One year in, Handmade at Amazon helps artisans reach more customers | Crain's Baltimore

One year in, Handmade at Amazon helps artisans reach more customers

Boston-based artisan Casey Everett began her business making hand-printed textiles from a corner of her kitchen table. Two years later, she’s had to bring on her husband as her “everything else guy” to meet demand for her unique products, due in no small part to Handmade at Amazon.

“I’m considered a Handmade at Amazon pioneer,” said Everett, who was on board with her Hearth and Harrow linens when Amazon launched its store to sell handcrafted goods about this time last year. “It’s really transformed my business over the last year. I have expanded to the West Coast and am seeing a lot of sales in California, Oregon, and the Seattle area. I think my aesthetic does very well in that part of the country.”

Everett transfers her own botanical drawings onto napkins, pillows, and tea towels, using non-toxic inks and natural fabrics – just the one-of-a-kinds Handmade at Amazon is looking for, said Steve Johnson, a director at Amazon who oversees the company’s artisan effort. “We’ve been trying to focus on setting a very high bar for genuinely handmade products that are high-quality and factory-free.” 

While Johnson declined to share just how many artisans have been recruited by Amazon, he did say that Handmade at Amazon has more than doubled its sellers, has increased offerings to 10 categories, and has five times the number of products – for a total of 500,000 – since it began in October 2015. Participating artisans hail from 50 states and 80 countries, and in September the program expanded to the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, and Italy.

You won’t see the number of products and sellers that exists on Etsy, the other major online marketplace for unique goods, Johnson conceded, adding that Handmade at Amazon’s goal was to “create a curated shopping experience online” and differentiate itself from the gigantic e-commerce site of Amazon itself.

Online marketplace perks

The new store’s progress overall is reflected in the growth Everett’s business has been experiencing. “This year, 40 percent of my retail sales, including craft fairs and farmers’ markets, will come from Handmade at Amazon,” she said. “And it’s about 26 percent of my total sales including wholesale.”

For the past three months, Everett has been moving about 150 units per month on Handmade at Amazon. She expects a big holiday hike in sales in the next two months.

For Everett, as well as for David and Julie Sandusky who sell their handcrafted paper products on Handmade, participation in Fulfillment by Amazon (Prime on the customer end) has pushed sales for the products they can produce in sufficient amounts to qualify for the program. FBA takes responsibilities such as warehousing, packing, shipping, order handling and customer service off the shoulders of its sellers.

 “For a small business like ours, it allows us to scale like we’ve never imagined,” said David Sandusky. “Now we have the ability to load up the Amazon warehouses with our top-selling products, and as they sell daily, they are shipping them for us…this comes at a cost, but the cost is significantly less for us when it comes to square footage, warehousing and hiring people.”

For each sale, Handmade artisans pay a 15 percent referral fee, subject to a $1 minimum, which covers payment processing, marketing, discounted shipping and fraud protection. They also pay a monthly $39.99 “professional selling plan fee,” which has been waived through Dec. 31, 2017, to encourage new artisans to join the store. 

FBA charges are additional and are based on the size and weight of items. A CD, for example, costs the seller roughly $1.50, while the rate for a hammock is about $25. 

The other big advantage of FBA/Prime, Sandusky noted, is that Prime members pick Prime products. The perk of free, two-day shipping, encourages shopping for Prime merchandise, which means Idea Chic creations in the program are more easily found. 

So far this year, Sandusky said, Idea Chic’s revenues from Handmade at Amazon sales are just shy of $9,000. Sandusky, like Everett, expects that number to snowball as holiday shopping gets into high gear and the business introduces seasonal items to the site. 

Idea Chic has seen a steady increase in sales on Handmade since it signed up at the start of the program. “Our growth has been averaging more than 60 percent a month in units ordered, and everything is up: the items, the units, the sales, the average units per customer, the average sale per customer,” he said. “Everything grows every month.”

Easing the way for sellers

Johnson said Handmade at Amazon strives to make the transaction process as easy as possible for artisans. Each has a profile page that describes their business and how their products are made, with photos of their work and studios. And a worldwide seller support team trained specifically to work with artisans at Handmade is available to address their questions and concerns.

Of course, Johnson notes, there’s been a few rough patches to smooth out in the first 12 months. “We have learned a ton.” One of the challenges has been finding a way to facilitate interaction between customers and artisans, especially regarding customization of items, without taking too much of an artisan’s time and effort.

Every artisan can be contacted by a customer via their profile page. But to reduce customization questions, the “buy box” that appears when an item is selected allows the shopper to choose from the available personalization offerings. About half of all the items on Handmade at Amazon come with customization options, Johnson said.

Idea Chic doesn’t receive customization requests from Handmade customers like it does from Etsy shoppers, Sandusky said. “Amazon has been working toward that too, but we’re finding the Amazon customer is not asking for that; they’re literally just buying the product. Etsy customers have a lot of questions.”

Covering the bases

Idea Chic sells on multiple platforms, Including Handmade at Amazon, Etsy, and their own websites. “Etsy gets a lot of credit for where we are today. Before we had our website, we put one of Julie’s favors on Etsy in the very beginning and it started selling,” David Sandusky said. 

Certain Idea Chic products still sell well there, he added, but in general, business isn’t growing as well on Etsy as it is on Handmade. “There’s elements that are dropping for us over there and part of it is that their marketplace has grown so much. We’re part of the big volume, whereas before it was easier to find us.”

Founded in 2005, Etsy has 1.7 million active sellers and 40 million items for sale, according to its website. Company officials declined to respond to Sandusky’s comments.

Everett does a lot of wholesale business with Etsy, something Handmade at Amazon does not offer sellers at this point. “For me as a maker, it’s been very valuable to be on a variety of platforms,” she said. “There are Etsy customers who buy a lot on Etsy, and then there are Amazon customers who buy everything on Amazon.”

Johnson agrees with that notion. “We know that sellers sell on multiple channels. We want them to have as much reach as possible.”

Everett peddles her wares at craft fairs and farmers markets. She does a thriving wholesale business with brick-and-mortar retailers. But it’s the online marketplaces that she credits most for making her business what it is today.

“I’ve been a maker my whole life,” she said. “I was an art teacher for 10 years before I had children. I did the art gallery thing for a really long time. It wasn’t until platforms like this existed that it became feasible for me to have an actual business.” 

October 25, 2016 - 7:37pm