Last week, a fascinating conversation about Etsy, the price of handmade, and the culture of cheap was taking place over on Crafting an MBA. Before you read this post, I strongly encourage you to go read Megan Auman's thoughtful post: Etsy and the Culture of Cheap, as well as all the comments. I know, there are a lot of them. But trust me, they're well worth the read.
You'll notice I commented on Megan's original post, so why am I writing this entry? Well, I couldn't get this topic out of my head all week, and I thought it was worth the time to craft a more thoughtful, hopefully more eloquent response to such an important topic. So, here goes.
In my comment, I may have made it sound like artists shouldn't get angry about having to defend their prices. So to be clear, I don't think we should lower our prices to appease the masses. Pricing handmade is a balancing act; you want to pay yourself a fair wage, but you also need customers to purchase your item, or you'll just have a massive amount of stock and no customers. Not the best business model. So we should be thoughtful about our pricing, and re-evaluate it every so often to ensure that we are achieving this balance. Just because we're crafters and our businesses are small doesn't mean we shouldn't be answering the 5 Ws of business like everyone else. It's important to keep asking questions like: Who am I? Why is my work valuable? What do I hope to gain by selling it to others? Who is my customer? Where will I find them? How do I get there?
While performing these periodic evaluations, we also need to be realistic. Just as not everyone can be doctors and lawyers, we can't all be the next Martha Stewart; heck, we probably can't all even quit our day jobs to be full-time crafters, as sad and unfortunate as that might be.
And yes, it's okay to get angry that our culture as a whole still doesn't value handmade, that someone who will shell out $40 for a name-brand t-shirt won't spend the same amount of money for a lovingly handcrafted item. But we need to focus our anger in the right direction. Walmart and Etsy are just small pieces of the overall puzzle. We; that is, Americans and American culture, created these marketplaces, for better or worse. It's fine to get mad that big-box retailers are perpetuating the culture of cheap, but we need to also point that finger back at ourselves. What do we need to change to make big-box retailers irrelevant? Is it possible? How can our society start dismantling this culture of cheap?
For one, we need to reteach and relearn, as a society, the value of handmade. How is this done? By reaching out. By telling our stories. When a customer asks why our prices are so high, we can calmly and kindly explain the work and care that goes into each piece. The hours spent, the quality of the materials used, the special techniques employed.
Yes, it sucks to have to tell this story again and again. Why can't people just "get" it? I think we forget that not everyone had mothers or grandmothers or aunts who crafted. Who sewed us school clothes or knit us afghans or taught us their favorite embroidery technique. When I'm at a craft fair, I can pick up an item and appreciate the time it took the artist to make. I might recognize a technique similar to one I use, or one I've seen my mom use, and I understand why the item is priced as it is. But for a lot of people who don't craft themselves and who didn't grow up surrounded by crafters, all they can see is the difference in price between that cotton tote at Target and the cotton tote at a craft fair.
Because money is personal. People, really nice people, can get awfully judgy awfully fast where their pocketbooks are concerned, especially during a recession. After all, if Connie Customer has a right to know why she's shelling out $1,000 to her mechanic, why doesn't she have the same right when she's buying handmade?
So we must keep telling the story. Only through this type of education and outreach can we start to open eyes. Start to affect change. But it will be slow. It will take time. I think many of us, myself included, become frustrated with the pace of change. This may partly be a by-product of our instant-gratification culture, but I think it's also partly anticipatory: I thought it, why can't it be true?
But just because we've managed to shift our thinking doesn't mean that others have done so, or that it will come as easily to them as it may have to us. A bitter pill to swallow, I know. Patience is definitely not a virtue of mine, and I once had a mentor tell me that life would be much easier for me if I didn't expect everyone to be at my level. So I'm learning these lessons right along with everyone else. Telling myself to be patient, to keep teaching others.
We need to shift our thinking from the superficial to the real. What do we value? What is the real cost of our $5 morning coffees or the cute sweater at Banana Republic? What do we want, and what do we need? Where can we trim costs so we have more money to support handmade? What can we get locally? Can we trade goods or services for some of our wants, or even our needs?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Do you believe the culture of cheap is real? Do you think a societal shift toward valuing artisans and their work is unattainable? How do you balance supporting handmade and putting food on the table?
By engaging in the community and continuing to have these conversations, we can overcome the culture of cheap. It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight, but I believe we'll get there.