Photo by Joe Lanane
Area businesses weigh benefits of American-made products
Many area businesses are counting on consumer patriotism to help boost last-minute holiday sales.
The “Made in the U.S.A” label serves as a proud stamp of approval on most American-made merchandise, but the designation is increasingly scarce as the global economy takes over the retail sector, said Joe Harper, executive director of the Texas State University Small Business Development Center.
Low- to medium-income families, in particular, must place more emphasis on price rather than nation of origin—and consequently quality, he said. That means fewer products are made “all or virtually all” domestically, the federal requirement a product must meet in order to be marketed as U.S.A.-made.
“It’s become a luxury rather than a standard,” Harper said.
Fortunately for small-business owners, Harper said specialty shops are better equipped to stock products that appeal to customers who still consider it a point of pride to buy American.
“In general you see [‘Made in the U.S.A.’] fading, but small businesses still have a better position to buy in America because they serve a niche market,” he said. “The big-box stores, not so much.”
Even if the available number of American-made products is decreasing, consumer affinity toward U.S. merchandise increased this year, according to a Perception Research Services survey, which in July found 76 percent of nationwide shoppers claimed they were more likely to purchase a product after noticing the “Made in the U.S.A.” label. That is up from 60 percent, according to the same PRS survey conducted in July 2011.
Quality, not country
Austin Billiards has operated in Central Texas since 1971, selling pool tables and equipment, and more recently, shuffleboard tables. Most of their product lines were based overseas, but ongoing customer complaints and service calls about faulty foreign-made tables prompted the company to invest in Waterloo Billiards, which features a manufacturing facility in New Braunfels.
The new American-made tables have sold more than any other product line Austin Billiards has available, co-owner Rell Rice said, calling the progress the first necessary step to revitalizing one of America’s dying job sectors.
“No matter who you supported for president, one thing we can all come together on is the need for more manufacturing jobs,” Rice said. “And this has allowed us to buy an American-made product that is on a comparable level with Chinese competitors” in terms of price.
But even the slate used in Waterloo Tables is excavated internationally, Rice said, because the material is simply no longer mass-mined in the United States.
In fact, many businesses struggle to keep a purely American product line. Owner John Estes estimates at least half of his merchandise at Cool and Eclectic in the Lakeline Mall was made in America, including the designer furniture and decorative wooden signs—more than he initially realized, the Virginia native admits.
Estes proudly promotes his American-made products, with some merchandise going as far as telling shoppers the city of the manufacturers who will benefit from the possible purchase. Many customers even tell Estes they buy his products because of their U.S. origins, he said.
“All things being equal, I would much rather buy in America,” Estes said. “It saves on shipping, and it helps keep America strong, but you have to operate a business.”
Estes said he has yet to be approached with any cheaper overseas alternative to much of his existing product lines.
Cyndy Barron goes one step further, providing customers a map to compare the origins of several product lines at Barron’s Vacuum and Cleaning Supplies in Cedar Park. She often recommends her particularly favorite brand, Riccar, because of its reputation—and not necessarily its U.S. origins.
“Ultimately, I believe you’re getting a better product,” Barron said. “The quality is there, and that’s why I sell it. I like to sell what lasts and is user-friendly.”
Consumers create demand
Barron is used to convincing customers to pay a premium for quality—it just so happens the vacuum line she pushes is produced domestically.
And when she is not running a small business, she is also an avid consumer who seeks out top product lines. Her search would be made easier, Barron said, if there was an organized rundown of verified “Made in the U.S.A.” products.
“It would be nice if there was a list, but I don’t think there’s a place where consumers can find that out,” she said.
Indeed, no federally operated database exists because companies are not required to gain approval before promoting products as American-made. Instead, several self-starters have started their own U.S. certification systems, but still no comprehensive source exists.
But even an official list of U.S.-made products will not necessarily force merchants to introduce all American products, Harper said. Consumers already struggle to understand what constitutes “Made in the U.S.A.,” he said, with many foreign companies producing products in the United States and vice versa. Until there is more clarity, the reduction in U.S.-made products will persist, he said.
“If consumers demanded ‘Made in America,’ then you would get products made in America,” Harper said. “Then what’s a business owner to do? They’d have to conform to the market demands.”