Crafting in the digital era

(William Cuming\The Aquinian)
(William Cuming\The Aquinian)
(William Cuming\The Aquinian)

Beth MacAusland makes it all – jewelry, soaps, bath products, melting waxes, you name it. The New Brunswick native loved crafting as a little girl – but as she grew up, life got busy, and so did MacAusland. A recent injury changed all that, however, when she was forced to take time off work. MacAusland found herself crafting to distract an otherwise restless mind.

This soon led to a mountain of products, so MacAusland decided to start selling. After only starting in March, MacAusland has made a small amount of money already. One thing she stresses is the importance of customer relationships.

“It’s a tough start with a craft business,” said MacAusland. “You’ve gotta make sure you’re getting into shows, getting your name out there and being personable… and always always have business cards.”

She’s also used electronic tools to make her way into the industry. She said her brand has become more recognizable since starting a page on the online selling platform Etsy – a space for artists to sell products to the public.

but admits the market on Etsy is over saturated with products. She’s a big fan of Facebook since it’s free to use but allows business to purchase inexpensive ads as well.

“I’ve been more successful with the social media than I have with Etsy,” said MacAusland. “But I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket.”

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Kim Smith walked into her little shop in Oromocto, excited about the fresh muffins that were on their way over from the bakery next door. She sipped her mug of coffee and told me about the regulars she was expecting soon. She smiled and spoke enthusiastically about her involvement within the community and how her little shop was supporting local young entrepreneurs, including some high school children.

“I’m really excited about this entrepreneurship class I’m working with,” said Smith. “You want to encourage the kids to get in and do stuff. They would never have that opportunity anywhere else.”

This is the experience people are receiving when they purchase from local crafters. While Etsy boasts its ability to put you in contact with ‘passionate sellers’ of unique products ‘you can’t find anywhere else’, it seems local crafters are finding more success elsewhere.

Smith started her shop two years ago after she started crafting herself. After some talks with other local crafters, she decided to open a shop to display their work. It was much more convenient for the group as there are seasons for craft shows where the shop allows them to display their work year-round.

“If they see you at a market, there’s pressure,” said Smith. “Because they may not see you for a few more months or they may not be back. Now, they can come here.”

The shop now showcases and sells the work of over 100 local crafters. The Oromocto Galleria had to move into a larger storefront in order to keep up with demand. Etsy undoubtedly offers more choice to shoppers with around 1,500 active sellers, but local shops and craft shows offer something online stores cannot.

“This gives people an opportunity to come in and to touch and feel,” said Smith. “That’s what they like to be able to do… and you can buy it, you can see if you like it. You don’t receive it in the mail and you’re not disappointed.”

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Craig Schneider teaches entrepreneurship courses at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. He agrees that crafters, especially those who focus on fine crafting, are more successful when they display their work in person.

“The whole spread of the craft world has a very high end area and a very low end price range,” said Schneider. “That combination, side by side, is really not the right or a helpful relationship for those that are making the more expensive works. In that environment, people are looking at the prices as being the main value comparison.”

The problem with online sites, such as Etsy, is that unless consumers search out a specific product, price ends up becoming the bottom line. Some products are more distinguishable – for example a crafter can advertise they use high quality materials such as using natural dyes or Merino wool.

For others, it can be more difficult to determine quality online. Schneider said this is often problematic for people who work in jewellery making. Wire-bending and beading trends have been on the rise and local crafters are making very nice products. But it can be problematic for silversmiths who use higher quality materials and their labour is more time consuming and intricate. Silversmiths have far higher prices than the other jewellery crafters. These characteristics are often not distinguishable to average consumers, especially when you’re shopping online and price is your main concern.

He’s heard from professional full-time crafters, who have had far more success using either their own websites or sticking to the traditional methods of selling. For fine crafters, that means mostly participating in fine craft shows or through consignment shops where their works aren’t required to be mass produced.

“The problem with Etsy is that you’re competing with the world,” said Schneider. “It doesn’t translate to increased sales… you go from a drop in a pond to a drop in an ocean.”

But Schneider doesn’t believe Etsy is all bad. Many have verbally referred people to their Etsy pages to make future sales online. Other students have used Etsy’s tools and guidebooks to successfully to drive
traffic their way, but it often comes at the cost of the crafter. A lot of time, effort and capital is involved in developing your site in order for it to benefit you.

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Schneider said the buying local trend was in its heyday in the 1980s. But now baby boomers are retiring

and a younger generation is working beginning to accumulate household products. With that younger generation, buying local seems to be making a comeback.

“There has been a surge to buying local,” said Schneider. “There’s a new energy to it now. That has been a noticeable upswing.”

Smith said her shop allows crafters not only a chance to sell to locals, but to interact with them as well.

They provide workshops for anyone who interested, for example, they have a local artist come in monthly and teach a watercolour painting class.

Arguably, these are also services you could attain from say YouTube or Pinterest if you wanted to continue with an online experience. But it seems it’s the online experience of Etsy from which crafters are moving away. They’re still gaining momentum using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but mostly they continue to sell in their communities the same way they always have.

“The support in the community has just been fantastic” said Smith. “I have a lot of people that just come in, browse around and have a chat. You get to know people over time and you look forward to seeing them all.”

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