Handicrafts and artisanal items are found in almost every home. Treasured holiday souvenirs paid for in a foreign currency stand next to handmade cheese purchased weekly from a local farmer’s market. Order a wedding dress or customized wheelchair, a floral arrangement or fitted kitchen, and the hands of an expert will hand-craft a unique item for you. Yet in just one year, Covid-19 has devastated the handicrafts sector by severing the connections between creators and their markets. What are the prospects for recovery?
From global pandemic to local disruption
Before the Industrial Revolution made large-scale manufacturing possible, hand-crafting was the standard production method. Everything from food to furniture, and from clothing to roof tiles, was made by hand, usually locally. Nowadays though, hand-crafted items form the charming exception to the standard rule. What hasn’t changed is that many individual craftsmen and women sell their products locally, in village markets, stores, restaurants or hotels. The virus has caused large numbers of such outlets to close, at least temporarily, leaving many artisans without anywhere to exchange their skills for money. Considering that the global handicrafts market was worth USD 663.9 billion in 2019, this represents a significant economic loss 1.
Underpinning the economy
In developing countries, artisanal products often represent a considerable part of a nation’s economy. For instance, the handicraft and handloom sector in India is worth over USD 3.3 billion per year, and contributes nearly USD 1.4 billion in export earnings. Artisans and weavers are the third-largest segment among India’s poor, and many of their products are regarded as “non-essential”. They have been hit hard by a combination of a shrinking economy, unemployment, reduced spending power, the pandemic itself and the lockdown. A huge amount of unsold inventory has piled up, while sales have plummeted. Many craftspeople have run out of reserves to pay for food, medical treatment or online marketing. As a result, many of them are now urgently looking for agricultural work, or are considering migrating to find other sources of income 2.
A broken business model
In industrialized nations, handicrafts are often regarded as a hobby or a supplementary source of undeclared income rather than a serious career option. Yet many small producers are entirely reliant on what they earn from selling their wares. With the downturn in tourism and in-person shopping over the past year, some craftspeople are exploring digital options such as “How to become an Amazon seller?”. However, the limitations quickly become clear. Volume and weight are key drawbacks. A jam-maker in rural France is not going to be able to make a living from selling a pot of jam that costs EUR 3.50 to someone in another country who has to pay an additional EUR 10-15.00 in postage and packing fees, let alone possible import costs.
Might it then be worthwhile for an artisan to upscale their production capacity to gain access to wholesalers’ distribution chains? Probably not. Wholesalers generally pay producers only 60% of the retail price, leaving artisans with a profit margin that’s too small to be viable. People producing handicrafts also tend to be more motivated by quality rather than quantity, so there are good financial and creative reasons not to pursue this route.
Artisanal is personal
What’s more, the personal connection between the originator and the purchaser is almost entirely lost online. A shopper wandering through a busy marketplace is more likely to succumb to the charms of a stall piled high with beautifully crafted wares sold by a smiling and knowledgeable artisan than when browsing through similar products on a smartphone. Consumer responsiveness is high when there’s an opportunity to smell, touch and see the wares, and to chat to the actual maker.
In any case, some products simply aren’t suitable for online sale or physical transportation. Oven-fresh bread can become rock-hard overnight. Floral displays may die in transit. Locally produced sausages need to be part of a cold chain to survive. Roughly crafted pottery figurines of happy Cubanos smoking cigars are only truly irresistible when promoted by a fierce local nonagenarian grandma with a well-chewed Gran Habano hanging from her bottom lip. When it comes to artisan sales, the authentic consumer experience is paramount. No virus or vaccine will change this simple fact.
This is why the cancellation of local face-to-face events due to Covid-19 has been so serious for artisans. Weekly markets, local fairs and big summer events like Garden Fairs and Farmer’s Markets may just be scenic additions to the shopping landscape for consumers, but they are crucial opportunities for artisanal producers.
Solutions for survival
So what are craftspeople to do? Many are sole traders, and a lot depends on the support packages that may be available to help them and/or their businesses keep going throughout the pandemic. These vary hugely from country to country, and in fact may not be available at all to certain classes of workers. For instance, 1.6 million self-employed people are among 3 million UK taxpayers who are excluded from Covid-19 financial support 3.
In addition to worrying about their own financial survival, craftspeople need to think about how to keep the interest of their customer base alive. Some have decided to play the online game with the aim of winning customers further down the line. For example, an artisanal baker may decide to divulge their recipes on social media or provide hints and tips about how to make a successful loaf in order to whet a potential customer’s appetite. However, they are likely to be sharing their skills while hoping it’s still too difficult and time-consuming for most people to follow all the instructions once sales outlets reopen. Other enterprising souls may get around to publishing recipes, dressmaking tips or decorative suggestions on Facebook or YouTube, inviting comments and feedback, in order to gradually build up a list of contacts. They can then email their bulging address book with notifications about forthcoming markets once the lockdowns have been relaxed. But most of their investments today will only bring dividends in the post-lockdown future.
Fair trade, or trade at any cost?
Alternatives to individual entrepreneurship do of course exist. For instance, sweatshops churning out huge quantities of low-priced clothing often rely on highly skilled seamstresses. But disasters such as the Rana Plaza clothes factory fire in Bangladesh a few years ago demonstrate what can happen when individual creators have no control over their working conditions or the path to market.
In order to avoid getting exploited in a factory setting, some individual producers may be able to join a workers’ collective or other organization in order share costs and benefits, while gaining greater access to consumers. Cottage industries built around handicrafts, such as the weaving cooperatives in the Maya community in Guatemala, are often particularly beneficial to women as they enable mothers to earn an income at home while caring for their families 4. External initiatives are another way to help craftspeople bridge the gap between production and sales. The Fairtrade foundation was set up to enable such people to do business in an equitable, successful and sustainable manner. Fairtrade now supports over 1.66 million farmers and workers in 1,411 producer organizations across the developing world 5.
Meanwhile, in industrialized nations with good transportation methods, producers of artisanal food are increasingly selling their wares through supermarkets. They have little choice, with markets and restaurants often being closed by the pandemic, while supermarkets remain open. And it’s fair to say that supermarkets have profited greatly from the pandemic: Walmart’s e-commerce sales shot up by 74% in the first quarter of 2020 alone 6. However, supermarket chains are famous for driving hard bargains and dictating tough terms and conditions. Some small producers will welcome such partnerships due to the stability and increased reach that they bring, while others fear losing their independence. Yet for many individual artisans any other regular income is out of reach – especially this year.
On the positive side, platforms such as Etsy, Artfire and Zibbet are increasingly enabling individual creators to sell their hand-crafted items directly to buyers in exchange for a percentage of the revenue. You might decide to sell your chainsaw carvings or hand-crafted leather jewelry online, but then the list of things you need will include an office, a computer, computer skills, a good internet connection, linguistic ability to write the texts, marketing flair, a reasonable educational level, an eye for photography, access to a reliable delivery service, banking services, an understanding of business, tax law, accounting software, payment systems, website design capabilities … and that’s before you’ve even made anything.
These platforms can work for well-organised creators in industrialized nations with good infrastructure and connections, but are just pie-in-the-sky for an individual seamstress in a remote village in Bangladesh. What’s more, they are not without their disadvantages. Doing business with wholesalers or online distributors means surrendering control over the supply chain to companies that may suddenly delist or block you. For instance, it’s not uncommon for Etsy to close shops down without explanation, discussion or redress. Another danger for “cash-in-hand” handicraft sellers is that their finances become more visible, and are controlled by third parties. Income streams become dependent on firms offering payment systems, telecom services and (subscription) access to online marketplaces, as well as open to inspection by the local tax office.
The future of artisanry
Demand for handicrafts is on the rise in the United States, partly thanks to the support of institutions such as the Association of Crafts and Creative Industries. The use of online platforms is also strengthening the growth of the market 1. However, in developing nations where producers have had to turn to other sources of income, traditional handicrafts will only continue to be made if the activity is financially viable. And for artisans embarking on online routes to success, cybercrime is an increasing threat: in one survey of 500 small handicraft businesses, almost 20% had been attacked. The use of public Wi-Fi connections and unsecured communication channels are typical security gaps, leading to phishing and other scams 7. Small traders need to become more aware of these issues and how to protect themselves before they become the next victim.
One way of growing turnover and enhancing sales margins is to go down the custom-made route in search of clients with deeper pockets. At the very top end of the handicraft market, purveyors of custom-made staircases, sports cars and superyachts have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic. These artisans will continue to provide wealthier buyers with the personal touches that turn a functional product into a unique statement. And once the pandemic has subsided, makers of wedding dresses and similar one-off luxury items involving social interactions are likely to be in demand once more.
What’s clear is that after all the disruptions of 2020, people with rather more average household budgets are looking forward to getting on with the more pleasurable things in life again. Holidays, restaurant visits, family gatherings and cultural outings are high up on many agendas. By the summer of 2021, when sufficient numbers of us have been vaccinated, distribution channels such as shops, markets, hotels and restaurants will hopefully be reopening, giving artisans a chance to sell their wares. There’s certainly a continuing demand for handmade, personalised items that are more meaningful than anything a machine could produce. The unanswered question is really how – and if – artisans will be able to keep going until the buyers return.
Cathy Scott is a British journalist, copywriter, editor and translator living in Dutch suburbia. She has written for Expats Magazine, Living France and a wide variety of corporate magazines. She loves cat videos, café culture, musicals and big hair.
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