Vol.1, No.5

Tips for shopping for handmade goods online

Avoid buyer’s regret when buying handmade items online by collecting information about the item you want to buy and investigating the seller’s business practices.

Online handmade jewelry shopping
Photo Credit: Mark Shurtleff
Online shopping gives buyers access to quality, handmade goods created by craftspeople from around the world, but the variable natural of handmade items also makes quality control difficult for the individual online shopper. Being familiar with the type of item you want to buy, getting detailed information about the item, and minding the details of the purchase will all help you avoid disappointment.

Know what you're looking for

With the majority of handmade goods, the materials and methods used to create the item can differ quite significantly. Educate yourself about the varieties of the item you want to buy and you'll be better able to get exactly what you want. For example, if you're looking for a handmade rug, would a flat weave, kilim weave, strip weave, or some other type suit your needs better? In the area where you plan to use the rug, would wool, cotton, or silk last longer? If it's handmade soap you want, you don't have to take a soap-making class, but learn enough about the ingredients that go into soap and the processes used to make it to assure you buy exactly the type you want. For those interested in handmade jewelry, knowing the basics of how to assess a quality stone and setting can help when making a purchase. As you become familiar with the standard materials and methods used, you'll also learn about possible short-cut methods and will be able to avoid low-quality or improperly made items. Another consideration for many is whether the product is eco-friendly and sold according to fair trade practices. For instance, products from endangered trees such as teak or mahogany should be made from plantation trees, rather than trees from natural forests. If you're concerned about profits going to the craftsperson and not to a middleman or about child labor, it's worth investigating exactly how the business you want to buy from is run and where the handmade goods are coming from. There are Web sites that specialize in items from independent craftspeople from a given region and the fair business practices in place are usually advertised on the site.

Know what you're buying

Don't settle for one blurry picture and a one-line description. The nature of handmade goods means no two items are ever alike, so it's essential to have detailed information about what you're buying. In some cases, such as with handmade paper or soap, there will be little difference from one lot to the next, so you may only need one photo and a brief description. However, with goods that can vary greatly from one item to the next, like handmade dolls or jewelry, it's important to have clear photos from several angles of the exact item you want to buy. This includes close-ups of joints in woodwork, settings in jewelry, or details such as lace or hand painting on dolls and ceramics. If you have any concerns at all about the quality, contact the seller. Doing so will not only answer your questions, but will tell you something about the level of service you'll receive should anything go wrong with your order.

Check the reputation of the Web site and the craftsperson

Despite the lack of face-to-face interaction with the seller, there are still ways to assure that you do business with a reputable craftsperson. Generally, a small, family-run business will provide better quality than a corporate importer. However, the Web site should still be run like a business and a phone number and physical address should be listed on the site. It's easy for dishonest sellers to post fake testimonials, so to find out about other buyers' experiences, look for reviews elsewhere online. The fact that a site is well- or poorly-designed doesn't indicate anything about the quality of the goods or services offered. A well-designed site may have been paid for by an import company profiting from cheaply made goods, whereas a simple site may be the result of an otherwise-talented craftsperson's attempt at Web design. Also, check how long the site has been running. If the site is new, investigate how long the craftspeople have been creating their goods. Artisans and craftspeople who create quality handmade goods are proud of their work and their Web sites will almost always include a page of background information about the business and products.

Get a guarantee

As with any purchase, in the ideal situation you'll be able to get a guarantee. However, be aware that some guarantees offer refunds or replacements if you simply decide you don't like the color of the product, while others cover only incorrect orders or items that arrive damaged. In most cases, you'll have to return the item for a refund or replacement, so check whether you or the company will pay the postage. Also, note how much time you have to return the item or report an error. For your records, print out a copy of the guarantee the same day you make the purchase.

Read the fine print about shipping charges and import duty

Before you order an item, be sure you understand how much delivery will cost. The exact amount should be either calculated automatically by the online order form or clearly posted in the item description. If shipping charges aren't mentioned on the site, contact the seller for an exact quote. If you'll be importing any handmade goods from outside your area, be aware of any duties or taxes that may apply. Even within the U.S., buyers from some states may have to pay tax while others will not. Likewise, be sure that the item is legal for import into your country or region. For instance, in many countries it's illegal to import crafts made from endangered animals such as ivory jewelry, tortoiseshell boxes, or etched whale teeth.

Shopping for handmade goods online gives you access to crafts and artwork you might otherwise never be able to find, but some caution is needed. Learning a little about the craft you want to buy and investigating the seller's business practices go a long way towards avoiding buyer's regret.