Seller Handbook

Advice and inspiration for successfully running your Etsy shop

Seller Handbook

Celebrating Small: 3 Ways to Hone Your Competitive Edge

Worried about big competition? This Etsy seller explains how being small can help you stand out from the crowd and create a loyal following.

By Alexandra Ferguson Mar 18, 2014
Photo by The Carbon Crusader

I’ve sold pillows on Etsy since 2009. Specifically, pillows with sassy, motivational, flirty and funny phrases written on them. My pillows retail for an average of $87. They aren't cheap to buy because they aren't cheap to make. (Handmade in USA usually isn't, as you already know.) A customer searching for  “throw pillows for couch” today is faced with over 15,565 choices on the Etsy marketplace alone. Try that same search on Google, and 2,690,000 sources are generated in 0.43 seconds. Walk down an avenue in Manhattan, or Main Street in your local town, and you’ll find beautifully curated independent retailers selling pillows from established design brands. A trip to the local mall will present you with big-box retailers carrying pillows of every shape, size, material and price point.

When I make a sale in my Etsy shop, I beat them all out — a fact that never ceases to astonish me. It’s a big honor to have someone choose your creation over every other, and despite a lean marketing budget and a higher-than-average retail price, it continues to happen again and again. Over the past four years, I've learned that competing against large companies doesn’t have to be scary for independent designers and makers. Our products are more desirable to consumers because they start conversations, make them feel special and unique, and connect on a personal, human level. It’s not just a product, it’s an experience.

I’ve worked hard to build my business organically, using $1.60 in startup capital to create eight Etsy listings during my lunch break. Starting out, I didn't have the financial resources to do things like television commercials or magazine spreads like the big box retailers do. Like most Etsy sellers, I use free resources like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and email blasts to spread the word about my line.  I now run my own factory space in Brooklyn, with six employees that help create, sell and ship thousands of my designs every year. In addition to my Etsy shop, my line is stocked in more than 500 retailers around the world, and has been featured in dozens of magazines, TV shows and blogs.

The bottom line? As a community of artisans, we have distinct advantages over bigger rivals. Here are three ways you can make the most of those advantages throughout your Etsy shop.

1. Stay nimble.

A major differentiator between an individual designer/maker and a mass market brand is manufacturing minimums. Many large factories, especially those located overseas, require minimum production runs of 1,000 pieces per color per style. If you are going to make that many products, you have to make sure your target audience is broad enough to generate that kind of demand. It's safe to say, the more you produce, the more generic your product tends to be.

Since we are making the products ourselves,  we can set our own rules.  In my factory, we try to manufacture in runs of 12. But not always. In fact, we often make things custom, which customers love. As a result of having nimble production processes, we can take design risks. For us, it might be experimenting with a phrase like “Let’s Make Out” or “WTF.”  Those pillows aren't appropriate for everybody, and that’s okay. But for the right person, maybe a couple that wants to create a bit of spice in their bedroom, finding our product just made their day. The thrill of discovering something unique will turn a passive customer into a cult follower. They'll delight in sharing their insider treasure-hunting tricks with their inner circles, weaving in your story alongside. Having a special, unique product makes consumers feel special and unique as well.

In Your Shop: Ask yourself the following for every item in your shop: Who is buying it? For whom are they buying it? Why are they buying it? Why are they choosing your item over another? What makes it special and unique? When you have the answers, put yourself in that imaginary person’s shoes: What search terms would they use to find this item? Is your listing calling attention to the details that are important to them? Use this focused perspective to optimize your listings and update photographs, item descriptions and search terms accordingly.

Sometimes it helps to spell it out for shoppers in item descriptions, for instance: "This pillow is perfect for parents with small children who are sick of listening to them whine all day long!"

2.Share your unique story.

Your product is more than just a widget — it’s a conversation piece, and that adds immense value. Think about what makes your story distinctly your own: What is your background, and how does it inform your craft? How did you come up with your product concept? What is your process for creating your items? Your customers will re-tell your story throughout your product’s lifespan. They're likely inspired by your creative evolution, and will want to be a part of it by contributing to your success. After all, individual artisans often have the best stories to tell. For example, my About page not only recounts my story, illustrated with photos of my factory, it also makes a point of describing the role of each of my employees in making and selling my products within the Members section. To stay cohesive, in every listing we also describe the manufacturing process and talk about using recycled materials.

In Your Shop: Tell your story at every opportunity: on your listing pages, within your About page, on a blog or social media site, even somewhere on your packaging materials. Mention unique details in your conservations with buyers, or during in-person transactions. Be as personal and specific as possible so that when consumers are admiring your products, they can imagine and appreciate all that went into making them extra special.

3. Get personal with excellent customer service.

The name “alexandra ferguson” wasn’t just a clever idea that tested well in a focus group — it’s me. I try to show that human touch throughout my brand. And I've found that a high-impact way to do this is through customer service. For example, how many times have you gotten a response from the founder of a company when you sent in an email? When I answer the phone at our factory, and the customer on the other end learns that they are speaking to Alexandra of alexandra ferguson, the response is often “wow.”  Literally, people say, “wow.” As makers, it might be something that we take for granted — I mean, who else is going to pick up the phone?  But for the public at large, speaking directly with the creative behind the product is not something they expect to do, and it delights them.

So many products out in the market feel anonymous — they appear to be made by a machine in a far away place.  But Etsy products are more than “made with love,” they are “made with passion.” Revealing that thoughtful human hand really sets your products apart.

In Your Shop: Make excellent customer service with a personal touch a top priority.  Answer Conversations quickly and thoughtfully. Include photos of your shop that show you in the maker-mode in your About section.  Include a handwritten thank-you note in every order you ship. Be creative; what unique way can you leave the customer feeling positive about their experience with you?

Competition out there is fierce.  Trends will evolve, new players will show up on the scene and you might even have copycats riffing on your best seller. Getting to the top and then staying there is possibly one the hardest parts of running a business.  But rather than bemoan it, I suggest we be thankful for it. It keeps us on our toes and forces us to be better. After all, there is room for all of us. So carve out your specific niche, tell your awesome story, and make sure every interaction with your customer has a personal, thoughtful touch. Celebrate your smallness!  The big companies will be so jealous.

What do you do to celebrate your smallness? Share your suggestions in the comments.


Alexandra Ferguson from alexandraferguson

Before starting her company, Alexandra Ferguson learned to think on her feet from her years working in the New York fashion industry. Check out her Etsy shop,  follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and you might enjoy reading this Featured Seller post from 2009.


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