Before all of this, you could do worse than Etsy slogan trends if you were looking to read the mood of the average American shopper. Now that mood is being shouted, politely, in your face—curse words relegated to acronyms, but there nonetheless.
Etsy sellers were a bit surprised by the demand for quarantine merch, but adapted to it quickly. “We always had a shirt that said staying In is the New Going Out,” Heather Fortes, an Etsy seller from Rhode Island, told me. “We noticed that really started selling more about a month ago.” So she leaned into it with all kinds of pandemic-related merch: Her store now has a “Quarantine” section with 29 items, including T-shirt-and-sweatpant sets tagged as “quarantine outfits.” A “Government says I’m essential” design is one of her best sellers, and business has been so good that she’s been able to rehire employees she laid off at the start of the pandemic.
Essential-worker merch is “selling like hot cakes,” says Trisha Woods, an Etsy seller from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “My Etsy account is so out of control right now. I’ve never sold this much stuff ever.” Woods first made her first Essential T-shirt for her husband, a distributor for Pepperidge Farm. Then she posted it to her Etsy shop and sold about 100 of them in the first two weeks. Her shop is generally a side hobby, but as the usual contracts for her screen-printing business dry up, it’s become a far more significant part of her income.
Leaning into the strangeness of the moment has also helped Deana Cain, who runs a screen-printing business in Ava, Missouri, stay afloat. Inspired by her husband’s “essential” designation—he works in a factory making medical-grade stainless steel—she’s been going in to work by herself, locking the door and spending the day making quarantine-themed T-shirts for Etsy. Without school sports or spring Little League contracts, her business is taking a huge hit, but she’s sold more than 100 Yup, I’m Essential shirts in the last month. “If I can sell enough to pay my electric bill for the month,” she told me, “I’m tickled to death.”
Every popular slogan that seems to be selling well quickly gets copied by dozens of shops, but Woods says there’s more than enough business to go around. She recently received an order for 12 Essential shirts that she guesses were for a group of co-workers—that’s about the total number of items she used to sell in a day. She speculates that some people are buying the shirts to wear when they go outside, to identify themselves as essential workers who should be out and about.
But many purchases are presents. Jamie Mammarelli, who mostly sells wine glasses on Etsy, says that her “Essential AF” design is her most popular right now, and that the glasses are “definitely being given as gifts.” Laura Colleran, a T-shirt maker based in Casper, Wyoming, says that many of her customers are buying four or five I’m Essential shirts at a time, likely to give to employees or colleagues. And on Instagram, essential workers are posing in essential AF shirts and thanking the friends who gifted them.