A recent easing of mask-wearing guidelines from the US government was a welcome change for many Americans. That wasn’t entirely the case for mask seller Gabriela Henriquez.
Henriquez, 27, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said orders to her Etsy store LittleLadyAHomemade for her handmade masks plunged more than 70% the day after the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention announcement on May 13. The agency said that people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances.
“The market just dropped,” she said. “I had a phenomenal last year in sales. Now what? Where do we go from here?”
Last year, the pandemic turned face masks into a wardrobe staple. Sellers big and small benefited from the trend. Etsy said cloth masks had erupted into the hottest new product category on its platform last summer. In August, the company said 110,000 sellers on its marketplace had sold as many as 29 million face masks, totaling $346 million.
The boom may be coming to an end. In early May, Etsy said in an annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the face mask market was poised to soften, noting that it had seen “demand for certain items, like handmade masks, diminish significantly with the rollout of the vaccine.”
Now, sellers like Henriquez, who spent the past year investing more than $150,000 in her mask business, are trying to figure out how to successfully pivot.
When Henriquez launched her Etsy store in 2018, she focused on selling baby items like quilts and handmade stuffed animals. With the pandemic, she saw an opportunity to expand into face coverings. She hired two friends full time to help her and bought three additional sewing machines.
“Last year, at our peak, we sold 1,300 masks in one day. It was as much as we could get out,” said Henriquez.
Business was robust, and she ended the year with $212,000 in sales. At the same time, she was aware of a shift in momentum as consumers anticipated the arrival of vaccines. “I figured people would still have need for some type of face covering when they went indoors,” she said.
So she started making lightweight breathable muslin masks, priced at $5 to $9, which were selling well until the CDC announcement.
Henriquez said the muslin masks were targeting vaccinated wearers, including those who have difficulty breathing while wearing thicker cloth masks, “people whose eye glasses get fogged up with masks and others suffering from skin breakouts while wearing masks.”
Stuck with a lot of muslin fabric, she’s now also making other products with it, such as baby slings. Other sellers are finding even more creative alternatives to their mask businesses.
From face masks to…chicken aprons?
Last April, Charlotte Melcher began stitching masks for her three children, aged 7, 9 and 15 and also selling them to family, friends and coworkers
When she saw her masks doing well just through word-of-mouth marketing, she set her aim higher and opened her own shop, MasksByStella, on Etsy this January. The response wasn’t what she had anticipated.
“The mask market was saturated, there was Covid exhaustion and I was surprised I wasn’t getting the traction I expected,” said Melcher, 36, who lives in Mesa, Arizona.
Now, she has to contend with the latest CDC guidance, which has further evaporated her orders.
She came across one new direction after a conversation with the owner of a local chicken feed store: chicken aprons.
“She said she needed to sell them at her store and I should seriously look into it,” said Melcher.
The apron looks like a small baby bib that’s worn down the back rather than down the front and chest. It’s put on hens to protect their feathers and skin from roosters during mating.
Mechler was familiar with the item. She owns chickens herself and had thought about making them aprons as a fun fashion accessory. But she was surprised to learn there was an existing market for the aprons on Etsy. Chicken aprons, priced at $12 each, will soon debut in her store.
Not abandoning masks entirely
For some sellers, face masks turned into an important financial lifeline amid hardships. It’s hard to just walk away.
2020 was a difficult year for Ashley Bell. She lost an aunt. She also mourned her grandmother who died after contracting Covid-19. And she was unemployed for a few months after losing her job at a software company last summer.
Last March, when a friend, who was working as a doctor in Manhattan, expressed an urgent need to preserve their N95 masks, she turned to YouTube to learn how to sew and made several cloth masks for her friend.
“Taking up sewing was also a way for me to honor my aunt, and it helped keep my mind off the death of my grandmother,” she said. She subsequently launched her Etsy shop AshleyBellDesignCo in March 2020 to sell her masks.
When she lost her job, she said her mask sales provided necessary income.
“It was a huge blessing until I found my new job,” said Bell, who makes two-layer cloth masks and sold as many as 400 in a week when sales were at their peak. Her masks feature floral prints in pastel shades, some of which she sells in “mommy and me” face mask sets.
But orders have dried up since mid-May. Still, she wants to keep selling masks until sales come to a “dead stop.” “I’ve also thought about a pivot when this would happen. I’m looking into smaller handsewn items, like bags and ultimately clothing,” said Bell.
Mother-daughter team Jacki and Katie Shaw also experienced a sales decline in the aftermath of looser mask guidelines. They launched their Etsy shop MamaShawStitchery last July to sell handsewn cloth masks and built it up to a catalog of 300 prints sold in five sizes.
“My mom was already an avid quilter, and we had a bunch of fabric in the closet. We thought let’s try this out,” said Katie, who said the masks quickly took off.
From July to December 2020, their mask business logged $13,000 in sales. So far this year until early May, they bagged an additional $15,000 in sales. Sales dropped significantly two to three days after the new guidelines, she said.
“As long as we have excess yardage, we can continue to make masks and add-on products for it, like hair scrunchies and cloth covers for your sanitizer bottles,” said Katie. “We’re trying to be strategic, maybe make baby products like bibs and burp cloths.”
She’s not prepared to give up on the business just yet.
“We’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately,” she said. “I’m the type of person that dreams big. I have loved seeing our business grow exponentially so quickly. I want to keep going.”