Etsy’s Surge in Traffic Offers a Glimmer of Hope for Struggling Small Businesses

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Among the harvest of bad economic news wrought by Covid-19 is the plight of the mom-and-pop operator.

While mammoth retailers like Walmart and Amazon have seen shoppers flocking to their sites, smaller businesses (restaurants, corner stores, pet sitters, hair salons) have generally found themselves in dire straits. And as a recent paper from the Brookings Institution warned, “the pandemic crisis will … consolidate the grip that corporate retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and Target have on the trade and push out what small businesses are left.”

But into this bleak picture came a bit of bright news last week, at least for those cheering on these small companies. Online retail platform Etsy reported first-quarter sales of $228 million, an increase of 35% over this period last year.

The crafty cousin of Amazon, Etsy might be a huge online retailer, but its made up of millions of small sellers—2.7 million, to be exact—many of whom hand-make the 65 million items for sale on the platform at any given time.

The first quarter ended on March 31, so its jump in revenues included only the first couple of weeks of the Covid-19 crisis (the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11). Even so, it’s clear that consumers are heading to the platform for more than just the handcrafted item that’ll be a home accent or a special gift. More shoppers are going there clutching a long list of essentials for lockdown living.

“The current situation is causing people to think of Etsy for more than just special items,” a company spokesperson told Adweek. “We’re proving that our marketplace and makers can meet the everyday needs of consumers.”

Masks, for example, are quite popular these days. At a time when medical professionals need every N95 mask there is, Etsy has positioned itself as a viable and individual alternative, selling a huge array of face coverings (masks, scarves and bandanas) and even producing a video on how to choose the right one.

12 hand-sewn face masks with various spot and line designs

Some 60,000 Etsy sellers are now offering homemade masks.
Courtesy of Etsy

During a recent call with sellers, CEO Josh Silverman observed that medical masks were historically not the sort of thing shoppers came to Etsy for.

“Previously, when someone would search for masks, they would be thinking about Halloween masks or maybe cream for their face,” he said.

Realizing that so many people were looking for masks as a Covid-19 prophylactic, Etsy retooled its internal search engine and then reached out to its selling community, advising them to start sewing. The company estimates that 60,000 of its sellers are now putting out masks for sale.

But Etsy’s internal data also shows that Americans have been visiting the platform in search of other Covid-era necessities, such as cleaning supplies, food storage containers and even washable paper towels. There’s also been a surge in demand for diversionary products that Americans, sheltering at home and sick of watching Netflix, can use to stay sane. These include games like lawn dice and hand-drawn playing cards and activities such as embroidery kits.

“Masks were a big part of the story, but we also saw a significant increase in demand across other categories, including home and living, craft supplies, self-care, toys and games and gifting,” the spokesperson said. The company estimates that “non-mask sales” in categories such as self-care and games have risen 79% since last year.

Whether this growth is a direct result of shortages of these items in stores or simply a function of consumers preferring to shop online and have the goods shipped to them is hard to say. It’s clear that the arrival of Covid-19 has led to Americans washing their hands and wiping down surfaces more than they used to, and the widespread unavailability of items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, antibacterial soap and cleaning supplies has been well documented.

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