follow-up: “buy handmade” doesn’t work

My post on why using “Buy Handmade” as a marketing mantra doesn’t work elicited quite a response. Thank you thank you thank you.

One common theme I heard over & over again is that people should buy handmade or independently produced work because they should care about the people who make it. Noble. But ultimately unrealistic.

There will always be people who care about those who design & labor. There will always be people who are willing to spend more so that others may live [better]. But, in the end, people choose to spend the vast majority of their money on what works for them and them alone.

Handmade & independently designed goods must stand on their own two feet – or knitting needles – and provide unique benefits to the consumer. If an individual product doesn’t provide the value & benefit a consumer is looking for, they will buy something else. No matter how loudly we shout, “Buy Handmade.”

Handmade has a different story to tell. Tell it.

Please know that I’m not talking about telling a different story as a movement. I’m begging you to consider the story you’re telling as an individual: a consumer, a maker, a citizen. Step away from the movement and consider the story you have to tell about your own experience and the story of what you produce.

Most people don’t care so much about who makes their purchases, how that person lives or works, or where their kids go to school. They’re not heartless – they just have many, many other things on their minds. These people are our friends and family. They are the people we want desperately to shout with us, “Buy Handmade!”

They just might listen if we tell a different story. Or we might need to look elsewhere.

Nicole, of Three by Sea, commented with similar sentiments and a short little email conversation ensued. Her final reply was so poignant & on the money that I asked if I could post it here. Find it below:

I remember having just opened an Etsy shop and starting my blog shortly before the holidays in 2008 and that “Buy Handmade” badge being promoted that year as well. And like a good little maker, I put it on my site and shouted it from the rooftops.

And got crickets from the people around me that I know.

I’m working on it, but I still struggle with standing up for myself, so to speak, and announcing this is what I offer, this is what it costs, and these are the benefits to you. Too often I feel like I get sucked back into having the cost conversation (especially with friends) which only leads to frustration and feeling resentful of those friends who place dollars above all else.

We as makers need to accept that we can’t change everyone’s minds and not allow ourselves to be discouraged by that fact.

Tara: I think we also have to accept that, for most of us, our friends & family are not our customers. And it can actually be dangerous to listen to their opinions.

Our customers are out there – there is plenty of money exchanging hands in this country. But part of finding those people is sending the right message about what we produce.

So true. I think part of my frustration has been that for far too long I’ve held onto the false belief that my friends and family were going to be this automatic, built-in support system, as customers, blog subscribers, and as a sounding board for ideas or struggles.

I’m just now beginning to see that trying to do what I want while somehow still cater to them is severely holding me back. As scary as it seems, I need to set sail into the wild blue yonder and find my true crew of folks who want to be a part of what I’m offering. In some ways, I almost feel like I’m starting from scratch. So be it.

Time for me to sink or swim, baby, because this treading water only leads to frustration, exhaustion, and eventually, drowning.

Boo to drowning.

{ hand printed crab tea towels by three by sea }

23 thoughts on “follow-up: “buy handmade” doesn’t work

  1. I love this follow up post, because it really helps artists and crafters {like myself} understand that we need to market our products to the people who will buy them–which is usually not our friends and family members. And, focus on the problem that our products solve for our targeted market.

  2. good topic! i think that in the “real world” a whole lot of people don’t understand “handmade”. i work the brooklyn flea, i hear a lot of, “$35 for a vase?????”

    my “buy handmade” sign sits on the table. i explain to each person who comes by. if they balk, i explain the process. and sometimes i tell them they can buy something from china at target, if i’m feeling really snarky.

    baby steps, but i’m trying

  3. I agree that handmade products should stand on their own. They should be quality products that do something, even without the story.

    But to say unequivocally that it’s unrealistic for people to care about the maker seems a bit cynical. The handmade movement is only a part of the movement challenging the status quo of our current global economic system. The Fair Trade movement, Organic/Local/Slow Food movements, Sweatshop-free and Anti-Trafficking movements all ask people to care about the makers, producers, and growers. Even some established corporations work towards having a better “triple bottom line”.

    At the end of the day, a finely crafted piece of jewelry is still just a piece of jewelry. And the best fair trade coffee in the world is still just really good coffee. It’s the story that it’s hand-crafted or grown responsibly by fairly compensated people that continues to drive people to choose the product they do.

    We need to continue to tell the handmade story and produce quality work, both It is a combination of the two that sustains our work over the long haul.

    *I should perhaps add that I tell this story many times a week. I work in a jewelry store where everything is made by women wore were formally trafficked or at risk of being trafficked. Some people come in knowing the story, to help the cause. Others wander in off the street and just like the gorgeous jewelry. The cause lovers keep buying because the jewelry is genuinely gorgeous and different. The jewelry lovers repeatedly choose us over the mall because the story is compelling.

  4. Such a great follow up!

    I think about the maker of the goods I buy when I purchase handmade or from small businesses. I do that because I too have a handmade business.

    When I am at Ikea getting storage bins, I am not thinking about who made them. I agree that most people do not consider who made their goods.

    People think about themselves. Not in a selfish way, but they do. We are human. We want to know “what’s in it for me?” not “that’s so nice that you made this with your own two hands.”

    Yes, some people care, but in general it is about themselves.

    I think it is human nature. It isn’t something we should scoff, it’s inevitable so embrace it and figure out how to turn it into sales. Easier said than done, but I am trying :).

  5. Been dwelling & writing on these exact sentiments all week! Finding your tribe, your crew, no matter your intention or the actions you take — this notion — is one of the most important elements in the cement of our individual & shared foundations. So ironic – this just furthers my belief in the power of the a collective consciousness – “hive mind” —

    will be siting this post! xox

  6. I’ve just realized this very same thing when it comes to family. I recently branched out into embroidery and met a great reception from my blog followers, fans, and customers. However, when I told my mother what I was working on, she replied that she’d rather see me doing my pen and ink artwork. I acknowledged her comment but decided to keep doing what gives me enjoyment. I’ll never give up my pen and ink but for now I’d like to play with thread for a while longer. You’re absolutely right that our customers are out there. All we have to do is tell our individual stories with passion.

  7. Yes, yes, yes. I feel like these posts are directed at me – my family & friends are the last people who would buy handmade, even if it was made by me. Even within my city, most people turn their noses up at handmade, regarding it as less-than-worthy, if only because you can’t get it at Wal-Mart. Accepting that – and it wasn’t easy – has made me refocus my marketing and my work onto my ‘real’ market. Finding people who care about uniqueness, as well as handmade quality, is an ongoing challenge, but I’m up for it :)

  8. Interesting comments Tara.

    I think that we all forget that standing strong and believing in yourself will also result in your family and friends believe in you too. It is a reciprocity that works 100%. It is a little backwards psychology, but it is proven that people congregate around leaders, not around needy. So, if you are looking to build a business of any kind, you need to find an anchor and resolve in yourself first.

    The other trick is to never let go of that anchor, otherwise you won’t really get a support. It is extremely hard, I know, but once you learn the lesson you don’t forget it.

    I think this is the main reason why so many businesses are started and shut down shortly. One either learns this or doesn’t.

    I know this is not exactly what we expect of our friends and family, but most people instinctively avoid supporting ideas and projects that are not wholehearted. Of course there are other circumstances that play in success, but this is the main issue in gaining the support of your closer community.

    Also, I want to add some other perspective to this issue. Just a year or two the “buy handmade” slogan was not that widely known. I think this kind of activism has made a progress, even if it doesn’t directly “work”. Today we can actually discuss if the slogan works or not, two years ago there wouldn’t be enough audience to share in this discussion. :)

  9. Wow what a great conversation. I just caught up on yesterday and I love what has transpired. This past week presented me with a situation that made me reevaluate my goals. I am a visual artist currently creating “mixed media digital prints”. It’s a mouthful and most people have no idea what that means, but that is not my point. I rely on a camera for my work, and last weekend my brand new still not paid for camera was stolen. I am in beginning stages of building an online business and the money is not flowing. This forced me to think about where I am and where I want to go. I realized my goals were not big enough, and my voice not loud enough. To get past this and earn my next camera will require a lot of story telling in my very best voice. Getting my blog design perfect, or posting buy handmade badge has little to do with it ( though I love tweaking my sites and badges). My friends and family are very supportive of my work, but they are not my customers, and mostly are not following me online. So I am taking stock of what I have, and what my story is. I want to sell my product not just because it is beautiful, but because it matters. I want my success to be part of a movement not a trend. I love what @Elizabeth says:

    At the end of the day, a finely crafted piece of jewelry is still just a piece of jewelry. And the best fair trade coffee in the world is still just really good coffee. It’s the story that it’s hand-crafted or grown responsibly by fairly compensated people that continues to drive people to choose the product they do.

    We need to continue to tell the handmade story and produce quality work, both It is a combination of the two that sustains our work over the long haul.

    Agreed! The story matters. Like Nicole I feel like I’m almost starting from scratch, but somehow that also feels like progress.

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts, and Tara for encouraging them.

  10. These articles have made me think much deeper about the handmade movement, how important it is, and what tangible changes it is trying to achieve. I’m honestly glad people feel comfortable enough to question the mantra “Buy Handmade” and they’re not just doing it to feel good about themselves. Questioning is a positive thing! A person asking, “Why? is handmade really better? what are its benefits to me?” is indicative of even just a little bit of curiosity inside of them, and if we can give that person an informative, confident answer, the handmade movement not only gains more credibility, it also might gain a new convert… even if that person doesn’t consciously realize yet that their feelings are changing ; )

    I think the most significant part of this article for me personally is the bit about family and friends not necessarily being an automatic support system. This has been an ongoing issue for me. I’m finally getting the confidence I should have had all along to tell myself that, yes, they’re my friends and family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know what’s best for me or know what really makes me happy. I thought of a quote from D.H. Lawrence as I was reading this article; maybe it will be helpful to others also dealing with this issue: “I cannot cure myself of that most woeful of youth’s follies – thinking that those who care about us will care for the things that mean much to us.” It helped me put things in perspective: for example, my mom really does love me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s willing to sit and swap creative visions ; ) This article has helped reinforce these relatively new (and healthier) feelings and expectations. Thank you!

  11. From a completely outsider point of view since I am not a crafter or an artist or even own a business, I would like to suggest the following thoughts that this great post prompted in me…(I am not the most eloquent writer so please bear with me…)

    Although I agree with most all that has been said, I have to add that if you would like people to hear and understand and buy into your story as a handmade seller, you have to be prepared to hear and understand and buy into the customer stories as well! The truth is that there is way too much choice and clutter out there for everyone to make all the right consumer choices all the time. That has nothing to do with a person’s desire to do so, whether that person is a good person or not, egoist or not, noble or not, wants to support the movement, is trying to change the status quo, etc., but everything to do with whether that person knows about the alternatives, knows about your story and your alternative and whether it works for them. If one person lives and breathes handmade, another does not and for him/her the sheer magnitude of trying to go handmade, organic, fair trade, etc. can be extremely overwhelming on a daily basis. I try to support handmade, I love handmade, but I do not always buy handmade and that can be based on a multitude of reasons from not knowing to time/money or accessibility. I mean try to imagine doing a cost/benefit analysis on all your purchases every day, every week before you make them so that your analysis has an equal consideration for you, your family, for the manufacturer/seller, the environment, the society…I am getting exhausted just thinking about the idea of it!

    Also, without getting caught in generalizing and stereotyping – not all people buy handmade, but not all people shop at big box stores either. Right now I think there are plenty of people (consumers) in the middle trying to figure it out just as you are trying to do the same!

    I do believe though that for a handmade business or any type of business for that matter to be able to stand on its own it has to know its core target customer, the people that resonate with your story and the other way around. That implies that you know you story. That there is a story, a purpose, not a result (as suggested in one of the talks below). It is probably just as overwhelming for you to reach that core, to find that customer as it is for them to find you, but you have to really understand why you do the things you do and who your target customers are in order to find them and then grow and expand.

    In the end, I would like to believe that it’s not about egoism and nobility and any other type of adjective. People are just that – people! With all their imperfections – me, you, her and him, they all are, we all are. And instead of trying to put everyone in neat little groups and categories, instead of trying to judge or strive and expect and demand for everyone to live by our own and very personal standards and lifestyles, let’s try to embrace the idea that what makes us such a great bunch is that fact that we are all different but that it’s the fine nuances that connect us all on some level and that’s what we need to find.

    I would allow myself to post the following links below, which I believe to be every bit as thought provocative as Tara’s post are (or at least for me)…

    Ted Talk – Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action
    http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

    Ted Talk – Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice
    http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

    TED Talk – Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing
    http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html

    TED Talk – Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html

    Brené Brown – The Perfect Protest
    http://www.ordinarycourage.com/

    Elie

  12. There is a deep disconnect in this country between who we envision ourselves to be and who we actually are… want to know how I know? Because no matter what we say or believe, almost all of us find ourselves quite regularly shopping at Walmart.

    Until maybe the last 10 years, when I realize the impact on the environment that Walmart has, I have been a supporter of the Walmart idea– not a hater. Why? Because Sam Walton asked “What do my customers want?” and he (and his team) cracked themselves OUT in order to provide it.

    Middle America has a desire for beauty as well, for the quality and the handmade. And there is only a small percentage of our generally wealthy country who can’t afford to shop on Etsy.

    So why Doesn’t Etsy = Walmart? This in my opinion goes back to the dichotomy of intention– we intend to provide ourselves with beauty, but we actually need school supplies. SO, we go to Walmart, and holy shitbuckets! Somehow, when we leave, our carts are overflowing with “beautiful things” that are crap and travel MANY miles to get to our door and were so cheap as to suddenly transform from cute-impulse-handbag to hand-job-prostitute before our eyes.

    Walmart et al have become the master of our impulses and because we do not want to admit it, we hide it– from ourselves and from each other.

    I agree with Tara… Waving a banner does NOT work. Intention does, however. It’s sort of like deciding to go to the gym. The intention has to becoming physical and habitual– both as a consumer, as a business owner, and as an impulse buyer who needs shopping fixes fixed.

    How do we do that? Well, I can recommend one action: stop going into stores that don’t sell what you believe. Subtract one from your life, then one more.

    Soon you’ll have more impulse cash to spend where you REALLY want to.

  13. I want to thank you for this topic. My medium is a bit different in that I create mineral eye colors and for years and years have been trying to explain to my family what it is I actually do and why my products are so much different than those ‘other’ products out there, and they still dont seem to get it. I laugh every time I realize that even my mom is wearing the same Maybelline eyeshadow she has worn for 100 years even though I create cosmetics for a living. I never got into the makeup world for the makeup aspect of it, I always just saw it as a different medium for putting something unique and ‘my own’ out into the world along with trying to educate my potential clients as to why the smaller company just might be able to offer something better than what they are used to. It would be nice if family and friends had been there to embrace and support my work, but at the end of the day, it took a long time and a lot of soul searching for ME to finally be happy with the life and career I have chosen, so for now, that will have to be enough. I celebrate the person who is willing to put themselves out there and share a part of themselves via the medium of their choice because it is a risk…..but then again as frustrating as it can be….it also comes with its own unique version of rewards too! Perhaps if we just keep talking and explaining then one day we will feel the shift in the way people approach the handmade world and true change will begin to happen on a conscious level! One can only hope! Thank you again for this topic!

  14. Excellent follow up post ~ such a good read! As a new independent maker, it is comforting to hear that everyone goes through the same ups and downs. I say persevere in doing what you love. If other people share that same love {besides family & friends}; then I think it has all been worthwhile…

  15. My favorite response to people when they balk at the price of my work, or for that matter, anyone else’s is – “Would YOU like to work for $3 an hour? Because I sure as heck don’t!”

  16. Great subject, great post. Also very thought provoking. I have been selling my handmade creations since I was a sophomore in high school when I designed and painted a monogrammed keychain out of a piece of scrap wood from my Dad’s shop. I love handmade, I love the culture of handmade and I love the ethic of handmade.

    However, “Buy Handmade” can be over romanticized. There is a lot of handmade crap out there, just as there is a lot of mass-produced quality out there. At the end of the day, what will sell is quality, usefulness and value. By usefulness, I also include the psychological usefulness of feeding a dream. And value has nothing to do with price. As long as handmade is of the highest quality and fills a need, it will have value – and will sell.

  17. This is a great topic. People, understand that your customers are the ones that you need to cater to, not friends and family. Friends & family will either be biased to liking your stuff since it’s you that makes it, or wanting it cheaper than reality since it’s you that makes it, or avoiding you like the plague because they don’t want to buy something from you.

    My items happen to target brides, and since there’s no way I can depend on that many of my friends getting married, I guess I have an easier time of it. I think the beauty of handmade is that I can find an item that as a great design and quality of workmanship that I just don’t find at Walmart. I look for uniqueness in handmade items. If it’s not relatively unique, why should I pay more for it just because it’s your hobby & you made it by hand? Handmade is like iPhones or Gucci purses…you need to give people a REASON to pay more for it, and the reason has to be visible from a picture if you sell online.

    Heather, explain to your family that your mineral eye makeup doesn’t have the cancer-causing heavy metal ingredient and paraben that’s in the drug-store stuff. That may get your family’s attention.

  18. It is pretty shocking to me how hard it is to get your friends and family involved with what you are doing. Maybe I am just feeling bad for myself today I invited some people on Facebook to follow my blog and nothing(ok it has only been a few hours but…). I don’t know, shall we call it information overload? Forgetfulness? Selfishness? I mean I don’t think my own mother has bothered checking out my blog and she loves me. I guess the reality of those you care about caring what you have to say or sell has been a really eye opening issue. Basically, I think most people you know, care that you have a job and doing something you like. (I suppose I can be guilty in not knowing exactly what all my friends do for a living either.)

    I think if you start making money on your craft/art then perhaps you will be taken seriously. Until then I think we are though of as cute. So I suppose in most peoples eyes money still equals success. Sad but true.

    1. I completely agree, Debbie. I’m actually keeping my creative endeavors under wraps for the time being because my family (other than my husband, who is very supportive, thank goodness) just doesn’t take me seriously.
      I’ve wondered the same thing about the lack of attention from family regarding blogs and Facebook. I think, “It takes two seconds, if that, to let me know you care!” But I guess other people don’t view it that way; a lot of family members, especially the closest ones, just expect you to “know” they love you, and don’t think they should have to demonstrate it- especially via social media or the internet period.
      I can definitely relate to your feelings about them merely thinking of us as “cute.” “Desperately naive” also comes to mind 😉
      I guess as long as there are a few people out there who don’t view the amount of money you make indicative of how successful you are, there is still hope lol. Good luck on your personal creative endeavors and I hope things start to tangibly go better for you :)

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