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Wednesday, June 13, 2001

International Crafts Join the Net Marketplace


New York Times, New York, NY

LOVE the sound of Panamanian molas, those colorful fabric panels with their handstitched charms? Like the idea of Haitian tin sculptures? African carved soapstone dishes? Indian beaded necklaces?


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International crafts, with their one-of-a- kind aura, have joined the Internet marketplace. But like swiftly shifting sands, the final shape of these sites is still not clear: while a handful of sites, like Novica.com and eZiba.com, are still open to consumers, others have become wholesalers, and at least one has gone out of business. The idea behind the sites is appealing: a chance to buy crafts directly from artisans around the world, bypassing the limited selection (and markup) of importers.

Then there are the pledges from the sites to not just make money but to do good: they say they are helping to keep the artisans out of factories and sweatshops — and endangered habitats. For instance, a small site that sells woolen hats and gloves, Irbis Enterprises (www.irbis-enterprises.com), has made a deal with the Mongolian villagers who make them that their wares will be sold internationally and, in return, the villagers will not kill the snow leopards that eat their sheep.

Despite the idealistic intentions of many of the people involved, questions remain about the amount of money the artisans are paid. These sites also face a problem that has been bedeviling other e-tailers: selling handmade products when there is no way to touch the goods.

Evie Black Dykema, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said there was "obviously a significant demand for crafts that is not being met." And whether it is necklaces from Indonesia or plastic scrimshaw from Spain, a craftsman has the potential to earn "70 times what he could make working in a local factory," Ms. Dykema said. But for now, the international crafts scene on the Web is so small, "it's under the radar screen," she said.

Ms. Dykema and others in the crafts market point to several issues, including the margins between an object's selling price and the amount paid to the craftsman: is he getting a fair price? For the consumer, there are questions of quality, especially with handmade objects, which do not always match their pictures, as well as concerns about international credit-card security.

Most of the sites push their mission to "empower" the world's poor artisan, but it is hard to judge who is really doing good.

"Yes, the perception is that there's a lot of stuff out there and you don't know what's behind it," said Amber Chand, a co-founder and "vice president of vision" at eZiba, a major site for crafts. "But eZiba is committed to fair practices and exemplary trading; we build alliances with respect."

Ms. Chand, an anthropologist, concedes that things are not cheap on eZiba. "Why should we be cheap?" she said. "It takes months and months to make a good basket."

Novica.com, another well-known crafts site, had been struggling but received an infusion of support in December, when the National Geographic Society bought a 19 percent stake in the company. At Novica, Rob Milk, a founder, asserted that his site's prices were lower than those of other sites: the company's dozen regional offices, he said, make it easier for artisans to mail and store their objects.

Other sites are finding their way, said Rochelle Beck, the director of the Artisan Enterprise Network, which a year ago was awarded a grant by the World Bank to combat poverty through marketing indigenous crafts. The network uses the Internet to educate artisans.

The task is huge. "We're teaching them about trade shows, retail outlets, the laws that affect international property rights — after all, they're exporting goods overseas," Ms. Beck said. "If we're nervous about sending our credit-card number to a site in the United States, imagine people worrying about sending their credit-card number overseas."

Ms. Beck's group is developing an entrepreneurial curriculum for the workers. "How to run their business better," she said. Recently, the Artisan Enterprise Network set up a craft fair in La Paz, Bolivia — the city's first, Ms. Beck said.

The Enterprise network and other, more profit-oriented middlemen — eZiba and Novica, among them — are also coaching artisans on what sells in the United States. "You and I might like some of the crafts the way they are produced, but many others have different taste," Ms. Beck said. Some Americans and Europeans might like brighter colors — or conversely, less bright colors, depending on the country.

"It's a very sensitive issue that must be considered case by case," she added. "When we're dealing with old cultures — to ask for blue instead of beige would be a travesty."

But some crafts workers in certain cultures do not have the same creative flair as others do, Ms. Beck said. Their items might not sell at all in America.

"Do they stop making crafts and go to work in a factory?" she asked. "Or do they use their skills to make something more salable? You don't choose for them."

That approach has its drawbacks. "It's an age-old problem," said Caroline Ramsay, the president of the Crafts Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse for technical assistance and information. "You want them to continue their work without compromise, but that must be weighed against the realities of the marketplace."

THEN there is the question of labor standards. For instance, do the artisans use children to help, Ms. Ramsay asked, "or are they using sewing machines?" (Consumers generally prefer hand-sewn items.) EZiba, Ms. Chand said, checks every supplier and has a strong policy against child labor. But not all sites may be as cautious, Ms. Ramsay said.

The money is tempting to villagers. Although they receive a fraction of what the items sell for, it might be as much as they could make in a month, or even a year, selling locally.

With an item selling for $200, the artisan — the worker sitting on the ground making a terra-cotta pot, say — gets an average of $25, Ms. Beck said.

"Let's say it is a big ceramic, fragile pot," she said. "It will cost another $25 to pack and ship it. The wholesaler wants to double his money so he'll charge $100. The retailer will tack on another $100, so that's $200. That's standard in the field. A lot of people don't understand that. They think if they could only get rid of the middleman, they could get it for $100."

But the middleman may find financing for the craftsman and obtain a credit line so he can buy supplies, she said. The middleman also handles bookkeeping chores — paying the exporting duties, taxes and advertising, fielding complaints.

Those numbers help explain the recent shakeout, and why several of the larger sites have gone from selling retail to wholesale: if you don't own a business (like a shop or museum gallery) don't bother signing in. Viatru.com, one of the best-known crafts sites, began in retail, switched to wholesale and is now out of business, though it hopes to return as a nonprofit entity, said Michelle Long, one of the site's founders.

As Ms. Beck said: "There are advantages and there are risks to selling handmade articles. A lot of companies feel more comfortable just dealing wholesale."

In a quest to discover the vagaries of shopping for handmade crafts on the Internet, this reporter ordered items to judge delivery times, service and quality of the merchandise. Orders were placed with Novica, Global Crafts (www.net-kenya.com /globalcrafts/) and Peoplink (www. peoplink.org). I ordered a pair of handblown Mexican vases from Novica, jewelry from Peoplink and two soapstone covered dishes with carvings from Kenya from Global Crafts.

They all arrived quickly. The vases were said to have up to three-weeks' delivery time, but they came in three days. The other items came almost as promptly. All were in great shape.

It was hard to judge the quality, however. The vases, unfortunately, were not the greenish-yellow in the picture but brownish- yellow. Asked about the problem, representatives of the sites blamed the computer screen or the transmission. The jewelry looked a little cheaper, less well made than the pieces in the photographs, but there was not enough difference to complain about. The soapstone dishes turned out to be my favorites: the carved images on the lids are primitive and unusual, different from anything I have ever seen.

Even though I was ordering these items for a newspaper article, I chose crafts that I might order for myself. I also noticed during my shopping that there were a lot of overpriced wall hangings and other useless objects for sale.

But those just may be the items designed with Americans in mind.

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