Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The "culture of cheap" and its broader implications

I'm currently one of many commenting on the latest post at Crafting an MBA entitled Etsy and the culture of cheap. It's an interesting discussion, because it makes somewhat transparent something that has been a relative enigma to many. Considered a trade secret or a private matter, pricing in the indie market is subjective and personally (though not selfishly) motivated. There are full-time artists/crafters/artisans attempting to support their livelihood solely by selling what they make to interested consumers, there are hobbyists looking to simply break even on their addiction, and then there are resellers (supplies and vintage) who are both curating a certain aesthetic and providing full-timers and hobbyists with the accessories they need in order to make their product. The convergence of these three happens at Etsy, and there are a number of people concerned with and actively rejecting the "cheapening" of quality handmade product either by competition or consumer pressure.

The entire concept of pricing is not something with which I am unfamiliar. At work, I deal in dollars and discounts everyday in a market that is stretched and disparate; books are hard to price, hard to sell and even more difficult to discount, especially when someone has to get paid. Most bookstores buy books at wholesale or about 50% off, but then they are expected to ritualistically discount them so as to entice customers. Walk into any Borders or Barnes & Noble and the first thing you see are huge 10-30% off stickers in the corners of each book, and supplemental sections that are actually designed to pay the bills - music (CDs), movies (DVDs), accessories (sidelines), stationery, and the ever-profitable cafe. All of these embellishments to the book-buying experience have been added so that the stores can remain profitable and not only because people demand a well-rounded book buying experience.

When you discount the most valuable part of the experience, you are discounting the quality of the people selling it to you (which has been a slippery slope over the past 10-15 years; bookstores are replacing quality, knowledgeable booksellers with retail puppets ready to ring you up) as well as the person who created, or in this case authored, it. The only people make money are publishers, who are essentially middlemen. The concept of a jobber or middleman is such an important function of capitalism that the convenience and price have blinded us to the bigger picture. So what do we say in response? BUY INDIE! And then we see independent [book]stores nationwide shutting their doors because owning an independent store without significant community need, commitment and some sort of sideline component to your store renders the business incapable of profit because of the inherent low margin of a lot of what we buy. How do we convince people to pay what they should?

As somewhat of a glorified hobbyist, I price what I make in a rather informal way. At the top of my list of things to consider when pricing is whether or not what I am making is affordable to the consumer. I want handmade to be accessible especially because many of us are making things that other people can make themselves. We are providing a service - fabric sandwich bags, purses, earrings, coffee mugs, necklaces, embellished serving ware upon which we can eat our food, etc. - but not one that is in any way designed to sustain the need of another individual or ourselves. I saw a comparison somewhere in the midst of this discussion to the slow foods movement, and my brain was immediately righted. Let me be clear: the issue of acquiring independently created art, craft and design is COMPLETELY separate from the right of a person to have access to healthy food. And there is an inherent heirarchy in that disconnect too, the survival of a community being a priority over the survival of an individual.

I think I just outed myself as a commie.

I would love to continue talking about pricing, cost, the indie handmade movement and all of the pistons and gears involved in forcing it to chug along. I do hold Etsy accountable for the cheapening of handmade with one great exception - they have done for craft and art what farmer's markets, farmshares, and community gardens have done for people who need to eat, and for people who can afford to eat well. They've made good stuff accessible to the middle class. And that's all they've done.

I spent a lot of time thinking last night about where the world was before handmade markets like Etsy, and I was left to ponder what the landscape of choices was like for my mother and grandmother. My mother spent the majority of her working life in "pink collar" federal positions and my grandmother was a stay at home wife and mother with nary a few pennies to rub together. They both made what they needed; it wasn't a choice, it was mandatory. Makers are attempting to integrate themselves into a world previously unfamiliar with buying handmade, in my estimation. We are moving into urban environments, taking over city blocks for craft fairs and special events, and asking our blue collar brethren to pay a lot of money for something, unlike food, that they don't need. Educating consumers is a very realistic and noble goal, and I consider myself to be someone who is actively committed to promoting handmade because it's good for the world. But we need to be careful accusing the naysayers of just being too cheap to pay for quality work. There are millions of people who simply can't afford to shop handmade and opt for Walmart, purses from China and Cheetos over carrots as a means for survival.


  1. nicely done, as usual. Again, we are going NOWHERE in this country until we seriously address the gross difference in social classes we have created. No one wants to seriously talk about it though, we are too busy focusing on issues that don't belong in politics, such as the ever vomit inducing "family values" and abortion. Until we address this issue in a serious way, its still between the have and have nots.

  2. girl, I loooooove you. He he... just kidding, kinda. You hit the nail on the head. Sometimes folks just need to put diapers on their toddles' bums or put milk into their babies' bellies. And the concern over "how is a person gonna survive on her handmade toothbrush cozies when people aren't willing to shell out enough to support her at $25 an hour' kinda drives me a little nuts.

    Work hard, realize you are selling a commodity, and get a day job you feel good about. The days of the Medicis are over people.

  3. Yep, you are sounding a bit commie (and very, very young), and so does hk.

  4. And the youth are the future of this country, Anonymous. Some new ideas and fresh perspectives and getting rid of the status quo is what is needed. The status quo beyond broken.

    P.S. If you want anyone to take your comments seriously, man up and use your name.

  5. I really, really appreciate this post. I haven't been active on Etsy since the end of 2008 because I felt disillusioned with the whole model of handmade retail that's practiced there. In fact, I've been reducing my participation in the whole selling-crafts arena.

    Etsy is not to blame for this, but I really started to feel tired of crafting only items which were profitable. Because there are some things you can make that you can sell at a decent price that people are willing to pay and make a bit of a profit. However, those items are few and they are boring after awhile. Etsy is truly advantageous to those who can mass-produce at some point in their production-- printmakers, for instance, who not only can manufacture a comparatively large number of items but also spend less time photographing and listing than those who make one of a kind items.

    Knitting and sewing is very difficult to do in the handmade marketplace, because people are so used to buying knits and clothing at exceptionally cheap prices. (How often have you seen someone look at a handmade sewn garment and say, "I could get that for way cheaper." I mean literally say it out loud! Things are cheaper when they're made by cheap labour overseas, pointdexter.) And that said, I can't afford $300 handmade garments, either. But I'm not going to say that it's not worthwhile to buy it if you have the money and want to use it in that way.

    To me, buying handmade means paying a premium for the privilege. And still, for some inexplicable reason, some people think that buying handmade should be cheaper, or a place for "deals" to be had.

    Also, there's the issue of the percentage of the handmade marketplace that's made up of luxury goods. Soap and clothing are necessities, sure, but owl necklaces and iPod cozies aren't.


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