How a couple of mom-and-pop Etsy shops made millions off masks - The Verge

To make a fortune selling masks on Etsy, you needed three things. First, you needed to be familiar with the garment industry — ideally, already working in it. Second, you needed to be in or around Los Angeles. (Sorry, New Yorkers.) And third, you needed energy, because shipping tens of thousands of masks a month with a tiny crew meant working late into the night, then getting up early the next morning to do it all again, sometimes, while caring for kids in between.

For those who went all in, the effort was worth it: some mom-and-pop Etsy shops became big businesses overnight, doing in excess of $1 million in mask sales since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s been a question of ‘When is it gonna end?’ When is it gonna end?’” said one larger seller, who asked to remain anonymous so their friends and family wouldn’t know how much money they made. “And you’re put in this peculiar position. Because now I find myself looking at pandemic news, and it’s kind of... if the cases go down, mask sales go down.”

Between April and June, shoppers purchased $346 million worth of masks from Etsy stores, more than 5 percent of which would be pocketed by Etsy itself. It was an enormous surge for the site. Masks accounted for more than one out of every 10 dollars spent on the platform that quarter. For sellers, it was also a huge opportunity: a lucrative new market that existing shops hadn’t cornered. There was money to be made for anyone who wanted it — and for those who already knew the ins and outs of manufacturing, there was a lot of it.

More than 100,000 sellers started offering masks on Etsy during those three months, and most of them appear to be typical Etsy sellers: individuals, predominantly women, who make products by hand in their homes. Many had already been on the platform for years — like Meena Osei-Kuffour, who had been selling earrings and other jewelry since 2008 — while others joined Etsy when the mask boom began. Sisters Becky Smith and Debbie Cobb, both retired teachers, started selling masks on Etsy to help them afford materials for the masks they were already giving away at their church and to the elderly.

“We’ve really loved being able to talk to people all over the world,” Smith said. The masks were sewn on Smith’s dining room table, while a bedroom in the back of her house filled up with spare bolts of fabric for incoming orders.

“It was insane. I got 20 orders in a week, and I had to figure out how to make them.”

For small sellers like these, the mask boom has been both an opportunity and a challenge. Leah Jackson, an engineering teacher who’s been on Etsy for two years, transformed her dining room into “a complete sewing lab” with two machines and “all kinds of junk everywhere” to handle the demand. She’d stay up until 1AM each night sewing, then get up again at 7AM to care for her two kids, ages one-and-a-half and seven. Tyra Flotte, a music teacher who’s been selling crocheted products on Etsy since 2014, said she’s worried about keeping up with demand now that school is back in session. “It was insane,” Flotte said. “I got 20 orders in a week, and I had to figure out how to make them.”

Small sellers notched mask sales in the hundreds, sometimes outselling everything else their store had sold to date. Flotte said she saw sales hit $3,000 for the month of July. Smith and Cobb estimate they’ve sold around 2,000 masks through Etsy, bringing in sales of more than $25,000 since April. The money was particularly helpful at a time when the pandemic had shut down a lot of jobs. Jackson’s husband was furloughed at one point; Flotte is a teacher and doesn’t get paid during summer break.

For Etsy’s biggest mask shops, those numbers are orders of magnitude larger. One apparel company sold around 500,000 fabric masks across three Etsy stores, bringing in more than $4.1 million in sales between April and mid-September. The owner, who asked to remain anonymous to hide their businesses’ financial information from family, said it was a more than 2,000 percent increase over the shops’ sales for the entirety of 2019.

Another major seller, Charlette Chang, sold more than 200,000 fabric masks through her store, DoubleJoyDesigns, raking in around $1.5 million in sales. She had only been on Etsy for a matter of months before the pandemic hit, having started a T-shirt shop in September 2019. That put her in just the right position, though — she was already working with a factory to make clothing, so she directed them to make masks instead.

Like other top sellers, Chang’s masks were made in factories in LA. The city is sometimes referred to as the United States’ garment production capital (though like other US manufacturing, it’s shrunk considerably in recent decades), so the infrastructure was there to start pumping out masks quickly. Not only that, but it was just about all they could do: an order from California’s governor shut down nonessential production, so if the garment factories — and the Etsy stores they served — wanted to stay in business, they had to start making and selling protective equipment like masks.

“All of the sewing factories, they’re pretty much here,” said Jennifer Song, who was formerly the president of fast-fashion company Tobi. “If you are getting a reasonably priced made in America product, it’s most likely coming out of LA.”

LA garment factories are predominantly staffed by Latinx and Asian immigrants, and working conditions are often reported to be unsafe, with common complaints of dust, excessive heat, and rats and mice, according to a 2016 UCLA Labor Center report. Workers are frequently paid per garment and earn well below minimum wage. According to Fast Company, as mask production picked up, workers at some manufacturers said they weren’t given masks or good ventilation, leading to infections at the factories meant to provide products to keep the rest of us safe.

“It was like waking up and discovering it was Cyber Monday, except everyone in the world just wanted one product.”

Because manufacturing is outsourced, sellers don’t necessarily have to see the factories their products are made in. When a seller contracts a factory, they’re usually quoted a price per unit, but it’s up to the factory to determine how much it pays workers to make products at that price, said Richard Lee, who’s been in the fashion industry for more than a decade. He’s now at Ppeppi Boutique, an Etsy shop that received more than 190,000 orders for masks. Sellers can inspect the factories they’re contracting, he said, and it’s a step Ppeppi takes while setting up a new production.

Song was in the process of launching her own sustainable clothing line when the pandemic hit. A factory she was partnering with told her it was starting to produce masks, so she worked with them to get a product out the door. Her Etsy shop, GoodDayMasks, has received more than 95,000 orders. Song declined to share sales figures. “I think that kind of goes against the ethos of an Etsy store being small,” she said. Song said the factory she works with pays an hourly rate and followed “strict guidelines” for coronavirus safety.

Etsy sellers weren’t just in the right place at the right time — Etsy itself moved quickly to capitalize on the mask boom. On April 3rd, the day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that people wear cloth face masks, Etsy published a blog post, sent out a push notification, and delivered emails to sellers urging them to make cloth masks. “Calling all sellers: start making face masks,” the notification said. “We’re experiencing unprecedented demand. You can make a difference.”

“It was like waking up and discovering it was Cyber Monday, except everyone in the world just wanted one product and that product was in extremely limited supply,” Etsy CEO Josh Silverman told investors in May.

Etsy moved rapidly to optimize its site for masks. Its search results were overhauled to better feature masks “within hours,” so you would see fabric masks instead of Halloween masks or cleansing face masks. Early sellers were also rewarded with a “thank you gift” from Etsy, which refunded listing fees on up to 100 masks — or up to $20 each.

At the same time, other online retailers hit the brakes. Amazon and eBay were busy cracking down on sales of surgical and N95 masks in order to prioritize hospitals. In the process, both online marketplaces limited the sale of cloth masks, too. Amazon sellers complained that they had to go through a specific application process in order to get their listings approved, which often didn’t happen. eBay banned mask sales in March and didn’t start allowing cloth masks to be sold until May 1st. In the month eBay waited, 12 million masks were sold on Etsy.

For the small sellers, keeping up with the incredible demand was a challenge. On top of figuring out a mask design they could quickly make that would work for most shoppers — “I’m still figuring out sizing because everybody’s face is different,” Flotte said — sellers at times struggled to secure materials. Osei-Kuffour said she had to convince a local store to open up to sell her fabric. There was also an elastic shortage. Jackson said that, while she was making masks to donate, she ended up taking elastic pieces from one of her children’s toys to use for earpieces.

The larger sellers became bogged down by shipping. Many of them are family operations, so it would be up to just a few people to print shipping labels, pack up orders, and drive them all to the post office — the prep work often lasted late into the night. Song said she and her husband handled all the shipping straight from their house, which was made more complicated when her children started remote schooling. “They had to log into Zoom three times a day, and they had homework,” Song said. She ended up working as late as 4AM most nights, then got up at 7AM to start again.

Mask sales have begun to dip as the year’s gone on. The boom is ending, as the number of new coronavirus cases has plateaued and the mask shortage self corrects in the market. Sellers aren’t exactly upset about it. Song is eager to launch the clothing line she initially set out to create. Osei-Kuffour, who paused her small jewelry business to sew about 500 masks, says masks have just been far too time-consuming to make.

“I have literally been trying to stop making these for the last couple months, and it’s just not possible,” Osei-Kuffour said. “I just don’t want to do it anymore.”