Big brand names and chain store items aren't for everyone — shoppers or gift recipients. So it's a good thing there's Etsy, the online craft fair that's like like eBay for Martha Stewart acolytes and hipsters. It's one great way in today's marketplace to personalize a gift and support a small business.
For the uninitiated, if there are any, Etsy is collection of online stores, all featuring handmade, one of a kind, or vintage pieces. Rather than being precious or pretentious, Etsy merely presents merchandise you won't find anyplace else.
At first, Etsy can be overwhelming. The home page features a selection of newly listed items and editors picks. Sellers are rated, much like those on Amazon.com and eBay, and customer service representatives are available to mediate problems or disputes, although these are rare, according to Etsy spokesman Adam Brown. But there's a little bit of a wild, wild West feeling here, as there are more than 400,000 active sellers with approximately 7.5 million items listed. And if you visit, you'll be in good company; Etsy had 970 million page views in November, and currently there are roughly 7 million members and buyers using Etsy.
The many listed items are unique in and of themselves — I just snagged a Hunter S. Thompson belt buckle, for example — but there are several ways to get even more customized goods.
Many sellers already offer custom options for things in their shops. Just add the word "custom" to your search to pull them up, and if there's a seller whose work you particularly admire, you can send them a request. Most are thrilled to accommodate.
Etsy Alchemy let's you post a request for something specific you are looking for — say an embroidered pillow with an original saying, or a red dress similar to the one worn by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman — and Etsy sellers will bid on your business. You name the price — $200 for that red dress — set a deadline and it won't be long before it's yours.
There's also a section suggesting last minute gift ideas, and depending on the level of customization and preferred shipping method, you could still get something tailored to your recipient even this close to the holidays. There's also a "buy local" function that lists sellers near you, so you can arrange a pick up in person.
Unsure what to get? There's a gift suggestion feature that accesses your friends on Facebook and suggests items based on their interests and activities. I selected a finicky 12-year-old and Etsy spit back dozens of suggestions, several of which are uncannily perfect, and affordable. Prices on Etsy can go into the thousands of dollars for large works or art, but most are competitive with mass retail chains — that Hunter S. Thompson belt buckle was just $28 with shipping.
"There a ton of stuff on Etsy that's great and inexpensive, but while the price point might be good, there's a real value can't always be measured in dollars," says Etsy's Brown. "You're getting something that has a story and was made by a real person. Not to mention that that things are hand made tend to be better quality than stuff that is mass produced."
Laura Heller is a freelance writer based in Chicago who specializes in mass market retail trends and consumer electronics industries. You can follow her on Twitter @lfheller. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
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