The Marketplace Boom   //   April 18, 2024

Sellers are worried about the ‘Amazon-ification’ of Etsy and are considering other platforms

“By any measure, Etsy starts 2024 a much more meaningful e-commerce company than we were just a few years ago,” CEO Josh Silverman told investors at Etsy’s fourth-quarter earnings call in February. He cited the e-commerce platform’s buyer base doubling, “which has now grown on a year-over-year basis for four consecutive quarters.”

Much of that is due to Etsy’s merchant growth. The number of Etsy sellers rose 21% from 2022 to 2023, according to the marketplace. But this growth may have come at a cost: some merchants tell Modern Retail they’ve found the site harder to use due to increased competition, SEO troubles and hiked fees.

Etsy has long marketed itself as a go-to destination for handmade and personalized goods. But some sellers say they’ve felt crowded out by accounts selling items in bulk, dropshipping products or offering items at low price points. Add to that Etsy’s fee structure — which rose in 2022 from 5% per sale to 6.5% — and some sellers say it’s difficult to make enough money to support themselves, especially in an inflationary environment.

Modern Retail spoke with five sellers about their experiences selling on Etsy in the last five years. The sellers work in various categories including fashion and general merchandise. All joined Etsy in hopes of selling handcrafted or vintage items. Now, some believe the site operates in a manner akin to Amazon, as the site has become proliferated with dropshipped items, dupes and print-on-demand services — some of which are listed in ways that violate Etsy’s policies. Sellers also voiced concerns about the number of seemingly mass-manufactured items on the platform.

When contacted for this piece, Etsy did not provide an on-the-record statement. However, an Etsy spokesperson said the company considers it critical to protect the integrity of Etsy’s marketplace. After Modern Retail sent Etsy links to listings that appear to break the platform’s rules, Etsy team members reviewed the listings, decided they violated Etsy’s policies and removed them from the platform.

“I think a lot of the stuff on Etsy now is stuff that you could easily get on Amazon,” one jewelry seller who wished to remain anonymous told Modern Retail. “I think that the platform is just really, really crowded, and it’s less about artisans competing with each other, and more about artisans competing with these other players.”

Etsy has made some recent moves to appease sellers. Earlier this year, it added expiration dates to certain coupons, something sellers had requested. And, not every seller has had a negative experience with the company. One seller, Danna Crawford, told Modern Retail she’s been able to move merchandise faster on Etsy than some other platforms. “I had a doll listed on eBay for over a year, and it sold on Etsy within six months,” Crawford, who mainly sells memorabilia, said. “It was an international sale, and it was a very easy process.”

Still, others tell Modern Retail that they no longer sell on the platform, are thinking of leaving or have stopped buying gifts for others on Etsy as a whole.

Etsy’s changing selling landscape

Etsy was founded in 2005 as an alternative to companies that sold mass-manufactured goods. Its network of artisanal sellers is its selling point. “You are not buying directly from Etsy, but from one of the many talented sellers on Etsy,” Etsy’s buyer policy says. Its policy is also careful to note that “Etsy does not pre-screen items sold on Etsy and therefore does not guarantee or endorse any items sold on Etsy.”

On the backs of these sellers, Etsy has been able to build a big business. It went public in 2015 and now has a market cap of more than $8 billion. Etsy reached an “all-time high” of 92 million active buyers in 2023, according to its earnings results. It also achieved its highest quarterly revenue, $842 million, during its most recent fourth quarter.

Etsy requires anyone selling handmade items to label these as such, per Etsy’s handmade policy. Dropshipping — a type of fulfillment in which a seller outsources aspects of production such as storing and shipping — is also permitted under Etsy’s rules, as long as the dropshipped items meet certain requirements. They cannot, for instance, be listed as “handmade” if the seller did not make or design at least part of the product. Sellers can work with production partners like printing, casting and engraving companies to make final products, provided they disclose information about their production partners on listings and to Etsy.

Offering handmade items is key to Etsy’s value proposition — a key point of differentiation from companies like eBay or Depop. On those platforms, much of the focus remains on resale rather than on giving merchants the ability to showcase handcrafted goods.

And yet, some Etsy sellers are starting to use the platform to push out items that appear antithetical to Etsy’s original vision.

Etsy only permits the resale of vintage goods and crafts supplies, per its policy. But Modern Retail found listings on the platform for fast-fashion blazers, shirts and jackets from retailers like H&M and Shein. Those listings were taken down after Modern Retail flagged them to Etsy’s team.

Bulk items, too, are commonplace, from bundles of enamel chains to “mystery packs” of rings. And, as The Atlantic reported last year, Etsy shoppers can buy AI-generated goods like designs for coloring books or clip art.

“I think the homey, arts-and-crafts, really cute-and-innocent feel of Etsy kind of went away,” Kiara Mendez, a former Etsy seller who left the platform in 2020, told Modern Retail. “I was automatically turned off by that.”

An Etsy spokesperson told Modern Retail that Etsy uses a combination of automatic controls, manual review and flags from users to monitor listings and review policy violations. The company also cited soon-to-be-released data from its annual Transparency Report in which Etsy upped the number of items it took down, as well as the number of sellers it suspended in violation of its rules.

The spokesperson also said that Etsy recently expanded its team of content moderators and strengthened its automated detection systems to find and remove listings that violate rules around resold items or mass merchandise.

A growing SEO drumbeat

As mentioned in Etsy’s terms of use, sellers have freedom with their product descriptions and how they choose to lay out their listings. But not all descriptions seem to reflect what’s being offered — a point some competing sellers say puts them at a disadvantage.

When scrolling through Etsy, Modern Retail came across instances of product listings peppered with similar but unrelated buzzwords. A journal, for example, was listed as a journal, but also as a sketchbook, kids’ art, a gift and personalized drawings. A necklace was listed as being “rainbow,” but its stones come in one color, depending on what option a buyer picks.

When a listing title includes the same keywords over and over again, this is known as “keyword stuffing.” In a recent Etsy-led Q&A, Andrew Stanton, director of search at Etsy, acknowledged this happens on the platform but warned: “Keyword stuffing does not help you on Etsy.”

“Be very thoughtful about those titles,” he said. “Make sure it’s factual, make sure it’s relevant… [and] make sure that all the descriptors you use in that title are true to your listing.”

Etsy’s approach to SEO is somewhat similar to Amazon’s. Picking the right keywords for listings is critically important, and both platforms allow sellers to pay to advertise their products in search results and other pages. But for sellers who don’t use ads, knowing which keywords get results becomes even more important, Etsy sellers told Modern Retail.

“The reason we’re all on Etsy and not on our own websites is for the exposure, because at the end of the day, it’s a search engine,” the anonymous seller told Modern Retail.

“If you know how to use [SEO], you can be seen more, but it kind of sucks for people like me who want to sell items, but don’t really understand it, and then our stuff gets pushed to the bottom,” Carissa Hawkes, who sells reworked clothes on various platforms including Etsy, said.

An Etsy spokesperson told Modern Retail that the platform provides sellers with search resources, including its Ultimate Guide to Etsy Search. They added that the platform hosts webinars and live listing critique sessions for sellers to get feedback and advice from Etsy employees on how to improve listings.

Handmade versus non-handmade

Much of what’s sold on Etsy is labeled as “handmade,” but some sellers appear to take creative liberties with that term.

Some of these listings say the goods can be customized — which falls under Etsy’s dropshipping rules for handmade items — but others look as they would on the brand’s website without any added designs or personalized features. For example, Modern Retail found instances of Stanley tumblers being listed on Etsy as “handmade,” although they had pictures of the products in their original packaging. (Several of these listings were also taken down after Modern Retail flagged them to Etsy’s team.)

Etsy says that it bars sellers from listing “false, inaccurate or misleading information” in listings and that it may suspend or terminate accounts that do so. On an earnings call in November, Etsy’s leadership mentioned that it saw a 120% spike in “handmade” items taken down during the third quarter.

“I’m… pleased to say that in just a few months of work, we’ve nearly cut in half the percentage of visits where a buyer comes across a violating listing based on our constant sampling of the marketplace,” Silverman, the CEO, said. “While buyers don’t come to Etsy looking for mass-manufactured merchandise, it’s critical we do an ever-better job elevating the best of Etsy to keep Etsy special in the minds of our buyers and sellers.”

According to Etsy’s soon-to-be-released 2023 Transparency Report, Etsy removed four times as many listings and suspended two times as many sellers for violating its handmade policy in 2023 than it did in 2022.

Fee trouble

Another issue sellers tell Modern Retail they are running into is fees. In February, Etsy began charging new sellers $15 to set up a shop on the site.

In addition, when Etsy sellers sell an item, they have to pay a transaction fee of 6.5%. Etsy raised this percentage from 5% in February 2022. At the time, some sellers went on strike, saying the hike would negatively affect their businesses and ability to make a profit.

While transaction fees aren’t unusual, some platforms have nixed them to appeal to cash-strapped sellers. Mercari, for instance, previously had a 10% flat commission for every sale made on the platform but eliminated the fee entirely earlier this year.

Etsy sellers have voiced concerns about fees for many years. One seller told Modern Retail in 2022, “When I opened my shop about seven years ago, the fees were minimal. But now I’m finding myself coming up short after every sale.”

Mendez, the former Etsy seller, opened a store during the pandemic in 2020. At the time, she said, her friend had started selling on Etsy and recommended that Mendez post some of her journals and stickers for sale as well. “I created the account, but the moment I saw the amount of fees they had, I just automatically thought, ‘This isn’t worth it,'” Mendez told Modern Retail.

Mendez ended up running the store for a few months before getting off of Etsy. She has friends who remain on the platform but she described them as “super discouraged.”

“By the time they make earrings and sell them, they’re not making much,” Mendez said. “But because they make handmade crafts, they don’t know where else to post them, because there’s not really another website or app out there that caters to that like Etsy.” Mendez said some of her friends who remain on Etsy have cut the number of listings they have in half.

Sellers also told Modern Retail they’re upset about listing fees. For years, Etsy has asked sellers to pay $0.20 for each item they list on the platform or app. This fee exists regardless of whether sellers manage to sell the item. listings expire after four months, but sellers can pay another $0.20 per listing to have them renewed. There is no fee for editing an existing listing.

Hawkes, who makes reworked clothing, set up a shop on Etsy five years ago. She used to post dozens of items a year but now has no active listings. “I was like, ‘I need to go on a platform where my listing can just sit there and not collect fees,'” she said. On Etsy, “I wasn’t selling enough and I kept losing money.”

Hawkes soon moved to the fashion marketplace Depop, as well as the thrifted fashion app Teleport. Depop, founded in 2011, has 35 million registered users. In 2021, Etsy acquired Depop for $1.6 billion. Unlike its parent company, though, Depop has a different fee structure. For instance, Depop sellers can list items for free. (An Etsy spokesperson contacted for this piece stressed that while Depop has no listing fee, it passes the fee onto buyers.)

Other e-commerce platforms have done away with seller fees. Teleport, per its description in the Apple Store, “has zero selling fees so you keep 100% of what you earn.” Hawkes averaged about 10 sales a year on Etsy but managed to surpass that on Teleport in her first year on the platform. Mendez began selling thrifted clothing on Teleport in January 2023 and “started getting sales right away,” she said.

Mendez also uses Jamble, a live shopping and resale app based in France. Sellers don’t have to pay to list on Jamble, but this is “subject to vary over time,” per the company’s terms of use. Jamble is home to some 700,000 listings, according to its website.

Depop, Teleport and Jamble mainly carry fashion, but additional platforms are popping up as alternatives to Etsy. These include Michaels MakerPlace, Artisan Cooperative and Handmade founder and CEO Roberto Milk told Modern Retail the platform was built specifically for those selling handmade goods, and that it prohibits mass-produced products and listings by dropshippers.

The rise of these apps, coupled with sellers’ growing discontent, means a change may be on the horizon. Mendez told Modern Retail she is already having a better experience selling on these challenger platforms.

“To be honest, I don’t buy anything from Etsy anymore,” she said. “Whenever I do find something on Etsy that I like, I actually try to contact the seller through Instagram or something to try to help them maintain more of the fees.”