Online marketplaces can boost sales for small businesses

Online marketplaces like and Etsy have moved the humble marketplace into the internet age and can be game-changing for a small business

Online marketplaces can boost sales for small businesses

There’s no denying that the leading motive for a business to join an online marketplace is to tap into a wealth of consumers. Customers flock in their millions to these smorgasbords of crafty loveliness to shop for innovative and unique products. Last year, boasted a staggering 39 million unique site visitors demonstrating that online marketplaces are really hitting the spot with consumers. Competitor Etsy is enticing customers at an equally impressive rate. “With over 19.8 million active buyers worldwide, Etsy offers the potential to get in front of a huge global audience,” says Susannah Bradley, community programmes manager at Etsy. For a small business it’s a dream come true to access such a plethora of patrons from the get-go.

“Small creative businesses often struggle to reach consumers and are priced out of retail space by bigger retailers. So notonthehighstreet provides an affordable and viable route to market for them,” explains Lucy Wood, head of partner community at notonthehighstreet. Essentially, online marketplaces offer an abundance of customers to small businesses that would otherwise be unable to afford to market themselves on such a large scale. 

Not only do online marketplaces provide access but they also do so at a low cost. “Etsy offers a risk-free way to someone setting up an online shop,” Bradley clarifies. “With free listing codes for new sellers there’s 0% investment until an item has been sold. Etsy takes a 3.5% commission on items sold, and it costs just 12p to list each item or 0p with a free listings code for new sellers.” Etsy’s small commission rate is affordable for emerging businesses and, with a small profit sacrifice, sellers can utilise an online marketplace to grow their business exponentially. 

“It’s so easy doing it online,” says Wendy Harrison, founder of Letterfest, which sells its wares via notonthehighstreet as well as on its own website. “You can just play about with something, do a design, take a picture of it and get it up. You’ve got hardly any costs involved.” Harrison began her entrepreneurial venture after moving to Devon following a budding career as a London retail designer for the likes of Topshop, The Body Shop and Rimmel. The lack of jobs in the South West and the seaside surroundings sparked her inner creativity and she began engraving pebbles and creating personalised children’s alphabet prints. She sold roughly three or four contemporary products online a week, but it wasn’t until she joined notonthehighstreet that her business really took off.

“I joined in October, so it was just before the Christmas rush. It suddenly went from hardly anything to 19 orders a week,” reveals Harrison. In a matter of weeks, she transitioned from crafting at her kitchen table in her spare time to working on the business full-time and during the Christmas rush she even had to take on an assistant to help with the packing. 

Seven years later, Letterfest is amongst 11 of notonthehighstreet’s million-pound partners, having hit the milestone in 2013, and now has ten full-time staff members as well as six freelance artists. It expands the team to 30 staff members over the festive period – a sizeable difference to Harrison’s early one-man-band. 

Though she’s not resting on her laurels just yet. “We’re not just sitting about next to our pool,” laughs a modest Harrison. “There’s a commission and you’ve got to make these things, pay for your postage and all of that malarkey.” Whilst a commission rate of 25% plus VAT at notonthehighstreet is considerably more than Etsy, there was less competition for Harrison. “At the time nontonthehighstreet had a lot less products on it so it was a lot better to get seen,” explains Harrison. She felt that notonthehighstreet offered a higher level of marketing than she could achieve off her own back and with a small budget.

For a further 5% commission rate sellers can be promoted in notonthehigstreet’s catalogues and online marketing activities. “We promote a new seller on our homepage every week and run a content calendar for all other promotional spots,” reveals Wood. “We want customers to engage with the product we have selected so it entices them in to the category.” Wood goes on to advise that it is essential that the product represents the online marketplace’s brand message.

Tapping into the marketing budget of online marketplaces for advertising and Google AdWords can also be a vital resource to grow a business. For many online marketplaces, its online presence itself is a huge marketing tool for small businesses. These marketplaces also want to increase customer traffic and entice more businesses to sell with them and therefore will spend higher amounts on advertising across all channels.

Many online marketplaces also offer business advice and for Etsy the Seller Handbook contains marketing gold. “The Etsy Seller Handbook is a comprehensive resource for starting your online creative business on Etsy and sellers can join teams for local, in person or virtual support,” says Bradley. Etsy also provides vital education for small businesses that are often creative individuals with little or no business knowledge. It offers tips on SEO, photography and how to comply with local tax regulations. 

For notonthehighstreet, being on-hand to advise and support partners is part of the package. “We provide tailored business support and advice for every stage of their business with us to ensure they are maximising their sales,” advises Wood. Its yearly Make, Do and Meet event gathers partners together for talks and workshops on everything from improving photography to SEO and how to write product descriptions.

There’s another slightly less tangible benefit to being part of such a community, too. The collegiate atmosphere at both notonthehighstreet and Etsy offers entrepreneurs the chance to engage with and support other like-minded individuals that all share a common goal of making a business out of their hobby. For Harrison, the support from the community of sellers has been a blessing. “There are obviously other people going through the same problems as we are so you just post [your questions and problems] on there. That’s quite a good way of meeting the community and sharing ideas and thoughts. Everyone is really good at sharing their knowledge.”


One of the major draws of online marketplaces for consumers is finding something unique. At a time where cheap, mass-market products seem to have cornered the market, the appetite for homemade gifts and gizmos has never been greater. “The key to success starts with the product itself. The more inspiring, personalised and hard-to-find the better,” explains Wood, who also advises that good photography is essential as it’s the first impression a consumer gets when browsing a business.

 “Our consumers want to see products in a well styled, appropriate environment so that they can easily picture them in their own lives and homes.” Wood adds that notonthehighstreet’s best-selling businesses are always innovating and creating unique products to inspire customers.

It’s important to remember that one small business’s idea of success will be different to the next. A common goal that often unites entrepreneurs using online marketplaces is that they want to create a business to suit their interests; indeed, Etsy defines success as a small business using its platform in a variety of ways, from someone wanting to boost their income to an individual who wants to make money from their hobby. What’s more, online marketplaces can help entrepreneurs scale what begins as an extra-curricular activity to a full-time business. 

“The important thing is the products and just having new ideas all of the time,” Harrison reveals. “Flexibility is also really important, so you can come up with ideas and then change them according to customer feedback.” 

Jade Saunders
Jade Saunders

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