A Few Lessons from My First Year Running an Etsy Shop

It’s been a little over a year since I opened Premium Transitions, my vintage shop on Etsy, and I remember my first sale very clearly. I had just listed a set of vintage Corning Ware”Grab-it” bowls from the 1970s and was thrilled when they sold the next day. It was my first inkling of how desirable these bowls are among collectors of vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware. As it turns out, it’s actually pretty rare to find undamaged grab-its at a thrift shop, especially with the  fitted glass lids.  I bought that first set on a whim but have since learned to be constantly on the lookout because they typically sell within days of being listed, with or without lids. It was my first vintage find and I was hooked!

vintage corning ware
Corning Ware Grab-It Bowls: My First Sale turned out to be a best seller.

At first, I thought vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware would be the main focus of my shop but I’ve since branched out into midcentury home decor and fashion accessories as well. Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how to list and promote items in my shop and how to pack and ship delicate items domestically and internationally. I’ve also learned more about which vintage items are most sought after by Etsy buyers. Some of the things I bought in my first month are still sitting on the shelf while others, like the grab-it bowls, have become best sellers (when I can find them).

My learning curve is by no means over. However, the one-year mark seemed like a good time to pause and take stock of how far I’ve come. Starting from nothing, I now have a sizable shop with hundreds of listings and about 250 completed sales. The following tips and “lessons learned” are gleaned from my own trials and errors since over the past year. I hope they’re helpful to anyone whose thinking of starting a shop either on Etsy or another online marketplace.

  1. Develop a system. Before starting a shop, I didn’t give much thought to the hours I would invest in simply posting items for sale. However, listing can be a fairly time-intensive process, especially with a vintage shop. While it sometimes happens that I can directly copy or renew a sold listing when I list an identical product (such as the grab-it bowls), that’s rare because almost every vintage item is unique. However, once you establish a shop identity and a focus for the types of products you will offer, you can often copy a similar listing (such as a Pyrex casserole dish in a different pattern or size) and use most of the same tags and descriptors. You will still have to replace photos and customize, but it’s easier than starting from scratch.

    photography studio
    You don’t need a professional studio to start creating appealing photos.
  2. Create a Mini Photo Studio. Photos are very important to marketing your products but can also be expensive and time-consuming to create. My first photos were pretty mediocre and could still be improved, but I’ve learned a few tricks to make my products stand out without paying a professional photographer or renting studio space. First, I try to take all my photos against similar backgrounds. My backyard, where I have a mini rock garden with a variety of oddly shaped marble-like slabs, is my current go-to spot. It’s turned out to be a nice staging area for things like purses, jewelry, and collectibles. Although natural light produces the best results, the weather isn’t always conducive to outdoor shots. For those days, I created a makeshift light box in my basement using a cardboard box, tissue paper, and a spotlight (check out this simple tutorial on YouTube). It works well for smaller items. Someday soon I will invest time in making a bigger one.
  3. Work in Batches. I’ve found that taking multiple photos at once is easier than getting out my camera every time I have something to list (tip: an iPad camera works fine to start). I typically take photos of 5-10 things, then edit them in one batch. That way, they’re ready on my computer whenever I find a few minutes to create a new listing.

    how to start etsy shop
    Be careful of switching labels when you’re packing multiple items for shipping.
  4. Develop a packing and shipping process. The importance of this step will become clear the first time you inadvertently switch mailing labels and send customers the wrong order (as I unfortunately managed to do early on–hopefully you will avoid this!) Problems arise when you’re packing up and printing out shipping labels for multiple orders. It’s fairly easy to put the wrong label on a package if you’re not careful, so I now take a couple of precautions. First, after packing an order, I lightly write the name of the item and first name of the customer on the box or envelope. Next, I put the packing slips into the corresponding packages and tape them up. At this point, I cannot see the contents of the box or the packing slip, so my previous labeling is a big help in matching the correct label to the correct package.
  5. Pay attention to what sells. Some of the things I bought in my first few months in business are still sitting on the shelf. I’ve learned that not everything old or antique-y is desirable or conducive to easy shipping. For example, vintage kitchenware is popular but only for certain patterns or brands, such as Pyrex/Corning Ware and
    vintage teapot
    Novelty kitchen items like this Sadler teapot sell well but sets of vintage china often linger on the shelf.

    Fiestaware. Dinnerware is generally difficult to sell but ceramic or novelty mugs are quite popular. Weight is another consideration as many customers are deterred by the expense of shipping, which can be as much as or more than the item itself in some cases.

  6. Be patient. There’s no way to know everything from Day 1. Paying attention to what sells, listening to customers’ feedback, and learning about the products you sell takes time. I now feel more confident looking for new inventory at estate sales because I have a better feel for what customers want and how to set prices. I’ve noticed myself passing over things that I would have snapped up six or eight months ago. Similarly, I’m getting better at looking beyond labels and trusting my own judgement about what items will appeal to shoppers.

    vintage kitchen
    Quirky best sellers: This set of owl measuring cups sold months ago but still gets lots of customer views.

As I write this post, I realize that I’m only scratching the surface of what it’s like to own and grow an online shop. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more first-year insights and lessons learned as I continue on my entrepreneurial journey. I welcome your suggestions and comments!