American spirit: Made in America at retail

by Harry Sheff

Independent retailers agree, when it comes to country of origin, customers do care.

It could be the economy, or it could be the passion for all things Americana; maybe one explains the other. But made in America is resonating with the American consumer now more than ever.

“I have six pieces of my latest Engineered Garments shipment sold and it’s not even on the floor yet,” said Gary Drinkwater of Drinkwater’s in Cambridge, Mass. He’s referring to an American-made collection of Americana-inspired apparel designed by Daiki Suzuki. “It’s got a huge audience, and it’s the kids who are fueling this whole American-made thing. They have the desire for American-looking products, and they don’t want American-looking products that are made in China—they want authentic. They’ll go out of the way and save their pennies for it.”

Mary Jo Dever of Bills Khakis has watched the shift. “Five years ago, it might have been hard for a retailer to get behind made in America because 95 percent of their store wasn’t American made; what are they saying about the rest of their inventory? We felt that it meant something to the consumer all along, but it didn’t mean much to the retailer. Now, we’re seeing the retailer tell us it means more to them, but I think that’s a function of their customers letting them know it matters.”

Mark Bollman, Ball & Buck
Mark Bollman has built his whole store around it. Bollman started his business, Ball & Buck, as a made-in-America T-shirt company selling online and on East Coast college campuses. He opened a brick & mortar store in Boston last year stocking only American-made brands, and displaying each product with a sign showing where in the U.S. it’s made. “It’s about getting products into peoples’ hands that get better with time,” he explained. “We’re bringing in classic American brands while we’re building out our own American-made line.” The Ball & Buck line, which is in part inspired by American hunting culture, now includes shirts, pocket T-shirts, belts and sandals, with chinos on the way.

It’s about quality first, then patriotism

While American-made lines are doing well at retail, the brands are careful to attribute the success to high quality and authenticity—not merely design and country of origin. Ouigi Theodore, who runs The Brooklyn Circus and the BKc line, which he also wholesales, said, “Is it because the product is made here in the U.S., or is it because we’re making sure the made-in-the-USA label isn’t just a label? We’re carefully orchestrating it all so that when you see that BKc and the made in the USA labels actually have some weight and value. There are some American factories that produce trash.”

“As long as you educate the consumer, the higher prices aren’t as much of a problem,” said Bollman. “In recessions, people are looking for quality. People don’t have the cash to buy one-time-wear garments; they have to plan. We would judge our success, for example, on 20 people having a great American-made Schott jacket, rather than one person coming back for 20 cheap jackets of lesser quality.”

When we asked Charles Burgin of Culwell & Son in Dallas about why his store carried American-made brands like Oxxford, Hickey Freeman and Southwick, he explained that it was a combination of high quality and long-standing relationships. “We don’t specifically say, let’s go find all the American products we can—we just look for the best things for the store.”

Beyond profit

But even as many retailers revel in the quality of American-made goods, they are also finding that there’s a deeper cause. “We have relationships with factory owners who think beyond profit,” said Theodore. “As crazy as it sounds, they think from a human perspective; it’s about how we can keep more businesses here in America and how we can make the American brand strong across the globe. It all starts here at home.”

Elliot Rabin of Peter Elliot in New York thinks that for the better men’s store, going for the high margin imported goods is unfair to the consumer. “For example, if you’re buying a sweater for $12 a dozen, and you can buy that same sweater made in America for $24 a dozen, it doesn’t really matter at my price level because I’m going to get a $150 for the damn sweater anyway. So for me to save money from China and not pass it along to my customer would be unethical.”

Pat Mon Pere Jr., whose Patrick James chain carries more than a dozen American brands, maintains that there’s still room for profitable margins. “With a good partnership, you can generally figure out the margin problem. The customer will still spend money, but they want to know there’s value to it.”

When there’s price resistance, said Charles Burgin, it often dissipates when the sales staff explain. “People will ask, ‘Why are these khakis $125?’ And we say, ‘Made in the USA.’ And they understand that made in the USA is going to have a higher pricepoint than similar products made elsewhere. And people go right ahead and buy them. We bring that up in our sales meetings all the time.” Adds Barry Mishkin of Family Britches in Chappaqua, NY, “People accept the higher prices when they understand the quality that goes into it.”

Consumers who care

“When you’re saying ‘made in America,’ you’re also saying, to a great degree, ‘not made in China,'” pointed out Pat Mon Pere, Jr. Increasingly, American consumers are concerned about where their products come from, and according to the retailers we spoke to, some are trying to avoid buying Chinese apparel.

“In the seven years that we’ve been here, I have to say people do ask where things are made, and if it’s China, they might say they’re not interested,” agreed Gary Drinkwater. “They’ll say they want to see our American or Italian or British products.”

Drinkwater continued, “I think people, at least my customers, want American-made products because there’s a strong belief that if it’s made in America, our economy will get stronger because of it. That we’ll better the lives of Americans and put them back to work. There’s a pride about what we’re able to do.

“I carry Southwick clothing and I’ll tell people it’s made in Haverhill, and they go, ‘Oh my God, there’s manufacturing of clothing in Massachusetts?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, we carry New England Shirt Company, made in Fall River.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow!’ and they want to know what else is made here. There are a lot of little pockets of manufacturing still going on. By investing in those companies, and making those companies bigger, it’s only going to encourage other companies to see that there’s a future in manufacturing here. Maybe they’re not big now, but they could be later.”

How to do a Made-in-America event in your store

1. Talk to your American vendors. Bills Khakis is famous for its events, and many of the retailers it works with have expanded their Bills events to include other American vendors. Ask your vendors if they’ll work with you on trunk shows.

2. Keep it casual. Oak Hall in Memphis is doing their third made-in-America event this fall with gourmet hot dogs, cheeseburgers and American beer. “I think part of our success with events is that consumers come because they don’t feel pressure to spend a lot money,” said Bills Khakis’ Mary Jo Dever. “There’s a casual vibe at our events; for example, Hubert White does a ‘Beers, Brats and Bills’ event.”

3. Keep it positive. Some retailers we spoke to expressed reservations about promoting their American-made goods at the expense of the rest of the store’s overseas products—be it from Italy or China. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you keep the event positive, with the focus on quality and heritage, you won’t alienate the rest of your assortment.

4. Invite other local businesses to participate. Barry Mishkin of Family Britches in Chappaqua, NY is staging his third made-in-America event with the help of Bills Khakis, New England Shirt Company, Hickey Freeman and others. He also has the local Ford dealer park new cars and trucks outside his store as part of the American-made theme.

5. Let your customers’ lifestyles guide you. It doesn’t have to shout out made in America and you don’t necessarily need to have a sale (although your vendors may offer deals), rather gear your events to the way your customers live. Mark Bollman of Ball & Buck in Boston has organized everything from bow tie tying lessons to beer tastings.