I started selling on Etsy in 2012 with a few physical crochet items. Then, in 2020, I migrated my entire shop to digital patterns. 2 years and over 8,000 pattern sales later has taught me the pros and cons of selling digital patterns on Etsy.
Pro 1: Passive income
The beauty with selling an automatically renewed product in any sense is that you don’t have to work to replenish your item. Digital products are just that- delivered digitally and automatically. So, at it’s core, you are doing the work one time and reaping the rewards every time someone purchases your product.
There are no back-orders to fulfill, no supplier demands, and no worries of not being able to keep up with orders regardless of your bandwidth.
When done right, every pattern you sell puts you in the black… it’s all profit. This isn’t a unique benefit to Etsy, but one that can be realized fairly quickly using their platform.
Pro 2: No shipping woes
The repercussions of the pandemic were and still are pervasive in many avenues for sellers. Delays in shipping have become the norm, albeit frustrating to buyers far and wide.
Large retail giants like Amazon have also created an expectation of same-day shipping, a presumption that is unrealistic to small businesses. Shipping like that is not only cost-prohibitive, but also near-to-impossible for many sellers to accommodate, which generates frustration in the buyer community.
The beauty of digital pattern sales on Etsy is that once payment has been processed, the digital file is delivered instantly via email and available on a buyer’s purchase history.
Pro 3: The Etsy marketplace is bumpin’
Even with the cons of selling on Etsy in general, it is still the premier place for buyers to find handmade goods and for makers to find patterns and supplies. Though that may shift as the market saturates with new apps to solve the need that buyers and makers alike share, right now, it is the truth.
In fact, in looking at the details on similarweb.com, Etsy ranks #71 in websites globally- that’s out of ALL websites, and #33 in the United States. Even more telling- it ranks #4 in it’s category, stacked against Amazon, eBay, and Walmart. In the month of March alone, Etsy was visited almost 400 million times.
Quite literally, nothing, and I mean nothing, compares when it comes to the handmade marketplace.
The pro here is that this is where your buyers are. This is the first place they will come to find your items, and without your presence there, you are likely missing out on a lot of sales.
That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t sell elsewhere. Diversify your portfolio for maximum engagement and sales! (More on that later).
Pro 4: The algorithm is smart
Etsy has a pretty solid algorithm when it comes to utilizing search engine optimization (SEO) by way of keywords and tagging. It’s imperative to be descriptive in not only your title, but also your description.
Gone are the days of a very minimal description. Use the space Etsy provides and give your buyers more details than they know what to do with. By writing paragraphs (yes plural), about your product, you are not only easing uncertainty with your buyer, but also adding keywords that the Etsy algorithm will pick up on to serve the appropriate customer your product.
Additionally, based on a buyer’s search and purchase history, Etsy will serve up products they think that person might like. For example, I purchased a crochet pattern for a water bottle holder. A day later, I was getting recommended products for similar crochet patterns to purchase without me ever having to search for them.
Con 1: The mobile Etsy app lacks digital download support
I have yet to find an application that is superior to its desktop counterpart. The Etsy app is no different. Whereas product browsing and ease of purchase is quite nice, the experience post purchase leaves a lot to be desired.
In the case of digital downloads, the app does not allow for buyers to download their digital files from within the application, even in their purchase history. In fact, digital products are only available in the browser version of Etsy via their purchase history.
The flow goes as follows: Buyer purchases digital product. Etsy emails buyer with successful transaction and a download link. Download link takes buyer to Etsy application where download does not exist. Buyer messages seller that their download isn't available. Buyer sends message on how to access digital files.
And so the cycle continues time after time.
Con 2: The Star Seller fiasco
In 2021, or thereabouts, Etsy released a new program called "The Star Seller." The intent here was to reward highly regarded Etsy sellers with a badge to indicate to buyers that they were a trustworthy source of products.
Great in theory, right? Unfortunately, the program was rolled out with a ton of flaws, some of which have been remedied as of this posting.
The 3 things a buyer needs to have to be considered a Star Seller are only 5 star reviews (this has been moved down to 4), responses to messages within a 24 hour period (regardless of weekday), and no outdated shipping times.
As sellers, we all know that there is the occasional disgruntled buyer who just wants to watch the world burn and will dock a star review for the slightest issue (if it were actually an issue at all.) That alone would dock someone the potential of reaching Star Seller. Not unique to a digital product seller.
The one that is an issue also relates to the next con on the list. Etsy doesn't technically allow for custom digital product sales. So you have to fudge the system a bit, which shows the product as if it's something that needs to be shipped. And... I don't think I have to be the one to tell you that you can't ship digital items. So you get removed from the Star Seller badge, just for offering custom items that, by design, can't be shipped.
It seems as though they're evolving the program, so I have high hopes that it will resolve itself with time. But for now, it's still a very painful experience as a seller on Etsy.
Con 3: Custom digital orders are not easy
Occasionally, I like to offer custom crochet pattern designs. I open the listing for 10 slots, and once they're gone, they're gone.
Etsy does not allow for digital products to be sold as custom orders. Instead, you, as a seller, have to list the product as a physical item, and set faux shipping (ahem, causing Star Seller issues), which then sends your customer an email that says "It's on the way!"
There's just no streamlined experience to offer and deliver custom digital products to customers without it being a strange and clunky experience.
Con 4: Some buyers choose not to read
Regardless of the many attempts to curb buyers who are not interested in a digital file as their product, there will always be more than a handful who refuse to read anything about the product to understand they will not, in fact, be receiving an item for the low low cost of $5.00.
I even have a message snippet saved for the inevitable question I get in my inbox asking where their shipment is.
This isn't a con on Etsy themselves. It's a con on selling digital items, in general. No matter what, you will have customers who refuse to look at the details of your items. Digital products are sold at a fraction of the cost of finished products. So buyers think they're getting an insane deal. When in reality, they're getting exactly what you indicated... a digital PDF.
My advice is to take these lightly. I use discretion with refunds, and always attempt to remind them that their purchase was for a digital item which has been delivered instantly to their inbox. 9 times out of 10 that curbs them asking for a refund. For those that still ask, I typically let them have it so as to keep my own sanity, but to also provide a good experience, regardless of how frustrating it can be.
Con 5: No unlimited inventory
The best part of selling digital downloads is that the inventory is unlimited. It's a digital file. It can be sent a million times, and it would still be available.
Etsy, however, does not provide an unlimited inventory option. As a result, it's highly important that you keep an eye on your inventory for your products to ensure that they don't accidentally "sell out." I usually do 100 across the board and when the inventory gets to less than 30, I put it back to 100.
Con 6: The frustration of fees
I put this last, because honestly, this is the least of my issues with selling digital patterns on Etsy. Recently, Etsy raised their fee from 5% to 6.5% per transaction. While a 1.5% increase in fees is frustrating, it was only a matter of time.
Remember, Etsy is a platform and a robust marketplace. What you pay for in fees, you make up for in exposure (if SEO and listing best practices are applied.) It's unrealistic to think that they would never raise their fees to accommodate increasing inflation and usage.
There are many sellers moving to other platforms to sell, but as mentioned above, there is absolutely no competition for Etsy in terms of a makers and sellers marketplace. Those other platforms, Shopify (where this website lives) included, also charge fees. They charge hosting fees and they charge transaction fees.
Unless you're selling direct, you'll likely never run into a scenario where a fee-based selling platform isn't applicable. So while this is technically a con, it's also just a reality of the way this seller marketplace works.
Should you sell digital patterns on Etsy?
At the end of the day, pros and cons analyzed, I fully support selling digital patterns on Etsy. Will it be frustrating? Absolutely! Will you find something tremendously better? Likely not.
My ultimate piece of advice is to diversify. Sell on Ravelry, your website, or another platform in addition to Etsy. Be present in the place you know most people are going, while still offering options for those who aren't there or don't want to be there.
There may come a day when Etsy gets dethroned as a maker marketplace. But until that day, I wouldn't count them out. You'll only hurt your potential sales in the long run.