Thoughtful Shopping For Expats Just Became a Whole Lot Easier
The Christmas and Easter holidays are over and one can breathe a sigh of relief! But are they really ever over?
For expatriates, these types of events occurring back in the U.S. often cause a pang of missing home. Also, every announcement, whether by snail mail or by electronic means, will push an expat into any one or more of the following actions:
- dashing off a check at the last minute because money is the easiest to send
- sending money via check or PayPal to a friend or relative to “pick something up” for the celebrant(s)
- declaring the whole thing too much trouble and sending a card or nothing at all
- swearing you’ll take something back from your overseas paradise to hand over upon arrival
- deciding to buy something inexpensive locally and pay high postage to get the item to the States on time.
But, whatever method you may choose, some action must be taken. Relatives and friends don’t disappear because you packed up and moved overseas.
Etsy to the Rescue
While one has been able to shop online at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Williams-Sonoma, Lillian Vernon and other big sellers for the last few years, gifts from these types of mass market sites feel like a rubber stamp and never quite evoke that feeling of warmth one wants to accompany a special gift to a loved one.
Now, online there’s a wonderfully creative, dynamic, diverse and lively marketplace bursting with thousands of unique gifts. Etsy (http://www.etsy.com), which started in 2006 with only three members participating, is now a worldwide site with millions of transactions each day in special and unusual one-of-a-kind products taking place between buyers and sellers.
What makes Etsy truly special is that the cornucopia of jewelry, soaps, lotions, perfumes, sweaters, socks, clothing, blankets, original paintings, drawings, photographs, purses, key chains, greeting cards, wooden bowls, ceramics, paper, textiles, and glass are handmade by the artists who put them on Etsy. Not only can you find just the right gift, but you can talk with the artist at length using a “convo” or conversation function (internal e-mail) on the site to ensure that the size, dimensions, and colors of the item are just what you want. If you are one of the few very lucky people who know exactly what you want, you can also request a custom item from a particular artist or go to the Alchemy section, describe what you want, and have artists bid on the privilege of working for you.
Whether you have loads of lead time or just a few days to get that gift to a certain place, Etsy is a great place to search using any or all of the following tools to help you narrow your selection:
Handmade – If you are certain you want only handmade items, use the drop down search tool to mark “handmade” and then add a few key words to help you narrow down the available listings.
Vintage – If your gift recipient is a vintage or shabby chic buff, you can find thousands of listings on Etsy for vintage clothing, books, paper, shoes, collectibles, accessories, home décor, hats or about anything else you can think of.
Categories — On the left side of Etsy’s home page, you can find a broad list of categories that allow you to begin to narrow your search in a variety of areas such as art, candles, clothing, dolls, geekery, knitting, plants, quilts and toys.
Colors – For baby or wedding showers, colors can be critical. When you search by color, Etsy displays an entire color palette in tiny dots and lets you move through the most subtle selection of colors to find just what you want that may be listed in that color. Also, many sellers will tag their items with certain colors so you can search for items using the name of the item and the color(s) as keywords.
Treasury – These are the items Etsy sellers have chosen as their favorites. Since many of the sellers are artists, in the Treasuries you can find some of Etsy’s most lovely pieces.
Pounce – When you “pounce” you can request views of a random selection of (1) brand new shops that still haven’t sold their first item or (2) established shops that have “just sold” an item. Either way, you’ll get an unexpected look at products you might not have considered (or, actually, ever even imagined existed).
Shop Local – Buy handmade items in a town you like or one near your gift recipient for quick drop shipping. Just name the place and Etsy will sort out the local vendors from more than 170,000 worldwide shops.
Time Machine – In this search area, Etsy buyers can watch items come up in real time as they are listed. If you don’t know exactly what might interest you, just watch the listings as they pop up to give you some idea of that variety of what is available.
Editors’ Picks – If you trust other people to have a keener sense of what’s hip, hot, or fantastic as a gift, take a look at what the Etsy staff have at the top of their gift lists.
Once you find a general group of items you like, you can use a drop down button on the right side of the page to have them arranged from least expensive to most expensive (or vice versa) or from most recently listed to least recently listed. You’ll soon find that deep discounts are usually located in the items “least recently listed.” In your searches, you can also use the world “sale” to great advantage when looking for bargains.
Once You Have Decided on a Purchase
Your purchasing experience on Etsy will be different from any you have ever had before online. Forget the world of canned automatic responses; Etsy just exudes personal service. Etsy sellers love to talk to and help their buyers!
If you ask, most Etsy sellers are willing to wrap presents for you and/or put in a card. Some charge for the service and some do not, but a simple query to most will result in a willingness to accommodate your needs to make the gift presentable.
Paying from overseas needs only a paypal.com account that can access your credit or debit card, draw directly from a U.S. bank, or pull from a loaded PayPal balance. Although many Etsy sellers will accept payment by check or money order, the lead time for these transactions is much longer. However, if you shop well in advance, there’s nothing to keep you from paying using a check drawn on a U.S. bank or using an international money order from your country of residence. Again, a simple pre-purchase “convo” can sort out payment details with the seller.
Personal Experience as an Etsy Buyer
Having lived in Asia for many years, I always felt that the most wonderful things to give as lovely handmade gifts were available in China, Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam at a fraction of the price I would have to pay in the U.S. for an equivalent gift. Shipping them, however, was another thing. Besides, not trusting the local postal service to get the package out of the country in one piece, the cost of postage was often prohibitive. Instead of actually getting specific gifts to specific people on time, I’d just load generic gifts into my suitcase and take them home once every two years to distribute as I visited relatives. Sometimes, though, I would just let the occasions slide and send a simple card. In some cases, I just ignored the event entirely.
However, once Etsy appeared, my strategy and sentiments altered significantly. PayPal, never having been my favorite method of transferring funds, suddenly became my best friend. Useful handmade gifts, primarily boutique soaps and hand towels, went to the top of my list as gifts. Not only were the handmade gifts affordable, but the postage was no different than what it would have cost me if I was in the U.S. Sellers were not just willing, but were eager, to include cards and wrap presents on my behalf.
Depending on your price range and what you are looking for, you may find your best luck in Etsy’s small and medium-sized shops. I’m providing list of some of my recent U.S. favorites:
http://www.jessicaurbin.etsy.com — great for handmade baby shower and baby gifts
http://www.sudsbysarah.etsy.com – artisan soap is always a great gift for any reason; while Sarah’s shop is more of a medium-size, the fact she sells so much attests to real quality
http://www.chesapeakecreations.etsy.com – for those old-fashioned type looking doilies and mats, Chesapeake Creations provides new product with look-alike vintage quality
http://www.livin4prim.etsy.com – for the relative or friend who loves to knit and crochet, you can find a hundred elegant ways to store a needle
http://www.forstrangewomen.etsy.com – for the eccentric friend who can’t be pinned down to wanting anything in particular, this shop offers delightful fragrances, lip balms, and jewelry
http://www.missprettypretty.etsy.com – I cannot imagine a toddler who wouldn’t just love these constructions
Through my purchases, I learned some useful lessons:
Expat buyers should take advantage of all the personal service offered by Etsy sellers. Be sure to ask as many questions as possible before you buy to ensure you are getting what you want. Take time to read the “shop policies” to determine if the Etsy seller you have chosen offers product refunds, tracks packages, refunds excess postage costs, or can offer free shipping if you buy in bulk. Use the “convo” function to see if the seller will offer discounts or reduce the price on an item you like but that you think is priced a bit too high for your requirements. For expats living in developing countries, these types of personal negotiations with a seller won’t seem at all unorthodox and can lead to a profitable future relationship.
Let’s Not Forget the Local Holidays and Friends Overseas
Now that you know where to shop online in the U.S. for those special occasions, let’s not forget that when you move overseas, you are going to encounter a whole new set of holidays. If you traverse the area where you live, cross borders to travel or if you host other travelers you are going to make new friends. Soon enough, their local holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc., are going to become part of your life.
Etsy, again, can help out. As a worldwide selling platform for hand crafted and vintage goods, you can find things locally in any country to which you hope to ship. Because all Etsy transactions take place in U.S. dollars, one can buy from and ship to anywhere in the world.
- Although I spend most of my time in China, when I heard an American friend of mine living in Ireland was getting engaged, I found an amazing shop that sold exactly the item I wanted. The Irish Bear Company (http://www.theirishbearco.etsy.com) has stuffed bears romantically decked out in Aran hand knits and Donegal tweeds.
- When I heard a friend of mine in Geneva, an avid knitter, was getting divorced (she’s celebrating as I write) I started looking for a special pattern on Etsy that could be shipped to her electronically free from anywhere in the world. It’s still a tossup as to whether I’ll send her one of my own creation or buy from http://www.loriversaci.etsy.com.
- A close friend’s niece moved from Seattle to Taiwan for her junior year abroad. My friend wanted to send something as a birthday gift and together we found http://www.ramastar.etsy.com.
With a bit of creative searching and a few conversations with artists/sellers on Etsy you soon will find thousands of people worldwide who have “got your back” when you need to get a great gift out to a friend or relative anywhere for any occasion.
And, don’t forget that while the big holidays may be over for 2009, they are going to roll around again in 2010. By then, shopping on Etsy will be second nature to you and next year’s holiday shopping will be concluded pleasantly in just a few keystrokes so you can head back to the beach where you belong!
The author: Tracy Zhang recently retired and now spends her time with friends and family in China and around the U.S. Visit her shop at http://www.charliebear.etsy.com to check out her knitting patterns, e-books, and vintage items. To learn how you can use Etsy to make money from overseas, check out Tracy’s article Preparing for Retirement – Downsizing and Marketing in the November 2009 issue of Escape from America.