Dear Mr. Silverman, I Respectfully Disagree
If you sell your fine art prints or print products on Etsy, you probably know who Josh Silverman is, but for those of you wondering, he’s Etsy’s newest CEO. Before I go any further, I would like to make it clear that what follows, is in no way intended to bash Mr. Silverman, or Etsy as an e-commerce platform. My hope is that we, as sellers, can continue to grow in success, despite the hurdles we may come across.
If you don’t know about Etsy’s push for sellers to remove shipping costs with their Free Shipping Guarantee then you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Like many other sellers, I felt a bit discriminated against by the recent decision to favor and/or feature listings that shipped free.
Should I Offer Free Shipping?
This campaign, according to Etsy’s CEO, is going to drive sales for the Etsy community. Because I, like many others, don’t offer free shipping, I’m finding myself backed into the proverbial corner.
I think it was Bugs Bunny(?), who said “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em”. So I set off on a mission to figure out if I could beat Etsy’s recent free shipping push, or whether I’d be joining the parade.
The sellers were then
Unethical is Pushing it
And the question raised isn’t so much whether or not the push is going to drive sales or even be feasible for one’s business model, but whether Etsy’s work-around for recovering shipping costs is even ethical.
” … we also created a way to bulk edit listings so you can adjust your item prices to recover your shipping costs. That means you don’t have to take on the cost of offering free shipping yourself.” – Josh Silverman, Etsy CEO
Sellers just don’t want to conform. And believe you me, they are fighting tooth and nail. But in a business sense, none of these arguments are valid since we can stop using the Etsy platform at any time and we all signed off on their terms when we opened our shops. Still, the idea that Big-Business-Etsy (I have to chuckle at that) might now be “bullying” sellers into accepting the push, makes for a great many forum topics and blogs.
“Starting on July 30, 2019, we’ll give priority placement in US search results to items that ship free and to shops that guarantee free shipping to US buyers on orders of $35 or more. This means that shoppers in the US will primarily see items that ship free and shops that guarantee free shipping on orders of $35 or more in the top and most visible rows of search. We’ll also begin to prioritize these items wherever Etsy advertises in the US—in email marketing, social media, and television ads.” -Josh Silverman, Etsy CEO
Some sellers agree that Etsy is essentially punishing those who don’t offer free shipping.
One user, SueFiscalini complained,
“I got this email too and felt very threatened to do it their way or else! Is this legal? We pay the same listing fee! Is Etsy going to give us a discount on our listing fee if they refuse to honor a fair place in the search?
” I too wonder about this. At the very least it’s not ethical. To charge sellers the same fees but restrict placement in search results by requiring sellers to adjust their pricing (either absorb the cost of shipping or up your item costs)…without a change in the fee structure… it just doesn’t seem legal !!”
I can’t speak for the legality of favoritism towards sellers in the search queries. That’s a bit above my pay-grade. And honestly I don’t know that I really believe that Etsy can (and is) doing this despite their claim. Fortunately, Etsy’s search engine isn’t what’s pulling in the buyers if they start their search on the web and Etsy products are gaining a lot more exposure outside of their platform than they did a year ago, so we don’t need to rely anywhere as much on Etsy’s search engine to reach our market. Plus, I can honestly say that I’ve been testing this using the Etsy Shopper App and I am not seeing where sellers who charge shipping are being “suppressed” or placed on the bottom of the search results. Mine certainly aren’t. They’re spattered pretty much everywhere just like always.
Consumers, for the most part, do understand the concept of “fine print”. So we can be confident that nobody is really getting duped. They don’t want to be overcharged and many will go out of their way to compare prices to get the best price. Furthermore, when surveyed, the majority of online-consumers are surprisingly impartial to the idea of shipping costs being folded into the price of the products they purchase. They really don’t care.
Proven Success or Myth?
I’m curious to know how many sellers back Etsy’s free shipping push as an earnest attempt to make us, as sellers, more successful. The industry swears by it, but a whole lot of sellers are pushing back. So what gives? Are sales driven by free shipping or that just a myth? You might soon agree that the answer to this question is truly a subjective one.
Case in Point: Recently, I was given the task of finding a a new counter-height table for the lobby here at FinerWorks. When local artists and photographers stop in to pickup their orders, our current counter makes it tricky when handling ultra-large prints. A larger surface will make a temendous difference.
After deciding on a table, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that shipping would be free (I’ll take it, thank you). The shipping/transit time didn’t seem unreasonable at first glance. Based on it’s ship location, I guessed 2 weeks tops. But we are almost 4 weeks in and no table yet. Tracking has been non-existent. Completely irritating. The company is huge and “reputable” though so other than being extremely irritated, I’m not yet ready to assume the worst.
Takeaway: Free shipping didn’t win me over as the consumer, it was just nice. But had I looked closer, I may have looked for a way to purchase a shipping upgrade of some sort. I guess you could say that the term “Free Shipping” is an oxymoron. How can you have something that is both “free” and “of value” at the same time. It’s impossible to have “nothing” and “something” at the same time. That’s just math.
In the case of the company that I purchased the table from, this myth is totally busted. This entire experience has done the opposite of encourage me to seek out items that ship for free. Next time I see a vendor advertising free shipping, I’m going to be a lot more selective about whether or not I purchase from them. I’d rather paid for shipping, had a valid tracking number and reliable carrier than pay nothing for the lowest possible class of shipping.
Competing with the Giants
Pros, Cons, and Other Compelling Questions
Consumers like free stuff, there’s no doubt about it. But what exactly is it about free shipping that they like? On the contrary, there are instances when a consumer may be impartial to “free shipping” offer, or find it counter-productive to their needs. Let’s look at free shipping from the consumer’s point of view.
Pros of Free Shipping (For Consumers)
- Free shipping guarantees no surprise costs at checkout
- Free shipping is a “Deal” and it puts buyers in a good “buying mood”
- Free shipping is perceived as instant savings (e.i instant gratification for the consumer)
Cons of Free Shipping (For Consumers)
- Free shipping is irrelevant because consumer is shopping for unique or hard to find items
- Most consumers understand that shipping cost is absorbed by the price of the item they purchase
- Consumer has had a poor experience with a “free shipping” experience
- A growing number of online consumers make their purchases online after comparing their total checkout costs between merchants.
As for the sellers….
the Pros of offering free shipping on Etsy:
And here are the most commonly raised arguments against offering free shipping.
the cons of offering free shipping on Etsy:
- Sales may decrease (some Etsy consumers associate free shipping with mass-produced products and that’s not why they shop on Etsy)
- The connotation, “Free Shipping”, may lower the perceived value of your product
- Consumers who know that nothing is ever free may find your price-points to be misleading
- Your products are too expensive for consumers (shipping cost calculations need to incorporate worse case scenarios. A lamp may cost you $15 to ship it to the next state over but $40 to send across the country.)
- The cost of “replacements” will still solely be on the seller, but it will cost 2 x’s as much
- Returned products will always guarantee a loss in shipping costs unless you can convince your buyer (and Etsy) that shipping is only free if they don’t return a product
Analyzing the Market from a Consumer Standpoint
Until I understood the consumer’s thought process I’d never get my answer.
If I primarily did my shopping online, it would be a given that I’d seek out free shipping. I’d be a fan of ship-to-store, or in-store-pickup options too if they saved me shipping fees at checkout.
Other online purchases I might make, like cleaning supplies, paper supplies, and other disposable objects are likely to ship free. Pet supplies, and even groceries from my neighborhood store might be delivered at no additional costs. Free shipping can be a successful marketing campaign for brands that sell consumables because the buyer often returns to make the same purchase over and over again.
But there are plenty of items for which shipping fees would not be unexpected. A handful of popular department stores still charge for shipping If you’re familiar with a little store called Disney, they charge shipping too. Shipping and handling isn’t a thing of the past. It’s still very much present in the e-commerce community as a whole, but clearly, the giants are trying to set the standard.
So just to recap: The types of products purchased by consumers, or sold to consumers is another contributing factor in determining how necessary a Free Shipping campaign might be.
Meeting the expectations of the customer doesn’t always mean we have to adopt campaigns that we know isn’t in our brand’s best interest. But, should free shipping be sustainable, or, if one’s product is a good match for such a campaign, it may be in their best interest after all.
If your gut is telling you free shipping isn’t a good idea, it very likely isn’t. You know your buyers the best. But the movement for free shipping doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon, so coming up with a Plan B before it’s too late, will probably be a wise move.
My Customer’s Shoes
When my buyers come to Etsy and see one of my listings on their screen, they obviously aren’t shopping for craft supplies. They probably aren’t shopping for essential oils. I doubt they are here for anything consumable, if they’ve come across my listings.
But let’s back up and put ourselves into our buyer’s shoes.
If we are shopping for consumables and low dollar items, we might prefer free shipping. If we are shopping for these on a regular basis, chances are high that we would mainly favor the Free Shipping Guarantee.
Shopping for unique products might alter the buyers “free shipping” expectations.
On the other hand, there are a lot of unique items on Etsy.
Art prints, cards, framed professional photography, and everything else that that can be called art, fall into this category.
Of course this goes beyond wall decor or mugs. Any “have to have it” item can fit the rule. Custom made items, whether wall decor, gifts, kitchenware, furniture, bags, jewelry…. These are the items for which the Etsy buyer, may succumb to shipping charges with little complaint. Of course if it’s offered, it may be a perk, But if they have to have it, who knows?
If shipping charges are going to make or break their decision to purchase a framed fine art print, for example, they might not be my target-market.
Breaking Down Your Questions to Find Your Answer
There’s no easy answer here. And the community, based on statistics, is pretty split. Remember, what works for one seller or even 100, won’t necessarily work for your brand.
If you’re not ready to pick a side yet, that’s understandable. Sometimes waiting for the dust to settle to see who’s still standing is all we can do.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is free shipping compatible with my brand?
- Do my buyers expect this for the type of product I sell
- Do products similar to mine usually ship for free
- Will it add, or take away value from my brand
- Is offering free shipping sustainable
- Can I afford to offer free shipping without padding my prices
- If not, can I still “pad” the price fairly without overcharging the customer while at the same time, not taking a loss
- How will offering free shipping increase my sales?
- Will my products gain higher placement in Etsy searches
- Will my products be less visible in Etsy searches
- Will my buyers purchase more items if I offer free shipping
In Closing: Plan B
[ Update: Just a few days ago, I got a new notification from Etsy on the sellers app, warning me that shops that don’t offer the Free Shipping Guarantee will no longer be visible on the first page of searches for US customers. The gist of it was “Look, we’ve been saying that it’s live for a while, but its REALLY live, now.”
The original statement in Josh Silvermans email claimed that any listings that shipped free, or shops that offered free shipping would get prioritized placement. But this has supposedly been amended to exclude listings that ship free and it’s now claimed that any shops not offering the Free Shipping Guarantee will be pushed from the 1st page of search results.
I have continuously tested this claim however and for the past 4 days, I have not been able to generate search results that back up these claims. I still see just as many with shipping costs today as I did 3 weeks ago. And yes, I have tested this on multiple devices, ip addresses, and browsers, both logged in and out.]
In lieu of Etsy’s claim that I’ll lose my prominent placements in search if I refuse to jump on the bandwagon, I’m trying something a little differnt.
I have to admit that their revision of who would qualify for higher visibility sent me into a small state of panic at first. It was understood originally, that items shipping free would be at the top of search results. Now, it’s morphed into a condition where supposedly only shops offering a Free Shipping Guarantee are eligible for prominent placement, AND those who don’t offer the free shipping guarantee will no longer be visible on the first page of search results for US shoppers.
But this has been a promise in the making for close to a year, hasn’t it? As of this evening, I searched for ten commandments wall art, and located one of mine listed “more prominently” than 3 similar products that ship for free.
This confirms my understanding (very limited understanding, by the way) of Etsy’s search algorithm.
Etsy’s search algorithm takes a large number of factors into account to determine where a listing might fall. I call it a listing placement “score”. Here are just a few:
- Etsy assigns every shop a “customer and marketplace experience score” and each listing is evaluated for listing quality, contributing to your product’s listing placement “score” in searches..
- Customer reviews contribute to listing placement “scores” in searches, both negatively and positively.
- Favorites that turn into purchases contribute to better listing placement “scores” in searches.
- Frequent purchases for a listing will contribute to better listing placement “scores” in searches.
- Offering Free Shipping store-wide contributes to better listing placement “scores” in searches.
- Attributes and shop sections factor into search, along with titles and tags, contributing to listing placement “scores” in searches.
- Newly listed and renewed items contribute positively to listing placement “scores” in searches.
So even though Etsy is trying to push the idea that a guarantee of free shipping will increase my odds of visiblity, I can clearly see that Etsy’s SEO algorithm considers listing placement on a case by case basis.
Imagine if you will, a search engine built and designed to factor tons of possible variants, from searched phrases to image quality (trust me, you’ll hear about this one soon). Now imagine the Etsy SEO team retarding all of the relevant factors that have enabled Etsy shoppers to find and purchase items over the last 14 years to now only factor in shipping costs.
Imagine that… I might call it SEO suicide.
It’s based upon this confidence that I’m not going to read too much into this placement business. But just in case, I’m going to move ahead with my Plan B.
Etsy gave us this great tool for duplicating listings, so I’m running a test. I’ve taken 3 of my top sellers and copied them, rewritten their titles, descriptions and given them alternate (but relevant) tags. I’ve also increased their prices and removed shipping costs. What’s interesting is that over the past couple of days, they have gotten equal views – no purchases yet.
As of now, they are currently both on page one, with spatterings of listings that do, and do not ship free among them.
The reasoning behind this was to have reach on the first page of search, regardless. If a buyer waves past it because they assume it’s a mass-produced item, no biggie. They’ll probably end up on the next few pages of search and see it again (this time with shipping costs), and hopefully bite. I know, believe me – this sounds ridiculous, but everyone who’s fighting this campaign insists that the Etsy buyer doesn’t want or care about free shipping. But as always, Etsy’s empty promises leave me wondering.
Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to prove them right… or wrong. Only time will tell.