For Israeli Designers, Etsy Brings a World of Customers

Designers who have struggled to make a mark on the competitive local market are finding customer and success on the craft website

Jewelry designed by Shlomit Ofir.
David Bachar

Shlomit Ofir started designing jewelry as a hobby 12 years ago, when she was studying industrial design at the Holon Institute of Technology. “I started designing in the living room and I sold my work at stalls in the malls and at seasonal fairs,” she says.

Her story resembles those of quite a few young designers who sell their wares themselves and try to survive somehow. But then everything changed. “In 2008 I visited my sister in New York, and met a local designer who told me about Etsy, a new sales website for designers. I fell in love with Etsy’s platform and the options it offers. I started to study it, and to see what does and doesn’t work.” Ofir decided to open a store on Etsy: “I photographed the jewelry by myself in my bathroom, where the lighting was good, and posted it on the site.”

“The beginning was slow, a few isolated orders in two months,” she says. Until the turning point. “Suddenly one day: Boom, the orders started coming in at an increasing pace. Every few minutes I received another order. I didn’t understand why.” She discovered that blogger Heather Armstrong had posted a picture of her earrings and from there it took off. “I received over 200 orders in two days, and the store gathered momentum.”

In 2015 Ofir’s success was validated when Etsy invited her to a ceremony celebrating its stock issue on Nasdaq. “I was in contact with Etsy representatives, who also visited my studio here. The next day I got a an email asking if I was free to come to New York on certain dates. They paid for my plane ticket and hotel in New York, and invited me and another 20 sellers on the website – mostly Americans – to strike the opening gong.”

Ten years later Ofir has two floors in a building in central Tel Aviv and 50 employees. She prefers not to disclose sales figures, but she owns and operates six physical stores (three in Tel Aviv and one each in Rehovot, Jerusalem and Modi’in), sells at about 100 venues in France and exhibits at fairs in Paris. She manages one of the most successful stores on Etsy and from there sells in the thousands, mainly to the United States, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia and Morocco.

Ofir has joined a growing group of designers who have found a good sales platform, and can profit from sales abroad. While online purchases via Ali Express, Amazon, eBay, Next and Asus, which sell cheap and quick fashion, have taken the place of local designers, many of whom are closing or downsizing, there is now an important site that is doing the opposite. Etsy started small in 2005 in Brooklyn and grew until it issued shares on Wall Street valued at $1.8 billion.

Etsy, with an estimated 39 million buyers a year (about 60% of them Americans) has room for handicrafts and collectors’ items, and enables artists to make a profit. Women compose 86 percent of the sellers, and about 6,000 stores belong to Israelis.

Liran Weiss, a former high-tech worker, discovered the world of internet merchandising, and now teaches courses on how to sell on Etsy and manages the Etsy community on Facebook with his life partner Osnat Eli-Weiss. “The main difference between Etsy and other sales websites is that the store owner must be the artist or designer,” he says.

“Working on Etsy is relatively simple in terms of posting and promoting the items. The site favors transparency: The buyers can see the number of sales at each store, and the sellers know whether the customers found them by looking for a key phrase such as ‘a blue glass’ or searching for them specifically.”

Weiss claims that Etsy is relatively convenient for sellers, especially compared to Amazon, which is known for its tough policy towards merchants. Amazon enforces rigorous rules and standards regarding customer service, inventory management and the connection with suppliers, and quickly suspends or blocks sellers who don’t meet those standards.

“There’s no charge for opening a store, no monthly subscription cost, posting an item costs 20 cents and the commission is 5%. They promote successful merchants on their blogs and in the newsletter they send to customers. They don’t close pages without explanation and allow you to correct mistakes.”

Focus on bridesmaids

Sheryll Raz Gold has been a fashion designer since 2004. She worked for years with boutiques on consignment, which was not at all profitable. “I found myself chasing after the inventory of boutiques that close, I encountered store owners who cheat you and hide merchandise. I decided I couldn’t work that way.”

In 2011, after she was left with unsold merchandise, someone suggested she open a store on Etsy. “Friends of mine, a photographer and a makeup artist, helped to photograph and present the clothes, and I began by posting about 30 items. Within two weeks I was surprised to have sold $200 worth. I saw that the most popular item was pink dresses, and realized that this was a niche.”

Raz Gold decided to specialize. “My customers told me that they’re often bridesmaids, and I started creating clothes especially for them, in colors and styles that I didn’t dare to offer Israeli women, who prefer gray and black. I used textures with sequins, added trains.”

As opposed to Israeli women, who want close-fitting and flattering clothes, bridesmaids abroad like tulle and volume and aren’t afraid of looking childish.” Eventually the bridesmaids became brides and Raz Gold received requests for bridal gowns. Etsy recognized the store’s popularity, and wrote about her on their blog and in their newsletter. Her business started to take off.

“At first I would pack the dresses myself and wait in line at the post office. When the work piled up I found a delivery service that picks up and sends the packages — to the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore.”

Do they all order dresses for this important occasion without trying them on?

Raz Gold: “I use mainly fine, soft and stretchable fabrics, and my sewing method enables me to adapt the dresses to a range of sizes. They also send me all their measurements. In 99% of cases the dress fits perfectly. There’s also anti-capitalist consumer awareness combined with feminism, which opposes paying tens of thousands of shekels for a bridal gown. The trend is relatively simple and comfortable dresses that enable the bride to dance, enjoy herself and to pay a reasonable price.”

Her price range is $200 to $400 per dress. Her staff includes a packager, a seamstress, a graphic artist and a content writer. She makes a good living and has an annual turnover of about 1.8 million shekels ($516.000). “I tried to sell on Amazon Handmade and it was a big headache to meet all their requirements. And if delivery is a day late the customers cancel the order, even if it’s already on the way.”

Bloggers matter

Ceramicist Lior Shachar has worked in the field since 1992. She sold her work to stores on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street. In 1997 she started working with Sigal Kotler-Levi, owner of Sabon Shel Pa’am (today called Sabon), who asked her to make soap dishes. The store eventually became a chain, and Shachar began creating additional products, brought more workers and enlarged her studio.

In 2008 things began going downhill. “The economic crisis hit many stores, orders declined, and they cut out the least essential items. I continued to work but not with the same intensity. I didn’t really make a living, and I paid an emotional and physical price.”

In 2013 Shahar decided to close shop. “Then an artist friend living in the United States advised me to open a store on Etsy. I was hesitant, because I don’t understand computers and Facebook. I took a course, a blogger came to photograph the items, another friend helped with Facebook, and within two weeks I had my first sale. A British pub ordered 50 bowls. And then the sales kept coming.”

Etsy wrote about her on its blog and in its newsletter and she became a hit among bloggers. “One asked me for a discount in return for branding, and she turned out to have 200,000 followers. Now I get many requests from bloggers, especially those who cook and want pictures of the food in aesthetic dishes. It really went viral.

“In the past four years I’ve had over 3,500 sales, which is a lot in a niche market like ceramics. I hired a business consultant because I was overworked. Today I have several employees.” Recently she was afraid that Etsy was finished. They changed their algorithm and promotion method and their shares fell by 30%. But in November sales bounced back and she received a flood of orders. Shachar also has her own website and gets orders from Israeli stores and restaurants.

From bar mitzvah to business

“Had you asked five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that my hobby would become my livelihood,” says David Fisher, a graphic designer whose hobby is paper cutting. It’s an art that has developed worldwide, including in Jewish communities.

“I started after the army, but later abandoned it. For my son’s bar mitzvah 15 years ago I wanted to make an unusual invitation. I remembered my old hobby and cut the invitations with a special knife. The reactions were great. I also discovered amazing details about my mother and started researching the Holocaust in Romania, and it became an obsession. I decided with my wife Naomi to turn it into something therapeutic: We took pictures of synagogues destroyed in the Holocaust, did paper cuts and created an exhibition.”

For 10 years Fisher continued doing paper cutting as a hobby, until in 2015 he heard that the Economy Ministry was offering help for small businesses. He discovered a subsidized course for opening a store on Etsy. “I didn’t know what it was, but I saw that there’s a platform for artists, and that was the turning point in my career. First I posted 20 items and nothing happened. The first sale came after three months, with another sale every two to three weeks, and then suddenly it took off. Apparently customers have a block about buying from new stores, so the more customers I had the more confident people became.”

Fisher and his wife maintain the Etsy store together. “We’ve been partners for 30 years, in life and in business.” They devote most of their attention to Etsy and paper cutting, with sales of about $10,000 a month. But it’s hard work. There’s a lot of email correspondence. It can take weeks, for example, until customers are satisfied with a ketuba (Jewish marriage contract), including approval from their rabbi.

The items, at 800 to 3,000 shekels apiece, attract mainly American Jews. “I get a lot of mixed couples who want a ketuba. I see it as a mission, because it’s their connection to Judaism, and maybe their children will see a Hebrew document in the house, ask about it, and discover their roots.”