This is what Etsy has become and it’s too bad too. The site was originally for selling hand crafted items crafted by the shop owner but then Etsy began allowing major manufacturing companies to sell their garbage on there.
As I stated above, there are companies in Hong Kong that saturate Etsy with pages and pages of their items. It’s so frustrating having to wade through a zillion pages of beads just to find something I need.
I have a store on Etsy and in the past couple of years have only sold three or four pieces. I finally opened up a store on Storenvy.com. Maybe between the two I can sell enough items to take myself out to dinner.”
–Sandie Johnson, commenter on the FastCompany article published last week, “How One Knitter Makes Almost $1 Million a Year on Etsy” about the shop, Three Bird Nest
The outrage in Sandie Johnson’s comment is representative of the online craft community’s reaction to the recent press coverage of Three Bird Nest. Articles from FastCompany, The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail, and Yahoo! Makers have all expressed awe at what one stay-at-home mom has been able to earn with her craft hobby. These articles have generated a slew of critical comments like Sandie’s.
Three Bird Nest is an online business run by Livermore, California resident, Alicia Shaffer. Although she has her own ecommerce site, the press coverage has focused on her Etsy shop which features trendy, bohemian chic merchandise similar in style to what you might find in a brand like Free People. The most popular items are knit headbands, scarves, leg warmers, and boot cuffs.
At first glance none of this seems particularly remarkable or newsworthy. But then you look closer.
Three Bird Nest’s sales volume is enormous. 98,000 Etsy sales which, combined with her stand-alone online shop, brings in $960,000 a year according to what she told Fast Company. Selling anything labeled as handmade in that kind of volume attracts a good deal of attention.
These numbers beg questions. How can you have 182 pairs of hand knit legwarmers in stock, while also stocking hundreds of other products labelled as handmade?
Alicia Shaffer is a 38-year-old serial entrepreneur. She graduated from California State University in Sacramento in 1997 with a BA in Communications and Public Relations. In 2004, after the birth of her first child, she and her husband founded Goo-Ga Style, Inc. Their main product was the Peanut Shell Baby Sling. Here’s Alicia in the introduction of the instructional video for the sling and here she is doing a TV interview about the product.
At a time when baby products were just beginning to transition from traditional pink and blue fabrics into a modern style, the Peanut Shell was on the cutting edge. “My husband and I cut out some newspaper and made a pattern. We took that to a seamstress and asked, ‘Could you make this out of this fabric and add a pocket here?'” Shaffer said.
The product took off and the company grew to have five full-time employees and $2 million in annual revenue. The Peanut Shell sling was sold at Nordstrom, Target, and Babies R Us and Alicia contracted with a PR firm to helped her to get slings into the hands of celebrities including Baby Spice and Brooke Shields who were photographed using it. She ran the company until 2010, eventually handing it over to the Farallon Brands.
Toward the end of the time that she owned Go-Gaa Style, Alicia founded a new company, Wink Shapeware, based on another product for new moms: the Wink Belly Band. She owned Wink from 2009-2011. Here she is modeling one of the Wink styles.
And in 2011, she founded a third business – a brick-and-mortar women’s boutique called Prim with two retail branches in the Bay Area.
Alicia did the merchandising for the shop and it was there, she says, that she started selling the headbands that later became her first successful product on Etsy.
One aspect of Alicia’s story that is repeated over and over again in all of the press coverage is that she started her incredibly successful Etsy shop “on a whim.” This is a phrase Alicia uses when she tells her own story to the press. She also explains that she was just trying earn a little spending money. “I opened an Etsy shop, figuring I’d help pay for my kids’ soccer and dance lessons to supplement the boutique’s sales,” she told Fast Company. This spin helps to create a dramatic arc in her story, painting the picture of an overnight and accidental success.
Clearly, though, Alicia Shaffer knows a lot about selling products to women. She has a decade’s worth of experience developing products, sourcing, manufacturing, and marketing women’s soft good products in different forms with four businesses. It’s safe to say that Three Bird Nest’s success is carefully calculated, worked on, and managed.
Three Bird Nest has 10,7000 Instagram followers and 160,000 Facebook fans. The shop’s aesthetic is expertly carried through on all of these sites, including their newsletter and stand-alone website. None of this is effortless or accidental.
The first products Alicia listed on Etsy in the Three Bird Nest shop were, at least in part, handmade. We see legwarmers and cowls upcycled from vintage sweaters, for example. This was the winter of 2011 and Etsy was standing behind a policy that all items for sale on the site be handmade by the shop owner.
A year or so in Alicia hired a professional model, Alexa Gill, to model her products and a professional photographer to shoot her listing photos. We start to see the impeccably styled photos and slightly sexy product shots that are Three Bird Nest’s signature look. Here you can see a behind-the-scenes video of a product shoot.
Gray lace headband for sale by Three Bird Nest.
By the fall of 2013 the products are clearly no longer made by Alicia, a fact that Alicia doesn’t hide. She told Fast Company that her products are sourced in India. “We finish them here, adding lace trimmings and buttons,” she said.
The amount of hand finishing could be called into question.
Three Birds Nest has 95 of these American flag infinity scarves in stock for $38 a piece. “Thus (sic) is our exclusive own print and fabric!!” the listing states. They’re marked as a handmade item. On the right are what look to be very similar scarves on Alibaba for sale 100 units at a time.
Here we have a set of boot cuffs from the brand PeekABoot Socks for sale on Zulily for $14.99, replete with buttons and lace. On the right seemingly identical boot cuffs sold by Three Bird Nest on Etsy for $28 where the listing states, “Three Bird Nest headbands, scarves & leg warmers are creatively designed, uniquely crafted, carefully measured, cut and made by hand.” On Zulily there’s is no implication that the cuffs are handmade.
In October of 2013 Esty made a significant policy shift in what they allow on the site. Instead of a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition of handmade which was difficult to enforce, Etsy chose to allow sellers to employ manufacturing partners to help them produce goods with the caveat that they’d have to disclose the existence of these partnerships to Etsy and to the buying public.
It seems Alicia has disclosed the factories she works with to Etsy, although it would be difficult for the general public to fully understand this from the language in the listings. That being said, Alicia Shaffer’s shop is no secret to Etsy. In fact, they embrace it. Three Bird Nest was featured in a January “Etsy Finds” email the site sent out to hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Alicia Shaffer is the new Etsy success story. And that story is not the same as it once was.
The Etsy success story of 2009 was Yokoo Gibran whose Etsy shop went viral when her super-chunky crochet scarves were featured in the Fashion and Style Section of the New York Times. Her merchandise was unique and ahead of the curve. Yokoo crocheted every single item, working 13 hours a day to earn $140,000 a year.
A year and a half later, the Etsy success story is Alicia Shaffer, a savvy online retailer who sources products from overseas factories, styles them, and sells them as handmade with Etsy’s blessing. And by blessing Alicia, Etsy benefits from her press coverage, her social media savvy, and her tens of thousands of dollars in monthly fees.
The relationship is symbiotic. By invoking Etsy, which she enthusiastically does in every interview, Alicia benefits from the status of being a handmade brand. Take Etsy out of the equation and Three Bird Nest is less newsworthy. Alicia’s story goes from, “Look at this stay-at-home mom with a passion for knitting who accidentally made it big,” to, “Here’s an entrepreneurial woman with a serious work ethic who sources merchandise from overseas factories and sells them successfully online.” Still worthy of admiration, but not nearly as remarkable.
Alicia Shaffer is a perfect match for Etsy today. She’s mastered the art of standing out in a crowded marketplace. She’s taken Etsy’s revised policies and pushed them to the limit. And she’s working the handmade ethos of Etsy’s brand into her own business to maximize publicity. It feels outrageous and aggravating, and it’s working brilliantly.
*I originally wrote that Three Bird Nest model, Alexa Gill, was Alicia Shaffer’s sister. Although Alicia Shaffer has stated in multiple places that Alexa Gill is her sister, and on Sunday Feb. 22 Alexa Gill added Alicia Shaffer as her sister on Facebook, she is in fact of no relation.
**Here is the record of the shipping container imported from China with the acrylic leg warmers, hats, headbands and scarves Three Bird Nest sells in their Etsy shop as handmade.
***August 26, 2015 Three Bird Nest has left Etsy claiming that Etsy has not been supportive. Etsy released the following statement to Yahoo Makers: “At Etsy, we work with our sellers to help them grow their businesses and uphold our policies, which are vital to the integrity of our marketplace. If an Etsy seller still cannot live up to her responsibilities, provide the level of customer service our buyers expect or comply with our handmade policy, we may take appropriate action. While we generally don’t comment on specific sellers, Three Bird Nest was unable to demonstrate sufficient compliance with our policies.”