Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Peepers the Cat

So, I've already mentioned my two older cats, Loki and Razzy, but 6 months ago we became the parents of a 6 week old kitten.  My daughter's boyfriend has a friend in the service who has a Savanna female cat.  If you aren't familiar with them, they are a hybrid cross between and African serval and a Bengal.  They have a very exotic look, with spots and stripes, very slender with long legs and are supposed to have a personality akin to a dog.  Their cat wasn't fixed, so unfortunately a stray tom had his way with her and as a result, she had a litter of kittens.  Because the friend had to go back to his base without the kittens, he gave them away early.  My daughter brought one home.

She was so tiny, she fit in the palm of my hand.  She made the most pitiful peeping noises, hence, the name Peepers.  I had wanted a more exotic name for her, but nothing fit. For the first few weeks she was my baby.  I held her when she slept, and when she was hungry, she'd make that pitiful sound and run out to the kitchen to be fed.  Because of the other 2 cats and our dog Lily, I had to feed her on the kitchen table, and she would reach up with her front paws for me to pick her up.  As soon as her belly was full, she was ready to sleep and I would hold her in the crook of my arm and just gazed at her sweet face, often taking her into the bedroom, and while still holding her, taking a nap myself.
At first, the two older cats were pretty tolerant of her, Loki actually let her crawl up with him on the chair to nap together.
But that didn't last too long.  Pretty soon Peepers was tearing around the house terrorizing everyone, chasing the two older cats. Razzy is the timid one, but she manages to stand up to Peepers most of the time and Peeps will back down.  Loki, on the other hand, for all his size and demeanor as king of the house, is really a wus.  He screams, runs, hisses and huffs and heads for the door.  He's an indoor/outdoor cat and when he's had enough he's at the door yowling to be let out.

Nandy, one of my daughter's rabbits, comes out occasionally to 'play' with Peepers, however, it mostly consists of sitting patiently while Peepers mauls him.  No bunnies were hurt in the taking of these pictures:

Lily, on the other hand, has been a perfect nursmaid and playmate.  Although a little rambunctious herself, most of the time they manage to play well together. And even enjoy some naptime together.
Unfortunately, Peepers has a habit of grabbing my hand with her front paws to play bite, I've taught her "no" and usually she'll stop and then lick me, but she often gets those back paws to shredding.  My hands are full of scratches from her.  One of her favorite things to do is lay on one of the kitchen chair cushions, hidden by the table cloth and swat at you when you walk by.
I confess, I've spoiled her rotten.  She came at a time when I was very depressed and she helped me so much by giving me something else to focus on.  She sleeps with me, both for naps and at night, whether I fall asleep on the couch or I'm in bed. Often she'll crawl under the blanket to snuggle.  I love all my cats, but she is something special.
How could you not love that face?

For Christmas I bought a cat tree.  It's 6 ft high with 3 perches, and a platform with a covered condo.  Peepers uses it the most, but they all take turns lounging on it.  Usually not all at the same time though.  Just this past weekend, we had a cold but very sunny day, and the cat tree is in front of a Southern Exposure window and I found Loki and Peepers lounging on it.
Even though the platforms are a pretty good size, Loki kind of drapes over it, but he doesn't really seem to mind;

Peepers, on the other hand, reigns supreme on the top perch:
Razzy, who was not about to be left out, perched prettily on the chair observing the sunshine from a distance"
So, I think I caught up with the latest pictures now.  I will continue to add posts as time goes on, after all, I'm such a good cat mom.

Monday, January 09, 2012

What is Handmade?

Nope, not the age old debate about "my handmade is more handmade than yours", but a deeper look into what it means to me and my view on society's take on it.

Recently, the topic of 'resellers' invading the handmade artisan community has come to point where some of us feel that something needs to be done about it.

What is a reseller?  well, generally speaking, just about any store you can think of is a reseller.  They buy inventory from a wholesale source and resell it to the public.  In and of itself, it's not a bad thing.  It's the way commerce works.  From Wal-Mart to Macy's virtually everything comes from a factory of some sort and is produced in mass quantities.  Some things carry a 'handmade' label, such as embroidered slippers from Indonesia.  We're not talking a few women in their homes, we're talking whole villages of people cranking out X number of items per day. Their weekly salary is often less than our hourly minimum wage.  The conditions are not always sanitary or safe, and very often young children have to work under these conditions in order for a family to make ends meet.

I don't tell you this to get you riled up, or start a movement to boycott these products or companies, but to point out the different definitions of handmade.

Recently, within the last 5-6 years the "Handmade Movement" emerged onto the scene.  It really isn't such a new concept, lots of people have been making their own clothes and their children's for many years.  People have been raising livestock such as sheep, rabbits, llamas and alpacas for their fiber for commercial purposes for hundreds of years, many of them kept a portion for their own use to spin into fiber and then construct into garments for their friends and family and to sell to local folks.  Co-ops where groups of people grow their own fruits, vegetables, grain and meat to trade, barter or sell.

Craft shows and flea markets have been around forever, where people make and sell their own furniture, soaps, clothing, accessories, jewelry, as well as items they've collected over the years.

To those who don't belong to this segment of society, handmade is a novelty, or a completely unknown concept.  With the introduction of the internet, handmade has gotten a lot more attention, mostly by other crafters as they can now gather from across the world and converse with others who share their handmade ethos.  They can gather in virtual markets and sell their wares.  Undoubtedly, this is the largest market for handmade products, as very few can fully appreciate the time, skill and quality of handmade like another crafter or artisan.  The added exposure has increased awareness, certainly, but I think it's still a novelty or an unknown to the general masses.

Education has helped, but education is a double edged sword.  It might convert a few non cratty types to appreciate and purchase handmade products, but it also gives the do-it-yourselfer the means to try their hand at crafting and selling.  I think the crafting pool has grown larger, faster than the buying pool.  And then there's that reseller issue.  Finding a formerly untapped market, resellers begin to label their things as handmade, and due to their lower prices, sometimes lower quality, and their ability to flood the market with their mass produced goods, it is squeezing the crafters and artisans out of their market.  Now we're faced with what to do about it.

It's pretty obvious that we're never going to escape the resellers, they will encroach on every market they can, using whatever tactics they have to in order to compete with us.  It's a dilemma that handmade marketplaces are now facing.  It's not just that resellers are encroaching on our territory, but that they are misrepresenting their items as handmade when they're not, undercutting our prices, copying our pictures to represent their items and often duplicating the exact items of some handcrafters.  I think most of us can accept competition when both sides play fairly, but not when one side cheats. 

It not only hurts us by taking away business, but the deception to the customer is just as serious.  Certainly there are people who don't really care whether or not something is handmade, as long as it's what they want at the price they want to pay.  That's fine, commercial items have their place and their market.  But what about the person who wants to support handmade and they are fooled into thinking that they are purchasing a handmade item only to find out it is mass produced in another country?  How do we protect them?  How do we educate them before they make that purchase?  And if they are fooled, how do we repair the lost trust?

There aren't really any magic solutions to this problem, it will be an ongoing project for us to educate the buying public.  And there will always be those who don't care.

If I can enlighten one person, or give them pause, or encourage them to be a more informed consumer, then I have done my job.  It's more than I expect, but everything I hope for.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Artfire: A dollar and a dream?

What is Artfire you ask?  Well, up until a few monthss ago I would have said a selling platform for handmade, vintage, supplies and commercial resellers.  A fairly nice place that has some pretty cool tools, great educational discussions in the forums and lots of help on things like taking photographs, writing good listing descriptions and Search Engine Optimization.

Now? It's a bug filled selling platform whose seller populations went from 80,000 to 15,000 in just a few short months, and they are losing sellers daily.  That's a lot of sellers to lose, don't you think?  First, in August of 2011, they kicked off over 40,000 basic sellers.  Basic accounts were free for sellers, with limited tools but unlimited listings.  The idea to increase from a dozen listings to unlimited was to bring traffic to the site.  The more things you have out there on google and other search engines people use to find things, the better the chances of them finding something listed on Artfire and thereby bringing a prospective customer to the site.

Except in April when Google changed their algorithms and started to punish websites with a lot of ads and duplicate content, they decided they'd better do something about all those basic shops that were full of ads (to generate some revenue since they weren't paying anything for their studio) and mostly empty, unattended or full of stuff sellers had listed primarily on other venues.  The decision was to get rid of them.  Ostensibly, the premise behind the free basic studios was to get people to upgrade.  Artfire had offered several special deals for discounted 'for life' rates that never seemed to generate a whole lot of interest.  Except among the sellers they already had.  I had signed up at an $11.95 per month rate and when the $5.95 locked in for life special came along I snapped that up.  So did a lot of people who were paying more for their shops.  Not exactly a money maker there.

Now, fast forward.  So 40,000 + sellers are kicked off and another 20,000+ some sellers leave for whatever reason and now you have a grand total of 15,000 sellers left.  And Tony the COO announces that due to a high number of complaints and shop closures (2500 consumer complaints and 800 shop closures) they have decided to offer an 'assurance plan' for prospective buyers.  Sounds pretty reasonable, right?  they figure it will convert all those nervous shoppers who look but don't buy and along with this program they'll also promote this program with ads to make shoppers aware of it.  The premise behind it is the success of Zappos and Amazon with their liberal return policies.  Except, hello, Artfie isn't Zappos or Amazon.  Mostly in the most obvious of ways, Zappos isn't a handmade marketplace, and they have no 3rd party sellers.  Amazon, while they have 3rd party sellers you hardly notice that because it looks like you're buying from Amazon.  And they have their own payment processor whereas Artfire doesn't.  They have a 3rd party payment processor and then sellers can take additional methods like Paypal or Amazon or Google checkout or checks or money orders.  None of the payments go through Artfire at all.

Then you get to the part where when you read the fine print, you realize that the shopper is going to have to go through the seller first to resolve any complaint, and then through the payment processor before Artfire will take over and issue that refund.  guess what folks?  And, there will be exceptions to the rules as well.  That's been in place forever already, it's nothing new.  As a matter of fact, most sellers will work with you to your satisfaction because they stand behind their business and their product and they want you to come back.

Ok, so where does the dollar come in you ask?  Well, they want the sellers to fund this program. It's going to cost an additional dollar per month.  The variable rate sellers will see an automatic increase in their monthly rate come February.  Those who are locked in at a fixed rate will have the chance to opt out, but along with that comes penalties.  First, the ads that draw in buyers will go to pages with just the sellers that offer this guarantee.  They won't realize that their default for search is automatically excluding anyone who doesn't pay into this scam.  I mean scheme.  I mean program.  Then, to make sure they catch the ones coming in from the front pages, they'll have a radio button to filter their search which will be their default until they choose to end using that filter.  Pretty sneaky, eh? 

Now, some of you are thinking, 'hmmmm...all this fuss over a dollar a month?'  the answer to that is 'no, not actually'.  What most don't know is what goes on behind closed doors. The private discussions regarding the working out of the final details and the overall implication of what this really means for their sellers.  It's not simply a dollar a month more, its that Artfire is now placing itself in the midst of every seller's transactions.  If they feel the customer deserves a refund, despite the seller's policies against them, or even if Paypal sides with the seller and doesn't feel a refund is warranted, in their effort to keep the customer, Artfire will offer an appeasement refund.  Great for the customer, not so great for the seller.  In addition, the seller will gain a black mark against them for adhering to their own policies! So many black marks and you're closed down.  You can effectively be closed down because of sticking to your policies!!

Now, as if this wasn't bad enough, the forums have become a battleground.  There was a lot of opposition to this program, by sellers with legitimate concerns.  But their opposition was thwarting Tony from proceeding toward finalizing the details so this program is ready to roll out by February, so in an effort to quell the dissention, he started banning/muting paying sellers from participating in the forums discussing it.  He refused to answer questions that were asked regarding the figures he threw out as justification for this program.  Sellers wanted to know the breakdown of the 2500 complaints they received.  The site has been so buggy since August, checkout problems, cart issues, listings disappearing, corrupt picture files, in house messages not going through so communication between seller and buyer is spotty at best and a host of other problems which have been mostly denied as an Artfire problem, but rather they are browser issues, computer issues, plain old user error (as in your customers are too stupid to know how to add things to their cart or check out).  Many sellers were getting emails from prospective customers that they were having multiple issues and unable to complete their purchases.  And Artfire blew them off.

There is a group of sellers called Mavens that allegedly are used to test new features and give feedback on usability issues and such.  Most of them do a fine job and are wonderful sellers.  But a select group of the same sellers have made it their mission to squelch anyone who has a problem or issue with Artfire.  They gang up en masse to berate, mock, swear at and demean anyone who doesn't toe the party line.  And it got worse after the warnings, mutings and bannings started, yet, they were allowed to continue while their victims, one by one, got their forum privileges taken away and their shops closed down without notice.  Now that they are virtually untouchable, they have run rampant on the forums bullying and spreading their vitriol and it hit a fever pitch 2 nights ago to the point where Artfire took the whole site down.

So, the dollar and a dream has turned into a nightmare for many.  Many who held out hope for venue in which to sell their products with a friendly community environment, where it used to be fostered and bragged about as a community where the staff listened and interacted with the seller base has turned into a place where sellers have to tread carefully or risk being muted or booted.  The uncertainty has turned the forums into a place where this small group of mavens have the run of the place, untouched by the rules the rest have to abide by.

While I wouldn't advise anyone to not sell on a site just because of the forums, it's a good measure to see how the sellers are treated by the administration because it will touch on how they treat you as a seller in other areas.  The trust has been damaged, irreparably for many.  Too many of the promises made have gone unfulfilled and there is just too much double talk and double standards.  Add to that, something drastic has changed on Artfire since August, along with the aesthetic site changes, there has been a drastic decrease in traffic and sales for many, many sellers.

I've downgraded my shop and it will be closed by the end of January.  That is, if Artfire doesn't see fit to close it earlier.  Between the bugs, the forums and the lack of sales and traffic, it's just not a viable selling venue for me any longer.  And by the looks of things, it's not a viable selling site for many others either because sellers are jumping ship in droves.  Just in the last few days that I've gone back and reopened my Etsy shop, and started a Team, I've had over 60 sellers join.  A few will still be on Artfire because they've invested too much time and effort into their shop there to just up and leave, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they're all working on plan B so that they can eventually leave.

There are still some great sellers on Artfire, so I wouldn't ever tell someone not to shop there, but I'd advise you to check and see if they sell anywhere else.  And if you want to open a shop there, do so with extreme caution, because the changes that they've mentioned that are on the horizon will be geared toward the commercial discount mentality akin to Kmart's blue light specials where you'll need to offer deep discounts to bring in traffic.  And if you choose not to participate, you can bet your visibility will be diminished in one way or another.

Search out selling platforms carefully, read the fine print and if you're not sure, hang out in the forums and read and observe and watch for the signs.

Much success to all, wherever you sell!

It has been brought to my attention that I am spreading misinformation regarding my assessment of the site (Artfire) closing down the whole site due to the chaos in the forums.  Let's look at the facts, shall we?  Every notice in the announcement section of the forums has scheduled maintenance that has the same time for every session, that would be 11pm MST.  Now, I wasn't looking at my clock at the time the site went down because frankly, the site goes down for unscheduled maintenance all the time.  But there is your first clue, when they take the site down, it doesn't say "unscheduled maintenance" it is "scheduled maintenance".  From my best recollection it was at approx 7 or 8pm MST and went offline for approx 1 hour.  It came back afterward for approx 1 hour and then went off again for the scheduled maintenance that was announced.  I am merely drawing logical conclusion from the timeline of events, if anyone has proof that I am not accurate in my assessment, I'll be happy to retract my statements.