A Tale of Two Markets

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Back in June, policy changes at Etsy left many metaphysical vendors either unable to sell their services, or having to do so using disclaimers that they felt undermined the value of their work. Today, we highlight what’s been going on with two sites that were launched to fill a need created by the Etsy policy decision: The Pagan Market and Amaranth Marketplace.

paganmarketlogo2small-300x92Musician and web developer Blake Carpenter launched The Pagan Market: A Community of Shops Offering Magickal Supplies soon after he heard the hue and cry from Pagans who found their online businesses threatened by the new Etsy rules. Carptenter put up the site in very short order, as web development goes. It went live in June, the same month that the Etsy shop closures were first reported.

What he didn’t have immediately was any actual shopping functionality, as this is a complex coding problem. Instead, Carpenter asked for beta testers so that he could make sure the back-end would work as needed for buying and selling to take place. This month, however, Carpenter announced that the project was on hold, although he is hopes that it will eventually continue. He told The Wild Hunt that

The main issue is funding. To make this secure and safe as well as getting the proper support for the tools I would be using for the community the bill would be about $6000 per year. . . . I am a musician and a web developer for artists and musicians so my income does not even pay the bills sometimes never mind something like this. The other reason is the lack of interest. There were over 100 responses on the comments page on thepaganmarket.com of which about 80 stated they would love to beta test. I sent out the beta tester questionnaire and only received 7 replies.

That level of response wouldn’t be enough to run much a test, Carpenter realized. In addition, the noted costs would only pay for such things as a dedicated server and product support for the back-end software. It doesn’t include paying a marketplace developer to ensure that the site is able to go live at all. “I would love to do this but there would need to be a significant build up of interest for me to start the fundraiser,” Carpenter said. “I will set up a new questionnaire on thepaganmarket.com that people can answer to see how much more support we can get,” he continued, because he would “hate to see it all go to waste.”

amaranthAt nearly the same breakneck speed, Heather Stratton put together the first version of Amaranth Marketplace; its name inspired by an Aleister Crowley poem.  A professional website developer in her own right, Stratton created a hosted solution, which had shopping cart functionality already. The site was launched June 26.

Stratton was taken aback by the strong level of interest. “It took off so quickly, there was a need to increase the site,” she said, and “within three months [with] some good friends, we put together a brand-new Amaranth.” However, in order to keep the existing data, “somebody had to write the migration,” as she explained, in order to bring together a mish-mash of different systems and move all the data into the right places. “That was not fun,” she said, and it took about a month.

That was only the beginning of a roller-coaster-ride of an experience for Stratton. She found herself shutting down her own successful online business and cashing in her 401(k) to keep the site working during what was effectively a beta test. Over this period, she was the sole face of Amaranth, and had to address complaints, respond to feature requests, and keep the hidden back-end up and running by herself. When she took time for this interview, she was in the process of tracking down an errant typo that was buried in the site’s code itself.

A large company such as Etsy has many employees doing what Stratton found herself trying to manage herself, and that can lead to very high expectations. “When Etsy announces that new features will be released in 60 days, what they don’t tell you is that they’ve been working on them for a year,” she said. When she was asked for new features, the market owners often didn’t understand why they couldn’t be rolled out in just a few days. What they didn’t see was that she was getting up at 2:30 in the morning and working until 8:30 at night to get Amaranth to the level she thought her community deserved.

12435877_10208126043569828_1150550252_nSome of that pressure has lessened, and now the site does have employees handling customer service, marketing, and other tasks. Some of the more frustrating bugs have been squashed, but what’s coming up next — February 29 — is the launch of a new site, and a whole new identity, as Amaranth is replaced by One Artsy Place.

The change is significant, and happening on every level. Amaranth, as a limited liability corporation, is technically being sold so that a new LLC can be born, one that is owned not just by Stratton alone, but includes other partners in the venture.

One Artsy Place is also going to downplay — or “soften” as Stratton put it — the unabashedly Pagan tilt of Amaranth, because she’s found that it actually excludes some of the people she originally wanted to help. “We wanted to stay Pagan/Wiccan/Occult, but there are people who need a place to sell who aren’t public about it,” she explained, and others who have products intended for Pagan audiences and products that aren’t specifically religious or magical in scope.

From that recognition came a subtle change in focus, to one that will support small business owners with products and services that can be categorized as hand-made, eco-friendly, or antique. That will allow existing Amaranth users who have kept some products on Etsy to consolidate, if they wish, and will also welcome vendors like Stratton’s exterminator, who uses earth-friendly methods to slay the palmetto bugs encroaching on her home. Pagan items and services — including the divination, spell work, and other services that are much harder now to market on Etsy — will continue to be welcome.

“It’s the site Etsy should have stayed,” Stratton said. One way that she and her new partners will be ensuring that it remains so is by instituting an application process. With it, she hopes to screen out people who have tried to upload thousands of mass-produced items from China to Amaranth shops, so that the staff won’t have to track down and delete the offenders later on. One Artsy Place will be a site where artisans and small business owners can market their wares without having to compete with the massive vendors now plying eBay and Etsy.

The application will also serve as a training device, Stratton explained, because shop owners will have to properly set up at least ten items for the shop to be approved to go live. “If they’re having any problems, they will be encouraged to call customer service,” she said, and will then be able to learn about the various features in place to help make those shops successful.

Amaranth has many shops, but sales continue to be on the low side; Stratton believes that much of that rests on the individual shop owners. She would like to see them encouraged and trained to do their own marketing. “Marketing for the site is mostly on the back end,” she said, by ensuring the it’s optimized with relevant keywords and meta tags so that it rises in the search rankings. Beyond that, traffic to any one shop depends upon individual efforts.

“I’m amazed at the number of people with Amaranth markets that don’t have a Facebook page for their business,” Stratton said, because she considers that a key component in today’s small business marketing. “People spend a lot of time sharing items in closed Pagan seller groups, but the only people there are other sellers,” while a page is viewable to anyone, and can also be found via search engines. One advantage of a Facebook page is the ability to create a face for one’s business that is separate. “I have friends who never buy my products from me,” she said, but have quickly snapped them up when they’re on display at a metaphysical shop in her area.

Part of the reluctance to share, Stratton believes, is the fact that Amaranth has such a strong Pagan feel, which can bring with it its own kind of baggage. Among the messages she has received on the site, Stratton has “been told how many ways I’m going to Hell, and which door I’m going through” by some Christians, and she’s also been the recipient of hexes from Witches who feel that the site is encouraging the sale of things which should not be sold.

One tireless cheerleader for Amaranth has been Charissa Iskiwitch. “I believe in supporting anything that is done with the idea of providing a resource for the Pagan community,” she told The Wild Hunt. When she first spoke with Stratton, she “was impressed by the reasons she started it and how much time and money she is investing knowing that it will take a long time for that to show a return for her,” she explained, and decided to do what she could to help. That includes adding posts to the blog on the site — which is designed to link back to one’s own shop — as well as promoting its use in the Pagan Business Network she created. Iskiwitch also wrote several tutorials on how to use Amaranth, a project that she’s put on hold until the new site launches.

Amaranth is doing its part. They have social media platforms and are posting ads for sellers. Much like what we do in PBN. But I just think the sellers need to get on board. . . . If each seller would just market their shop there, we would be driving traffic to the site. People generally don’t just look at one market when they go to a site like this. They browse. So my marketing my shop will help drive traffic to other sellers there. I am encouraging people to stop taking the “wait and see” attitude. There are no upfront fees for listing there so there is no financial risk for jumping in.

Meanwhile, Etsy continues to be positioning itself to provide profit to its shareholders. Stratton noted some examples: downloading items from one’s Etsy shop no longer includes pricing, making the data far less useful; it’s also now more challenging to obtain a list of customer contacts. “I will never go IPO” promised Stratton, referring to the initial public offering that she believes was Etsy’s downfall when it came to serving the smallest business owners.

Her story shows that there just may be a place in the online world for sites like One Artsy Place and The Pagan Market, where small business owners retain control of their own businesses, and have the right to sell whatever it is that they’re good at producing. Perhaps one of these sites will in time become, as Stratton put it, “The site that Etsy should have stayed.”