“Mommy Tails” author Katie Marsico takes a look at Internet boutiques that sell unique handmade items for the furry set…
When it comes to shopping these days, a lot of folks have accepted two fundamental truths: First, everyone has had to pinch their pennies a bit more of late; second, it seems like big-name chains rule the world. Many consumers struggle to balance these realities with their desire to purchase quality items that express their individual tastes and preferences. For pet guardians, this challenge applies to buying both everyday necessities and the occasional indulgence for their furry family members.
My Poodle, Isetta, chews through more rubber and plush toys than I could ever afford to continually repair or replace. Yet she has a few “babies” that I make a point of washing, sewing, and saving from the trash heap. The most prominent of these is a stuffed chicken with Isetta’s name stitched into the wing. This handmade treasure was a gift from a dear acquaintance and fellow dog lover who told me she had ordered it from an Internet boutique. Years after the toy came into our home, I remain impressed with its durability, uniqueness, and the fact that my friend told me it didn’t cost her a small fortune.
Although I did not realize it at the time, Isetta’s chicken set my family in the midst of a growing trend. An increasing number of pet guardians are turning to online boutiques that offer handmade wares ranging from sombreros for cats to colorful “poo packs” designed to hold dog waste pick-up bags. So what are the motivating factors behind consumers’ affinity for such shops? And why are people ordering handcrafted products over the Internet instead of blowing through the express lane at the local pet store?
The Ins and Outs Of an Online Industry
Prior to 2005, artists and designers selling handmade items were generally limited to peddling their wares at craft meets, fairs, swaps, and gift shops. During the 1990s, online markets like eBay opened up new opportunities for such vendors, but they still had to compete with big-name retailers who relied on mass production and expensive advertising techniques.
Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, however, folks hoping to make a profit on handcrafted goods—for both people and pets—began claiming a larger presence in the online marketplace. In 2005, the now-famous virtual market Etsy hit the web with the ambition of serving as a site where visitors could “buy, sell, and live handmade.” Arguably one of the largest online venues to feature boutiques offering handcrafted, vintage, and specially designed products, Etsy currently boasts hundreds of thousands of vendors from more than 150 countries.
Anyone who has browsed Etsy—or the numerous sites like it that have emerged over the past five years—would be hard-pressed to claim that such shops lack product variety. Although many of the handmade wares advertised are created with a personal touch, online visitors aren’t confined to a shopping experience that revolves solely around hand-woven tapestries or crocheted baby booties.
Just as importantly, virtual markets like Etsy represent a mutually beneficial consumer-vendor relationship that can’t always be mimicked by massive chains. Larger stores that shoppers patronize in person typically find it difficult to deliver items tailored to buyers’ individual preferences and needs. Along the same lines, were it not for online marketplaces such as Etsy, the sellers who can and do fill the aforementioned niche would have an even harder time toughing it out against big-name competitors.
There is no denying that the dynamics of this “yin and yang” economic relationship play out in the context of Internet boutiques that carry handmade pet products. Although the previously referenced feline sombreros might not sound like everyday staples you would shop for at the well-known pet stores found in so many a strip mall and urban shopping center, they’re one of countless items available for online purchase. From leashes and food bowls to toys and edible treats, Internet boutiques boast a dizzying array of goods characterized by a personal touch you might not see at larger chains.
Amy Chase of Syracuse, NY, maintains an Etsy shop called SilverBeat Creations. Several of the products she offers, including custom-designed tunnel tubes, hammocks, and snuggle bags, were created for smaller animals such as guinea pigs, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, ferrets, and rats. From Chase’s perspective, there are numerous benefits to selling handcrafted pet goods through an online venue like Etsy. “I have been making handmade pet products for nearly six years,” she explains. “It is something I do because I enjoy doing it. I get to put a little bit of myself into each item that I create, and I make a lot of friends in the process.”
Mike Wilder, co-owner of Siesta Dog, Best Friend Bandanas on Etsy, echoes Chase’s feelings about his online boutique, but also observes that he and other producers of handmade pet wares face undeniable challenges as well. Wilder and his wife, Karen, are based out of Sarasota, FL, and sell dog collars and neckwear that their site describes as “not your typical bandana.”
“The one big driving concern we always had was that we wanted to provide a handmade, unique product,” Wilder emphasizes. “Karen designs and sews each item we sell and didn’t want to overcharge people. But it is pretty much impossible to hand-make [the goods] at a profit when you consider her time, material costs, mailing, [and] insurance.”
Paying For a Personal Touch
Despite the financial angles that the Wilders and other online vendors like them inevitably have to consider, producers of handmade pet products can boast that they offer consumers multiple benefits. For starters, few big-name chains are in a position to claim that they work as closely with pet guardians to provide them with goods that reflect their individual needs and interests. Julie Liemberger of East Amherst, NY, believes that such personalization is what has helped make her business, Happy Pet Paws, a success. She sells dog and cat bandanas, organic catnip pillows, and ceramic pet bowls via an Etsy shop and her own website.
“When people purchase items on Etsy,” observes Liemberger, “they like the fact that an actual person, not a machine, made it, and they appreciate the dedication and artistry that goes into each item. As an Etsy seller, I can offer small personal touches to my products that make them completely unique. Whether it’s the material I use or the way I stitch an item or even the packaging I use to ship an item, there is always something special that makes my products stand out from everyone else’s.” Wilder agrees and adds that many of these sellers see such success because they commit themselves to consumer satisfaction and animal welfare.
“Anything we sell is always completely guaranteed to be right,” he promises. “Wrong size? We’ll make another for you. Not happy? That’s not acceptable to us. We also have donated hundreds of our neckwear items to different shelters so that dogs would have a better chance [of getting adopted] by looking cute during the selection process. You don’t get that at pet chains.”
A Long-Term Trend?
Many of the vendors who operate through Etsy and other online boutiques are hopeful that the number of consumers who appreciate Wilder’s perspective will continue to increase over time. For her part, Liemberger is optimistic. She predicts that Internet shops featuring handcrafted pet wares will only gain appeal as guardians seek out new, cost-effective opportunities to address their animals’ unique needs and express their individual personalities.
“As long as there is a demand for handmade pet products, there will be more and more boutiques that pop up online,” says Liemberger. “I believe the desire for one-of-a-kind, noncommercial items will increase as people look for something different for their animals. [Because] pets are part of the family, many people want only the best for them and will turn to the Internet for convenience, selection, and great prices when searching for unique, high-quality items.”
With a bounty of handcrafted, homemade treasures only a click of a mouse away, it’s quite likely that Liemberger will prove right. Speaking for my four-legged family members, I’d like to think she will be. After all, it’s not as if personalized stuffed chickens are a dime a dozen at most pet stores.
Written By: Katie Marsico