodness, and was excited to be part of Handmade at Amazon’s first cohort of sellers. Copen makes vintage-inspired pendant necklaces and key chains with inspirational messages. She’s had more success than Leatherbury – her sales are about even between the two platforms – and she’s willing to cut Amazon some slack. “There’s benefit to being in both places,” she explains. “Handmade isn’t just a new category for Amazon, it’s a new entity.” Copen feels over time the site will improve to better serve handmade sellers.

Still, both women describe Amazon as less compatible with handmade goods overall because the Amazon customer has an expectation of instant gratification that can be especially challenging for artists whose work is one-of-a-kind. “As soon as an order comes in the clock starts ticking,” Leathery explains. “Even if it’s one minute before midnight, Amazon counts that as a whole day of your fulfillment timeline. If you have to make that item by hand, that’s crazy! But the Amazon buyer has been trained to want everything in two days.”

Kimberly Bart creates party supplies, such as gender reveal piñatas and crepe paper tassels, in her Portland studio. She has a shop on Etsy, Pom Joy Fun, and was eager to join Handmade at Amazon at launch as well. Although her Amazon sales are slightly outpacing her Etsy sales, she’s become disenchanted with the Amazon culture. “Amazon is really customer-centric. A person can return anything at any time for any reason no matter what the condition,” she says. If she creates a custom set of tissue paper tassels for a customer and it’s returned torn up she has to take it back even if it’s not salable. “Amazon doesn’t listen at all to the artist. On Etsy whatever your policies are, Etsy stands by you.”

“We’re competing with everything on Amazon, not just Handmade, so we have to ship next day. People don’t perceive it as a ‘shop’ run by a person like they do on Etsy,” Bart says.
“Amazon has such a corporate feel,” Leatherbury adds. “Like ‘we’re going to ding your metrics and drop you in search if you do anything wrong and we’ll always take the customer’s side.’ They were supposed to have phone support, something we were always looking for from Etsy, and they do, but the reps don’t give you consistent information. It’s like they’re reading off a script.”

Copen says that Amazon listings are difficult to optimize for readability. There are no paragraph breaks, and sellers can’t use HTML tags to create them, which means that listing appear as a solid block of text. If you need to explain how an item is handcrafted and what the options are for customization, that text can get rather long. “It looks really unprofessional,” Copen says, “like you couldn’t write a description that’s easy on the eyes.”

The user interface for sellers can also be difficult to navigate. Bart says, “Amazon is a mess. It was created by developers and engineers and you feel like they got it to where it was just good enough, figured they’d tweak it slightly later, and then just forgot about it.”

Kimberley Bart creates party supplies, such as this gender reveal balloon with crepe paper tassels.

Photo courtesy of Kimberley Bart

Many sellers have been disappointed with what they see as Amazon’s lack of marketing for the program. Leatherbury says, “They had a banner on the homepage for one day. That’s it. The only way for buyers to find the handmade category is to select it from that huge drop down menu. Who is going to read all that?” She also feels that handmade items aren’t differentiated enough in search.

On Amazon, ad dollars are effective. Copen has purchased advertising on both Etsy and Amazon and reports that her ad dollars go much further on Amazon. “If I spend $100 on Etsy Promoted Listings I’ll get $200 in sales. I’ll spend $6 on Amazon ads and get $300 in sales. That’s a pretty big difference. Amazon ads really work in bumping you up in search.”

One of the exciting aspects of being on the Amazon platform is the ability to participate in Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) in which sellers ship goods to Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses and Amazon fulfills each order.

FBA products qualify for Amazon Prime which means they typically sell in much higher volume than other items on the site. Figuring out how to take part in the program as a handmade seller can prove challenging, though.

“FBA defeats the purpose of anything one-of-a-kind or personalized,” Copen says. In addition, shop owners who want to gift wrap each order would need to do that in advance of shipping inventory to Amazon because Amazon will not apply any special wrapping to products.

Having made only three sales in six months, with “non-existent” sales at Christmas, Leatherbury decided to close her shop for good in February. “My appreciation for Etsy and what they are trying to do as a company has gone up after this experience,” she says. “Etsy has it nailed when it comes to handmade. It still drives me crazy, don’t get me wrong, but the attitude is different. Amazon is just instant gratification. It’s not an appropriate marketplace for handmade.”

Even Copen, who has had success on Amazon, says, “Amazon feels like going to a big box mall. Etsy feels like going to an artisan fair.” Bart concurs. “Amazon doesn’t get it. I’m not sure they ever will work on the things that are important to the handmade artist or ever understand us.”

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