Business

Online crafts marketplace is vast but not impersonal

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Silver Lake resident Charles Scott bypassed the malls and the jewelry district in downtown Los Angeles in shopping for an engagement ring. Searching for something out of the ordinary, he surfed onto Etsy and started clicking through photos of handcrafted diamond rings.

Using the online marketplace's "shop local" function, Scott found a Pasadena jewelry maker whose handmade Moroccan-inspired wares caught his eye.

"I wanted to not have to go to a store and haggle with someone who sells diamonds all day," Scott said. "I had my heart set on finding a local artisan."

What evolved was a unique experience in these days of impersonal retailing, one that emphasized old-fashioned customer service.

In Scott's case, the jeweler helped with his last-minute request — he was popping the big question in only a few days — by personally delivering a sample ring to his office and then hand-delivering the custom-made piece a week later.

Even after the jeweler, Valerie Kronsburg, received her payment, she checked back to make sure Scott and his fiancée were pleased.

"A lot of times you get these people who are fantastic artisans but incredibly curmudgeonly, sort of like you're doing them a favor by dealing with them," Scott said. The purchase on Etsy was one of those "pleasantly opposite experiences."

Etsy is among the largest of the online retailers that hosts and manages the sales of members' handmade and vintage goods.

Victor Domine, spokesman for the Craft & Hobby Assn., said that all signs are pointing to continued, robust growth in craft-making, a $27.4-billion industry in the U.S. in 2009.

Etsy is dwarfed by online giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and EBay Inc., but the 5-year-old privately held company said it celebrated its best holiday season ever last year. The New York company tallied $273.2 million in sales through November, well ahead of 2009's total sales of $180.6 million, Etsy spokesman Adam Brown said. December is on track to be Etsy's biggest month ever, both in dollar volume and in items sold; nearly 35% of Etsy's annual revenue rolls in during the holiday season.

"The current economic environment plays into the strengths of Etsy," said Jeffrey Grau, principal analyst for retail e-commerce at eMarketer, which studies online marketing.

"Buying something that's individually made, a craft object … goes along with this larger trend of people seeking community and family and friendship, instead of indulging," Grau said.

Etsy's 6.9 million vendors live in more than 150 countries. Monogram cufflinks come from western Australia, baby hats are crocheted in a smoke-free home in Turkey. And in sunny Huntington Beach, a photographer shoots and sells personalized messages carved in the sand for those too far from the coast.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing. From its start in June 2005, the company has dealt with growing pains. Users complained about the overwhelming scope of the website, with millions of listed items and limited ways to search and organize.

Some sellers have criticized Etsy's recent aggressive social networking efforts that might promote some shops at the expense of others. (And the company isn't shying away: In November, it announced a partnership with Facebook for a "gift idea" generator that will live on long after the holidays.)

But Etsy is listening, with the help of employees who participate in the discussion forums where users vent and ask for assistance. When the company received $27 million in venture capital funding in 2008, Etsy hired more staff to bolster customer support and better address members' concerns.

Every employee in the company is expected to help answer user e-mails once a month. Etsy says it is committed to having real customer service members promptly respond to all e-mails. It recently launched live chat support for immediate help. Phone support is still in the works.

It also recently streamlined the checkout process, added toolbars to help sellers more easily update their shops, and created a way for users to search for stores by country, city or ZIP Code. Last month, users asked for and got the ability to search more easily through their favorite items.

The company still has a ways to go, but customers are responding with enthusiasm.

If you go to EBay, for example, you'll find a mixed bag of user reviews. Compare that with Etsy: Both top sellers and most lower-volume sellers boast "100% positive" ratings by customers. That's no fluke. Etsy and its sellers abide by the same motto: Keep the customer happy.

Artisans who sign up with Etsy agree to abide by not only its legal terms of use but also its terms of goodwill. That long list of conduct do's and don'ts begins with "We expect all members of Etsy (including Etsy's staff) to treat each other with respect and kindness. Remember that behind every username is a real person with feelings."

Messages back and forth between users are labeled "conversations." All the stores feature prominent links that allow customers to easily communicate directly with the artists. Etsy also hosts a feature in which buyers can request handmade goods they don't see elsewhere on the site. Perhaps most telling: Large retailers and outside advertising aren't welcome because they would dilute the personal relationships that characterize the spirit of Etsy.

"It's really all about getting to know the person. You find people you like," Brown said. "And you can really get a chance to learn something about them and why they do what they do."

Creator and Chief Executive Robert Kalin projected the gross value of the site's traded goods to more than double from 2009 to $400 million by the end of December. In 2011, he hopes to hit $1 billion. The company started turning a profit in 2009 and has exploded from its first year, when it brought in a humble $166,000.

Despite its success, Etsy "still has the look and feel of a mom-and-pop enterprise. Kind of run by the people, for the people," said Sue Daly, co-founder and director of Renegade Craft Fair, which hosts independent do-it-yourself fairs all over the country.

Take that Etsy seller from Huntington Beach, Lenora Regan, who photographs personalized messages she carves in the wet sand. Regan said she enjoys doing what it takes to maintain "100% positive" feedback from her customers. She will reshoot orders if customers aren't completely happy and sometimes surprises them by sending a bonus photo free of charge.

Lisa Bloom, a Pasadena resident and mother of one who visits the site daily, recalls an instance when a clasp broke on a bracelet she had bought. The Etsy seller paid for all the shipping costs, repaired it immediately and promised the same service if it ever happened again.

"She was so willing and happy to make it right," Bloom said. "That's the kind of experience I've had with customer service" on Etsy.

As for Scott, who is now planning an August wedding, finding such a distinct, handmade item combined with the seller's go-the-extra-mile service makes the hustle and bustle of traditional shopping malls less and less appealing.

"My dream … is to do all my shopping online and never have to brave the crowds, and hopefully I can find interesting things at the same time," Scott said. "I definitely will be back."

kelsey.ramos@latimes.com

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