I’ve been working in the craft industry for the last thirteen years and as online retailing grows, I feel ever more let down by the state of craft supply retailing. Yes, there are a huge number of private specialized websites I can buy from and yes, I can buy world-wide quickly and easily from businesses on sites like; eBay, Amazon and Etsy… but… I find the customer journey somewhat thwarted, particularly if I am looking for unique, niche inspiration.
Here’s my problem.
I know what I want to buy (roughly) and I like to buy usually from one specific craft niche. I also know how to use search engines to help me find those things, but I often get a real hit and miss batch of search results.
My experience as a craft business coach shows me how little craft business owners know about topics like SEO and so often finding exactly what excites me as a buyer can feel a bit difficult, because the unique supplies I am looking for just don’t show up easily in my niche search, or they are filled with completely irrelevant products. Often the result of this, is that as a shopper I tend to come away from my search without buying anything and feeling a bit despondent.
Now yes, I wholeheartedly believe that if craft business owners knew more about things like SEO then I’d have a much more successful web surfing and online shopping expedition. (Are you a craft business who needs help with SEO? Check out a recent article I wrote)
What if there was a new way to shop? A way to explore the craft market by niche. Now, this is an interesting idea. This is my idea… spotlight retailing.
Introducing ‘Spotlight Retailing’
This isn’t an inherently new concept, but one that has been proven to work in some instances on a ‘closed community’ basis.
Here’s my vision of ‘spotlight retailing’ – A retail environment that brings focus to one craft niche in order to inspire consumers into a purchasing retail platform of specialist and unique retailers.
A great example of what this idea could be is the closed community Ravelry, where you can buy knitting, or crochet patterns, trade yarn, or interact with the yarn community. Ravelry hit over 6 million members in 2016 but was not originally set up as a retailing platform and instead a place where people could come and chat about all things yarn.
What if sites like this weren’t closed communities and were built first and foremost as open retail spaces?
I came across Fibercrafty by chance when I was looking into alternatives to Etsy to talk about here on the blog and I thought it was a really interesting idea to share with you as an example of what I mean by spotlight retailing.
Can you tell me what FiberCrafty is all about?
FiberCrafty is an online marketplace that is just for the fiber community! It is a platform where small, independent businesses can sell their products to fiber crafters. I'm not a fan of this analogy but, it's a little like Etsy but just for fiber loving people.
[In our community] We speak our own language (yarn weights, sheep breed, fiber preps!) and already have our own online communities like Ravelry. Plus we have so many small, independent businesses that supply our crafty habits. It seemed logical to have an online selling platform to help these makers reach their customers! As part of that, I knew it would be helpful for shoppers to be able to search specifically for items using filters to sort through thousands of listings.
How did you get started?
As a knitter, spinner and crocheter, I was driven by the idea of helping small, independent businesses grow. I was also frustrated with the search abilities on one of the larger marketplaces. I had spent 20 years in the software industry and was trying to figure out a way to have a career in the fiber community. I began investigating what it would take to open an online marketplace. My goal was to create an easy to use interface that would allow business owners to spend time doing what they loved (creating!) and less time managing and keeping up a website. I knew they had smaller margins and wanted to keep pricing fair and affordable. I love the filters on Ravelry, and I wished I could shop for yarn and fiber using similar filters, so I included that on my list of requirements, as well. I began mapping out my wish list in detail and then looked for a developer that could help me build the software platform. It was a lot more expensive than we originally thought but decided to go for it after a lot more research.
Can anyone join?
The ideal shop owner is someone supplying the fiber community with materials for making. So, think yarn, fiber, tools, project bags, stitch markers, yarn bowls, etc. That said, we also have a number of shops selling goods that would appeal to fiber crafters like gift cards with sheep themes, dryer balls, woven wall hangings. There are also some shops selling made goods like shawls and other wearables. At present, FiberCrafty can only support shops based in the US. My original goal was to include international support but as we built the site (which is already very complex) I realized that adding international shop support would make it even more complicated because of legal requirements, the ability to handle taxes, integrated shipping, different currencies, etc. I was heartbroken but I still believe it was the right direction for the initial launch. Adding international support is a huge priority and we will be adding it in the future! But as a small business owner and self-funded business, I have to be careful about the choices I make. I would much rather do one smaller thing the right way than try to be everything to everyone and not do a good job. All of the shops have the ability to ship internationally, they just have to be based in the US.
What are the fees?
I wanted to create a fee system that was fair to each individual shop based on their level of sales. Rather than charge a monthly fee, which could mean unbalanced fee-to-revenue ratios, I decided to go with a flat percentage system based on the product cost. This means if the shop owner makes money, FiberCrafty makes money and it is proportional. We don't charge on the shipping fees or tax. PayPal fees are also passed through to the shop owners at cost. There are no fees for opening a shop, creating listings, or for a shopper.
What makes FiberCrafty different from sites like Etsy?
FiberCrafty is exclusively for the fiber community! You don't have to wade through bacon scented candles and dog beds. Much like Ravelry you can use our filters to help find what you are seeking. If you want millspun yarn in a fingering weight, made from Polwarth in purple... you can narrow down the options pretty quickly! Additionally, I am always working to improve the shopping and shop owner experience based on feedback. I often ask the shop owners what would work best for them when making changes to the site. I don't believe I have all the answers by myself and love to crowd source for improvements. Over time, FiberCrafty should evolve based on what the community wants.
I am not a corporation but a small business owner. All the shop owners are also small business owners. Supporting FiberCrafty means supporting 2 small businesses that are dedicated to the fiber community.
Customer service is major priority for me, and I work really hard to create a positive environment. There are other selling avenues available today, like Shopify [private websites], and these are terrific options for some shop owners! But they have to be willing to manage the care and maintenance of their site. Other platform options offer plug ins which offer flexibility but that also introduces security risks and more parts of the site that can get broken. I also firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, meaning that collectively, independent dyers, bag makers, stitch marker designers, etc. can help each other grow their audiences and customer base. For example, a bag maker might draw a customer to FiberCrafty who discovers a new dyer because everyone is under one "roof".
Can Spotlight Retailing gain ground?
Ultimately the success of spotlight retailing platforms will be in the hands of the it’s marketing and community support.
For niche customer bases to find sites like this, the platform owners need strong community-led marketing, and this requires a sizable budget. And for platforms to really entice sales from this marketing over the long-term it requires the independent businesses featured, to support it in terms of an inspiring offer.
I think it is a much more exciting way to buy online as a consumer, especially given just how much noise there is online now. I think it also helps to cement the feeling of ‘community belonging’ and I believe this concept has worked for craft-wide platforms like Etsy become a success.
Thank you to Pam Maher for allowing me to interview her and I wish Fibercrafty huge success!