Joyce Nielsen runs Spike’s Curio Shoppe, an Etsy shop for her dolls and figurines. (Photos by Harika Maddala)

Crafting in a Crowded Market

Crafting surged during the pandemic. But can Sacramento’s maker community find buyers?

Back Web Only Jun 10, 2024 By Eric Schucht

A couple dozen vendors laid out their wares last month for a Saturday pop-up market in the shade of Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. A DJ spun a Spanish club mix as families played cornhole on the green astroturf. Most people walking through the Downtown Commons that morning paid little attention to the artisans, only glancing at their tables covered in homemade soaps, candles, jewelry and artwork. But anyone who did stop was greeted by an artist proudly showing off their handiwork to land a sale. 

Toddlers stared wide-eyed at a booth blanketed by crocheted animals. They were especially interested in the Pikachu and Scooby-Doo dolls for sale. This was only the third craft fair Hannah Paige had tabled at, but the 23-year-old was confident and welcoming. Instead of business cards, she passed out stickers — a better choice given her target market can’t read. 

For Paige, crocheting started as a new hobby she got into after COVID-19 sent the world into lockdown. But the pandemic pastime outgrew her home. “I accidentally made too much,” Paige says. So the graphic designer and marketer started selling, “and now I’m here.”

The artisan craft industry has exploded in recent years. Search interest for Etsy, an online marketplace for craft and vintage wares, doubled in six months peaking in December 2020, Google Trends shows. The number of sellers on Etsy tripled from 2019 to 2023, but their average annual revenue today is lower than pre-pandemic, according to Capital One Shopping

Paige’s business is not her full-time job; it’s her hobby. It’s how she shares her art with the people who would enjoy it. Her goal at the fair that day was to sell five items, and she seemed satisfied after she hit that mark in under an hour. Paige doesn’t sell online but would if she thought the money was worth the effort. For now, she says, “I really just like to do it for fun and see where things take me.” But some crafters sell their art to pay rent and buy food, and they’ve adapted to the bigger market by changing what they sell and how they sell it or by moving on to other kinds of work.

The craft fair was run by River City Marketplace. Since 2015, the event production company has organized more than 300 pop-up markets across the Capital Region. Owner Mindy Jovanovic is a candlemaker who started the business after struggling to find outdoor fairs in her area similar in size and stature to Portland Saturday Market or Brooklyn Flea. In-person craft fairs like the ones she organizes boomed after California loosened restrictions on outdoor events in spring 2021, but the surge didn’t last. 

“When we initially resumed craft fairs, there was an overwhelming number of vendors and markets,” Jovanovic says. “Business was great for the vendors, but within three months the novelty of supporting small businesses had worn off for the public. A lot of vendors who started out in 2020 went full time, and within six months completely quit.”

Katie Byram has also noticed a dip in the number of active craft sellers. She owns The Constellation Marketplace, a gift boutique in Sacramento specializing in small-batch products made by California crafters and small businesses. The watercolor artist opened the store in 2021 and profits by buying and selling artist-made goods, renting out shelf space and consignment, where Byram displays the item and takes a cut once it sells. The last option has been growing in popularity, she says, in part because it’s more predictable and often cheaper than selling on Etsy, which charges a 20-cent fee to sellers per product listing and a 6.5 percent transaction fee. 

Crafters returning to their office jobs have less time to make products or manage online shops, so they craft what they can when they can and are charged nothing as they wait for their work to be sold in Byram’s store under consignment. “In 2024, people are going back to work,” Byram says. “The creative economy was heavily saturated during the pandemic. People lost their jobs, or they chose to give it a go doing creative work and small business stuff. But it’s hard to maintain and to grow a customer base and to compete with other people. A lot of them are going back into the workforce, so they don’t have the time to make a ton of product to put in the store.”

The COVID-induced craft craze is slowly evaporating, but the industry isn’t going anywhere, especially with the low barrier to entry. In California, craft sellers don’t need to register their business with the state if they are sole proprietors. However, a seller’s permit for tax purposes is required in most cases. The permits are free, but the state could require a security deposit if taxes are owed. There are few legal hurdles to craft selling unless you’re selling food or cosmetics. Turning a fun hobby into a successful business is an accessible option for people who want a flexible work schedule, need the extra cash or have the financial security to give it a shot. 

Like many craft sellers, Ashley Montgomery’s first customer was herself. She made prop weapons, fake armor and other costume accessories for her cosplays. It was a hobby she started while in art college. After graduating, she dreamed of getting a job making concept art for video games and movies. That was in 2008, right as the housing bubble burst, making it even harder for Montgomery to find work in an already competitive field. After months of unemployment, she moved back in with her parents in Sacramento. With nothing to lose, she started selling her props online.

Joyce Nielsen calls her creations “creepy-cute.”

“The mark of a good artist is how to be resourceful,” Montgomery says. Today she sells at conventions, takes commissions for custom items and runs two Etsy stores. Montgomery says aspiring craft sellers should “look for a niche. And if you see an underrepresented niche, make that your stake.” 

That’s a lesson Joyce Nielsen has also learned. The stay-at-home mother of four runs Spike’s Curio Shoppe, an Etsy shop for her dolls and figurines. Nielsen’s passion for “creating things that can’t be found anywhere else” inspired her to create nightmare fuel like eggs with human teeth. It’s an art style Nielsen calls “creepy-cute.” She used to make cute animals like mice, but they weren’t selling “because everybody else was doing that.” She had to get creative. She used her love of horror to make scary creatures as whimsical as they were grotesque: toddlers with angler fish for heads, frogs with mushrooms sprouting from their backs. Nielsen spends the year building up an inventory to sell at the Folsom Renaissance Faire. That weekend, she sells hundreds of monsters.

“I guess there’s a market for it,” Nielsen says. Some customers own a whole collection of her figurines. She even gets fan letters. But sales are easier for her to make in-person over Etsy. That’s true for a lot of crafters. Jovanovic says the appeal of craft goods isn’t only the quality of the work, but the person who made it. People aren’t buying a bracelet, they’re buying a connection to the person who made it or the place where it was sold. 

“The story behind it is really important to this type of customer,” Jovanovic says. “You wear those earrings, and it puts you in a good mood because of the memory. It’s almost like a souvenir.”

Some craft goods don’t sell well at Byram’s boutique because they’re missing a key element: the crafter. Without the artist there “to hawk it up,” she says items largely need to sell themselves. Good packaging and displays can help. While some products may not sell well at the store for whatever reason, the upside for crafters is they don’t have to do it themselves. The biggest benefit Byram offers vendors is visibility, something becoming harder to find on a crowded Internet.

“You get on Etsy because you think that they’re going to provide you with the audience,” Byram says. “But it is so hard to get seen on Etsy. It’s a lot of work on your end to pop up in search results.”

Anyone with the money can list products on Etsy or create a personal website from the comfort of home. But getting customers to find your online store takes search engine optimization, social media and digital marketing. Learning it all can be daunting. Sacramento painter Janneth Mitchum wouldn’t sell online if she didn’t think it was necessary. Her business Heartfelt Fine Art Greetings mostly sold greeting cards wholesale to small family-owned shops until the pandemic and big online retail killed off many. 

Mitchum pivoted her business following lockdown. She sold at more pop-up markets and put her designs on tangible products like t-shirts and journals to better compete with generative AI users who spam out artwork onto the digital market. At her pop-up booth, Mitchum played up the human-made quality of her work by frequently pointing to a photo of herself painting. She also shifted her attention online because “that’s where it’s at now” and applied to Amazon Handmade. The Etsy competitor is selective in its craft vendors and has name recognition. She thought it would help her business stand out online amongst the crowd. She isn’t the only one. 

“I’ll be honest, I cried for the first year because it’s so hard to understand it,” Mitchum, a 64-year-old retired social worker, says of Amazon Handmade. “But it was worth it.” 

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