So, You Want to Open a Vintage Store on Etsy

I can remember when I first had the idea to open a vintage store online.

I’d read an article in a magazine, about six years ago, about three different women who had eBay stores and were each making a killing. I wasn’t real familiar with eBay, so I went on and checked it out. After some clicking around, I found the vintage stores.

I have always liked old things. History turns me on, and I get real physical joy out of finding something that clearly has one.

The first online vintage store that had an impact on me was called Green Stripes. They’ve long since closed down on eBay, but the girl who ran it was this cute-as-a-button indie girl who made everything she put on look adorable. Her pictures were amazing, and she was making regular sales in amounts that would make a huge impact on my bottom line if I could emulate them.

So I headed out to the thrift stores. I lived in Las Vegas at the time and had plenty to choose from.

Let me tell you. My first purchases were at best a mixed bag. At worst, they were a total disaster. (One of the first things I bought was a loud, full-on double knit polyester suit. Somehow I managed to sell it as a Halloween costume. That was my lesson in not all vintage is equal.)

My first pictures were dismal. (I’m not a cute-as-abutton size-4 indie girl–and I didn’t own a dress form–so I was reduced to a hanger on a hook on the back of a door.) I had no idea how to price things, so I ended up losing money on some things.

But I had bought one dress for $1 at St. Vinnies. One dollar. And it attracted a bidding war, ending up selling for $150.

I was hooked. As hooked as a kid who hits a jackpot on her 21st birthday and ends up in gambler’s anonymous after embezzling from her employer. That is–addicted.

I sold on eBay for several years. I’ve talked before about how I ended up hooking up with real-life models and real-life photographers. My pictures went from a garment on a hanger on a hook against a door to this:

After I had Ruby and we moved, I let my store go.

But I’m an addict remember?

So I started an Etsy store. I did pretty well, too. Some changes at Etsy sort of derailed my business (they took vintage out of the default search) and I started working as a counselor and going to school. So my store went by the wayside again.

Oops. An addict is always an addict. I should know this by now.

So here I am again. My store is one month old today. I’ve made some changes, I’ve learned some things. And I firmly believe that having a vintage store on Etsy is a great way to be a work at home mom.  (There have been so many changes at eBay that I don’t even know how it works now. So the remainder of this post is about how to become an Etsy addict.)

I thought I’d share what I’ve learned, so you don’t end up like me–re-donating a ton of oopsie buys and starting from scratch on the learning front.

Research

Learn about vintage. Etsy is a great resource for this. So is eBay, for that matter. Find successful sellers and study what they are selling. The great thing about vintage, versus say jewelry or soap, is that there is so much diversity that the more is really the merrier.

There are vintage sellers on Etsy who are really taste makers. On eBay you can search what has recently sold, and see what people have fought over, which will also give you ideas for how to populate your store.

Nothing really goes out of style, in the beginning you might find yourself struggling to tell “80s does 50s” from authentic 50s, or Free People from real hippie clothes. You’ll learn as you go, but here are a few tips to get you started:

A nylon zipper usually (but not always, because zippers can be replaced) means a garment newer than the early 60s. Which means that a metal zipper usually (but again not always) means a garment older than the early 60s.

Check out the construction of a garment. Wide seams that are pinked or have hem tape usually indicate an older piece. Serged seams usually means a newer piece.

Do you see a Union label? That normally indicates that the garment is of a vintage older than the 70s.

There is really no substitute for research though. Learn makers, cuts, styles. Learn how vintage fabric feels between your fingers. I promise, it will become second nature. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and bought a lot of things that weren’t really vintage. Or vintage things that just didn’t sell. I’m pretty good at ferreting out the sell-able vintage from a thrift store or yard sale now.

Take Great Pictures

I can not empathize this enough.

Great pictures are the difference makers. It’s not as hard as it might seem, although some lazy short cuts have to be cut out. Most specifically, you must take your pictures outdoors unless you have a professional studio. Even bright rooms will not give you really good pictures like natural diffused light outdoors will.

If you can, wait for a cloudy day. This will diffuse things and give you even lighting. I live in the high desert where it’s a frozen tundra nine months out of the year, and seriously lacking in clouds all year long. So I promise, if I can manage outdoor pictures, so can you.

Invest in a dress form. I bought mine on eBay for about $100 and it’s paid for itself 1000s of times over. A model is best, in my opinion, but not always practical. Having pictures with live models is part of my business plan. The dress form is an acceptable second-place.

Now, all that said, I have had some luck photographing smaller items indoors. I use a sheer white curtain over a window and place my item on a white surface in front of it. These would be better outdoors as well, but I like the white background and haven’t rigged up an outdoor system for them yet. (Stupid flu.)

The pictures in my thrift store finds picture were taken on my white background in front of the window with the white sheer.

Use a photo program like Picnik or Photoshop to make your pictures even better. Balancing the white will make a huge difference. Brighten things up, then adjust the contrast. Mess around until you get pictures that are really good.

Here is my number one tip that I wish I’d known early about photos on Etsy. Etsy crops pictures to squares for thumbnails, using the middle of the pictures as the center. Which means that rectangular pictures are going to lose their head and feet. Hence all the thumbnails on Etsy that are essentially columns of clothing against a background, cropped at top and bottom. To fix that, just use Picnik or Photoshop to crop your picture to a square yourself. Then the whole thing will just shrink down for the thumbnail. Genius, no?

Take a stroll through Etsy. You’ll see what a difference great pictures make. You’ll see dull, gray picture after dull, gray picture…and then wham, something bright and beautiful that just calls to you. Take the time to learn to do this. It’s important to your business.

Oh. And please, please do not use your camera’s flash. Thank you.

Fill Your Store

The more that’s in my store, the more I sell. The stores that I’ve seen that are very successful on Etsy have at least 300 items in them. If you look, you can see that as the number of items a store stocks declines, so do their sales. Just keep chugging along, adding to your stock, and you’ll see your sales increase.

If I can manage to find enough vintage stock in this tiny town, then I know you can find more than you might think where you are. I’ve also had some success buying things on eBay to fix up and put into my Etsy store. Once I even bought up the stock from a vintage store that had gone out of business (they listed it all as one big lot on eBay.) We used our tax return, and I’m still selling things from that purchase 5 years later.

Brand Yourself

This can seem hard to do, when you aren’t selling something you’re making yourself. But it’s possible. Get some business cards. I like Moo cards because I can put pictures I’ve taken myself on them, which helps with branding. Vista Print will offer you some cards for free. Give them away. To everyone.

Develop a photography style that lets people know, on site, that they’re looking at something from your store. I’ve titled my listings in a way that makes it obvious that they belong to my store. (This is a little controversial. Some people think that the title should be no-nonsense with pertinent information in it. Do your own research and see what works for you.)

Come up with an innovative, but inexpensive, packaging style. I make my own sewn shipping bags from brown paper and bright thread. I make hang tags from vintage playing cards with my return policy written on it.

You can brand yourself with your listings as well. I write little stories for some (but not all) of mine. All of mine have a creative slant that I think brands them as mine. I have noticed that several times a day someone will read all of my listings.

Be Professional

Have you ever gone to a retailer’s website and seen things like: “We will not accept returns. Period. If it doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck.”

If you did, would you buy from them?

A store policy that’s filled with negatives is a turn off for the buyer. The stores that I see on Etsy that are very successful almost unilaterally do not do this.

Have a return policy. Your buyer can’t try things on, get their hands on them–so give them an out. That way they’ll be more likely to get in.

I offer store credit of the purchase price for any reason (including change of heart or the item not fitting.)

Be quick and helpful if there are problems. It might suck to refund part of someone’s money because they claim there is a tear in a hem that you didn’t see before. But I promise you, when you get a reputation for 1) having quality items and 2) taking care of problems when they arise, you will prosper in the long run. You’ll get repeat business, and your feedback that details your excellent customer service will help people decide to buy from you.

Another facet of being professional is presenting your wares in a professional way. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than reading that the seller is going to let the buyer take care of cleaning the garment, or seeing something dirty or severely wrinkled in a picture. It’s  a total turn off.

You want your items to be something a buyer wants. Really has to have. So take the time to clean everything. Iron your clothes. Do not deliver things with weird smells or stains that may or may not come out later. If something is stained beyond your ability to remove it, then disclose that and price accordingly. But don’t say “I think this  will come clean, but I’m leaving it up to you to do.” Not professional.

I think that shipping belongs here as well. Don’t gouge your sellers on shipping prices. Etsy is set up so that you have to list a shipping cost, it doesn’t figure it out for you based on weight and location for delivery. So do your best, and then list in your announcement at the top of your store that you will refund shipping overages (minus a dollar is fair I think, for supplies), and then do so promptly.

Also, underpricing your goods, but inflating shipping is bad form. (I’ve seen a necklace listed for a dime, with $28 domestic shipping.) It’s  tacky. Please don’t do it.

Lastly, ship professionally. It isn’t difficult to ship internationally. Cutting off your international buyers isn’t good for business. (I would estimate that 1/2 of my sales ever, on any site, have been from international buyers.) It’s also very cool to know that your find is walking the streets of France or Japan or Australia.

Price Right

Take the time to research your item before you price it. This is one place where eBay has it all over Etsy. There have been several times when I’ve listed something innocently on eBay and been shocked to my naive toes when it sold for 100s of dollars. (Like the Yves St. Laurent coat I got for $20 from the Mormon thrift store and sold for $750.) On Etsy you set a price, so you’ll have to make sure you’re setting a good one.

Please don’t be too tempted to under price yourself with the thought that you’ll get a few sales under your belt. For whatever reason, Etsy buyers don’t respond to this. Maybe they think that they are getting what they pay for. It might take some finagling, but find a middle ground. Don’t go nuts, charging way more than others are charging for similar thing, but also don’t play the Price is Right here and undercut everyone. It doesn’t work.

Okay. That’s all I have right now. I’d love to hear thoughts and ideas from you all.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “So, You Want to Open a Vintage Store on Etsy

  1. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the canisters that you just sold the other day. I have my mother’s set exactly like them (which I’d never sell). But instead of “Cookies”, her set has “Flour”. Over the years I have added “salt”, “pepper”, and “grease”, which has a strainer insert. It’s so amazing to stumble across sets like them every few years. 🙂

    You’re very perceptive about early fashions – pinked seams, hem tape, union label, and metal zippers (I recognize them because I actually wore them back in the 60’s and 70’s. I can spot a late 60’s polyester knit in a pile of clothes across the room – LOL!)

    I would love to get my etsy store up and running. I just don’t know the technical part of accepting payments and printing shipping labels, etc!

    Best wishes on your store. I love the selection you keep there.

    • You can feel free to email me if you have specific questions. It’s super easy to get set up on Paypal and then Etsy takes care of the rest. For labels, you can get a scale and print your postage out right from Paypal, which includes a shipping label you just tape to your package. Me, I bought some old school shipping labels at our local variety store (they look like air ship labels, very cool) and I just hand write them and stick them on then take them to the post office. (I don’t live anywhere near a reasonably priced source for printer ink, so I choose not to print out my labels. I’m sure I could get ink online somewhere, but I actually really like the handwritten labels so it all works out.)

      I’ve always thought I’d love to have people who love to shop for vintage, but don’t have the time or desire to open a store, shop for me. That way they could make something for their shopping, and I could have more stuff for my store!

  2. Very informative post! Good luck with your new store.

  3. Danielle

    What an informative post! You’re a gem for sharing 🙂

  4. Excellent article!! Great advice for newbies… makes me want to start a store 🙂 Glad you’re feeling better too!! 🙂

  5. bee

    What a superb post! I’ve been selling for a while, but am learning new things every day (and in this post!). It is always great to learn about another seller’s journey. If you have any more tips to share about discerning the origin of a vintage item, please do! I always focus on the zipper and seams, but you’re right in noting that there is nothing definitive. I am always so paranoid about mislabeling things.

  6. I learned some really good tips from this blog post. Thanks for the info! I started my vintage shop on Etsy a few months ago, and there’s a lot to learn as always. The part I’m struggling with is promoting my shop. Don’t really know how to do it.

  7. Thank you so much, I lapped up every word! I just opened my vintage Etsy shop this week to share all my French treasures and these nuggets of advice have been invaluable….now I am off to your shop 🙂

  8. renee

    It’s as if you’re my Etsy angel….

  9. This was a GREAT READ over my morning coffee! Thanks so much —I love all things vintage and you have just “renewed my spirit” to go forward with my vintage shop that I have neglected. GREAT!

  10. Lydia

    Wow, thanks so much for this post! I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up an etsy shop. I was at the thrift store with my boyfriend the other day when I came across a beautiful hand-sewn girl’s dress from the 50s that was obviously far too small for me. He couldn’t understand why the hell I bought it, and harbored a fear that I’d develop an eating disorder to fit into it.

    The thing is, I understand how much work goes in to maintaining a shop like this, but you’re the first person to so clearly lay out the basics for me. Thanks again, and good luck with your shop!

  11. Ashlee

    I’m considering opening an Etsy shop but haven’t been able to determine if there is a way to see how much something sold for on Etsy like you can on Ebay. It would be helpful to see what people are paying for vintage items similar to the ones I would be selling. Any advice or insider tips you can offer would be much appreciated!

  12. Aly

    thanks for taking the time to write this article. i’m just starting out a vintage/crafty store on etsy and your article is invaluable to me!

  13. subrosa

    thank you so much for this post. i think it is extremely generous of you to share so much of your frank, tried & true advice with us. i am in the process of developing the makings of my store — accruing inventory, getting my photography setup together, etc. i know i have a tendency for self-defeating perfectionism, but i’m still not feeling ready to forge ahead. one main reason is lack of sources for inexpensive inventory in my area. if i could just pick someone’s brain about how to find “the goods” i would be forever grateful. and the 2nd roadblock right now is that i’m still trying to come up with an appropriate name for my shop/business. it’s intimidating to decide on something that will become such a huge basis of my branding and my business. any advice or pointers to good info in these areas? it would be more than a godsend to have a breakthrough soon!!

  14. Sam

    Juicy,
    I am not one for a lot of ‘chit chat’…. and all the communicating open forum style is new to me, I just told my wife, no disrespect to anybody in cyberspace, that some people’s posts are just, well, er uh, a lot of words.
    But this one I could sit down, sink my teeth into it, and take note.
    I sold on ebay last year as well, and did very well… Mainly my mom’s treasures stored up for the last 50-60yrs. They sold themselves really. But when people want to offer $50- for a $300 tagged new item, it’s just not worth all the effort to list, present, safely ship, etc. I LOVE a good deal! BUT, I do respect the intrinsic value of an item. Over half of sales were international. So I put everthing on hold for awhile.

    Then I HAPPENED on Etsy. So within the last month, I’m getting back into the groove once again. I am endeavoring to navigate there shipping structure, fair pricing, and promoting. My 1st sale went to Australia.
    ALL of your input was solid, weighty, balanced, and worthy of consideration. I know there’s “different strokes for different folks” but… Your feet are solid on the ground. Refreshing. Thank you!

    My best to You & Your Family

  15. Thank you so much for this great post! I stumbled on it while searching how to get those perfect Etsy thumbnails. I’ve had my shop for almost a year now, but I am always, always learning and tweeking and adjusting. I am finding it to be (at least) a part time job (if not more!). I hope you are still inspired and addicted 🙂 Thank you!

  16. P.S. Could I get more information on your brown paper bag shipping???

  17. Natalie

    This was really helpful. I was a buyer on Etsy first and then 5 months ago, opened my own vintage shop. .. There has been a steep learning curve but this laid everything out concisely. Thanks so much :).

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/sweetnsourvintage

  18. super informative. I’ve been selling vintage for… oh my, 16 years. I think the number one qualification for running a good shop is to truly love vintage and fashion in general. Some people just don’t get it. I have family members and friends who see how “easy” I make money and they try and do it but the love of the hunt and the goods just isn’t in their hearts so ultimately they give up…
    xo m

    • I live in a dinky little town with no real source of vintage stuff locally. I have tried and tried and tried to get friends or family to the point where they can shop for me. Even with the promise of pay, they can’t get it. It does take a special eye, that’s for sure.

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