I was sitting down in an Albuquerque restaurant. I was ready to tuck into my first stuffed green chile sopapilla in what seemed like years, when my phone blew up with urgent texts and voicemails. My client in downtown Chicago was furious.
A leg in the table I had just delivered to her a week before was erupting with an ant infestation.
She wanted the table out of her apartment that minute and a full refund. A panic set into my stomach that made the hot green chile seem bland.
This had not happened to me once during my 23-year career. I have to admit that my first thoughts were about myself. How could I afford a full refund? How could I move a table from 1,600 miles away? Why doesn’t she just get some Raid and take care of this issue herself? Then fairly quickly I realized that I would have to try to ease her nerves, and simultaneously I realized that I was immersed in a legal matter.
For almost all of my career, I have sold mainly to retail stores or to interior designers.
This meant that I effectively got only 50% of the value of my work, but I justified this by charging the stores a price I was comfortable receiving, knowing that the stores were better positioned to sell that work for twice as much. They had the sales experience and the access to a broad clientele. They dealt with shipping and any problems that might arise. They also paid me upon delivery.
Then came the “Great Recession.” In fairly quick succession, two of my stores in Santa Fe closed. They had accounted for more than 50% of my business at times. During the ensuing lean year, I scrambled to get enough orders to make ends meet. I also began to look for other markets. Someone had told me about the online store Etsy, and though I was skeptical about the prospect of selling bulky furniture over the internet, I liked the seller-friendly atmosphere. The process of listing a product was very simple and the cost was only 20 cents per listing. Also, Etsy only took 3% of each sale, and if you wanted to accept credit cards, PayPal would only charge another 3%. The chance to claim 93% of retail price of my work was very alluring.
So, I threw something up there. It was a popular item, the Icarus Mirror. I adjusted its size a little bit to get the best shipping value and adjusted the price accordingly.
Then, one morning not too long afterward, I opened my email to view the startlingly gratifying subject line, “Blankety Blank paid you $340.” The past tense! I rushed over to my PayPal account to see, sure enough, a balance in my favor. My sales on Etsy over the past three years have now risen to nearly 70% of my business.
My business: it’s always had a bit of a casual, man-of-my-word flair to it.
At some point along the line, Etsy encouraged me to set shop and shipping policies. I blithely ignored the advice. Sitting there staring down my smothered sopapilla, however, I began to realize my mistake. If I had guidelines in place that suggested that I would only cover the cost of extermination in case of bugs, would I be protected from having to give a refund for an otherwise acceptable product?
And what of the refund? For an expensive item like a dining table, would I have to repay the price in one cash-flow-clogging payment or could I spread it out? As for shipping, would a refund entail giving back the money I charged to bring the table to Chicago (which I had accomplished well enough)? Who was responsible for return shipping? It was not from a position of power that I could negotiate these finer points, when discussing ants infesting a client’s fancy downtown apartment.
And yet my abiding suspicion was that the client was vastly overreacting. She sent me a video of a few ants—evidently not an ant infestation—crawling out of the leg and onto the floor. I posted the clip onto my Facebook business page under the headline “Disaster in Chicago: Over-reaction or Justified?”
It was at this point that I discovered the true power of bad news.
I had 11 comments within just 10 minutes of the post. Overnight 1,700 people had viewed the video. Previously my most popular post had but a mere 593 views and those over several days. I decided then and there that my next “isn’t this a lovely table that I made” post would be preceded by the phrase, “Nearly cut my finger off, but….” Almost all of the comments were of the “can of Raid” variety, but a few reminded me that in order to protect my reputation I would have to repay.
I talked with the client, and we agreed that I could make two payments over the next month and that she would pay for the original shipping. We found a mover that could get the table out of the apartment and into a storage spot that the Chicago store Artemisia offered to me. I paid the cost of the mover in lieu of paying for the exterminator. I suggested that she file a claim with Etsy and PayPal.
I thought that was the end of the matter.
Upon my return to Michigan, I opened my PayPal account to find that I had a huge freeze on my funds for the entire amount of the table plus the shipping. My options were to pay or to dispute the reverse charge by her credit card company. There was no option to say, “I will pay the charge, but in two payments and not including the shipping, as the buyer and I have agreed upon.” So I disputed the claim and contacted the buyer to ask that she rescind the reverse charge with her card company, which she did.
Long story short, it was too late. Seven days later and without notice PayPal paid the reverse charge from my account in full. Now, there was not enough money in PayPal to cover it so it dipped into my bank account per their policy, but as I had not moved money into that account, the account overdrew which caused a charge to me. It also came on the day that my mortgage was to be paid and so that also incurred a late payment charge.
I don’t think any of this would have happened if I had my shop policies in place.
Obviously, I’m not a lawyer, but Etsy suggests looking at other seller’s shop policies, especially those who sell similar items. I looked over some policies and found bits and pieces from several sites that resonated with my needs. I debated stating a policy about insects in the wood. I decided against it for now. It’s been the exclusive experience so far. I think rather than putting the idea into potential customer’s minds, I will give this new Midwest driftwood closer inspection.
What I’ve found from selling on Etsy is that not only am I the maker, but I am also the retailer. The two roles have different concerns and require different skill sets. In order to be successful at both, you have to try to wear both hats with panache.