Most major retailers prepare for the holiday rush by hiring an army of seasonal employees, mass producing popular items, and loading stock rooms with extra inventory. But for sellers on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, things are a bit more complicated. These business-owners tend to run their operations alone out of their homes, and because all products are handmade – mass production isn't exactly an option. Inc. reporter Lindsay Silberman spoke to some of Etsy's top-sellers about how they brace themselves for the influx of holiday orders (and manage to stay sane in the process).
1. Stock Up
Other sellers had warned Etsy-newbie Allison Cecil about the inevitable holiday madness she'd experience, but despite what she was told, she found herself completely overwhelmed. "They say that about 25 percent of your annual income comes in those two months," says Cecil, who owns the San Diego-based shop MonkeysAlwaysLook. "I was unprepared in every way – mentally, physically, and emotionally. I was working insane hours. I didn't stop working for a full month, seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day."
Since her first holiday season, Cecil has learned several lessons that have helped to increase her productivity, and decrease her stress. First and foremost, she emphasizes the importance of stocking up on supplies. "I looked at my sales last year and ordered supplies based on what I sold last year, and then added 10 percent," she says. "Ordinarily I buy very small quantities, but for the holidays I'd recommend purchasing larger amounts of everything – including things you tend not to think about, like packing supplies, tape, envelopes."
Many Etsy sellers also suggest producing extra inventory of the most popular pieces ahead of time, and putting a halt on custom orders. "There have been products in the past that people ask me to custom-make, but I won't do it if it's too difficult and time-consuming. I want to list things that I can do over and over again and guarantee it comes out right every time," says Byrd and Belle's Angie Davis, who hand-sews felt and leather gadget cases. "You'll find that you're not stressing as much, and it also allows you to move faster." Davis recommends keeping your collection tight around the holidays. "For example, I know that I can make these 10 to 12 products in my sleep." However, it's also important for shop-owners to keep inventory fresh. Cecil tends to increase the volume of new products in the months leading up to the holidays so she can gauge their popularity and anticipate how much to make beforehand.
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2. Rethink Your Pricing
Aja Apa-Soura, an artist who sells her paintings in her Etsy shop Sagitarius Gallery, agrees that it's important to stock up – but with a variety of price points. Years ago, her store consisted of only larger pieces, and nothing was priced under $100. Apa-Soura quickly learned that she was cutting out a huge demographic of customers. She eventually decided to open her product line up to offer lower-priced items like smaller prints, which allowed her to tap into an entirely new audience.
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3. Stay Transparent
Davis says that one of the most important things she's learned is to be very clear with customers about what the wait for an order will be. In the past few years, she's even implemented a calendar system to manage orders. When an order comes in, she marks the person's name on her calendar, the date on which she'll be making their item, and the time they should expect to receive it. "I started publishing my calendar online so people could go to my blog and see when their order was being filled. It reinforces to my customers: 'Yes I have your order and yes I know your name. You're not just a number to me.'"
Cecil also feels strongly about being up-front and transparent with her customers. "Last year I got to a point – six or seven days before Christmas – where I had to tell people that it wasn't physically possible for their order to arrive by Christmas. If you want customer retention, it's so important to be honest," she says. Most sellers recognize that because buyers know that they're purchasing a hand-made item, they typically don't mind a longer wait time.
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4. Streamline Shipping
Cecil and many other high-volume sellers find that enlisting the help of a shipping service saves an invaluable amount of time and money. Jennifer Cowgill of the Raleigh-based jewelry shop PoleStar recommends a service called Endicia. "It's super convenient because you can print everything from home, including international shipping labels. They also offer affordable insurance for international packages, which is rare. All the customs forms are computerized," she says.
With the ability to fill out international customs forms online (a task that can be tedious and time-consuming by hand), many sellers say there is no excuse not to ship internationally. "There is a whole wide world out there - a significant market you aren't tapping into if you are only offering your work domestically. E-commerce is global," says Apa-Soura. She recommends initially "dipping your toes in" by shipping to Canada, Australia, and the UK. "Acclimate yourself with those countries first and then begin to explore offering shipments to other regions. Once you get a few international sales and customs forms under your belt it will be a piece of cake," she says. In order to keep her shipping process organized, Apa-Soura has two days a week that she specifically dedicates to shipping and packaging.
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5. Stick to a Schedule
One of the biggest mistakes Etsy sellers say they've made during the holiday rush is biting off more than they can chew, and inevitably reaching burnout. "Last year, from the week before Thanksgiving until Christmas it was absolutely bonkers. I was working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every single day, doing it all by myself. Making the items is one thing – but people don't realize that it takes time to pack, ship, and correspond to e-mails. I came close to serious burnout," says Davis. "In early December I got a call from the New York Times saying they were sending a photographer to my studio for a story they were doing on me. Rather than being excited, I stood and cried my eyes out. My studio was a disaster and I still had so much work to do!"
Now, a year later, Davis has learned to approach the season differently. "The key is to know when to say when. That's the great thing about Etsy – you ultimately have complete control over how much you work. I do enjoy the work, but you have to remind yourself to get out of the house and have conversations with people." Davis also suggests creating a waitlist if see yourself becoming too overwhelmed. "When I feel like things are starting to get out of control, I extend my waitlist. It gives me a buffer. I can get caught up, take a shower, get a haircut."
Having a set schedule also helps many sellers keep themselves in check. "I usually get into my studio around 9 a.m. and put in a solid 10 to 12-hour day. But it's important for me to make time to go for a run, and I try to keep the same exercise routine that I have year round," says Cecil.
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6. Set a Goal
Sellers suggest creating a reward to motivate you through the highs and lows of the holiday rush. "I go to a big gem show in mid-December and I use quite a bit of profit from the Christmas season to stock up for the year," says Cowgill. "It's a big motivator. The motivation to keep sane and try to get through the process."
Cecil does the same. "I put a reward for myself at the end of it. I have a number in mind and if I hit it, my husband and I will go on a very nice vacation in the spring," she says. "I have to say that the money coming in really does keep me mentally on task and focused. You're working like crazy, but then you look at your bank balance and think 'this is really going to help me and my family.'"
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