Selling and promoting products made in the U.S. holds a lot of appeal for retailers and customers alike. But sourcing and selling these products are not as straightforward as it first seems.
American-made isn’t a single department, after all. It’s not like you have a budget category for American-made products. Any other product group you buy for, you have an idea of the types of products you need, the sizes, color and price points. Requiring that they be made in the U.S. adds just one more layer of complexity to buying.
We spoke with a few retailers who have solved this puzzle. Well, each of them would say they are still solving the puzzle, but they have been making the effort to buy and promote American-made for long enough they’ve learned a few things the rest of the industry can learn from.
1. Find A Story To Tell
The inherent appeal of products made in the U.S. is the story they imply: these products represent a factory or plant somewhere that employs Americans. And those Americans then spend money in their communities, doing their part in helping the economy get stronger.
Kate Terrell is part of the family that owns Wallace’s Garden Centers, a grower-retailer that has two locations in Eastern Iowa. Terrell says being able to tell a specific story about products can seal the sale, especially for high-end products.
Wallace’s sells both American-made and carefully selected imported garden furniture. Telescope Casual Furniture, headquartered in Granville, N.Y., is one of its more expensive lines.
“It really helps to be able to say that Telescope employs 300 people in this little town in New York, and that it’s a fifth-generation business with 10 family members currently in the business,” Terrell says.
Terrell researches the companies she buys from quite extensively. Because of that homework, she and her staff tell customers not only about the 300 employees, but can give them Telescope’s history, from its start in making army cots to directors’ chairs for Hollywood to the 10 acres of sustainable trees it uses as a source for its products.
“We just sold someone $12,000 of Telescope furniture, which will fill up about only half of their pool deck,” Terrell says. “They really liked hearing about Telescope’s story.”
2. Don’t Be Hard-Nosed About Sourcing Only American-Made
Tish Llaneza, owner of Countryside Gardens in Hampton, Va., is passionate about selling American-made products. Several military bases are in Virginia’s Tidewater area, making the customer base a natural for American-made.
That said, Llaneza sells a lot of products that are imports. “I could drive myself crazy if I tried to buy only American products,” she says. “There are just some products you can’t find, like sundresses and other clothing. American made is really hard to find. And we carry a lot of those items. Women’s accessories is what we call it. Purses, shoes, not a ton of it.”
And sometimes American made is just too pricey. “I’m always aware as I look at it â€” can I offer it to the customer at a price I can afford? Most of the folks will pay for it, but only so long as there is not a huge difference in price,” Llaneza says.
“It’s a bragging point if you can find the item,” says Scott Pluckhan, landscape architect at Hastings Garden Center, which has been in the Atlanta area since 1899. “I think people would like to buy American made, but at the end of the day, if it’s something they need, regardless of where it’s made, they’ll buy it.”
Wallace’s Terrell says the same story-telling sales technique she uses for her American-made products works when she stocks carefully selected imports. That’s especially true when it has an American office that can handle issues quickly.
“My artificial Christmas tree supplier is based out of Chicago, warehoused in Reno and has a factory in China,” Terrell says. “The factory is a small, family-owned one. So when I talk to people about it, I can say it only employs 200 people. And although everything is made there, the trees travel by domestic freight, and all customer support is Chicago-based so they speak English. If a customer has to mail something in for repair, it’s to Chicago, not China. There’s a way to tell that story that will connect with customers.”
As interested as Terrell is in carrying American-made inventory, she doesn’t carry a lot. “Maybe 10 to 20 percent,” she says. “Maybe.”
3. Give Customers American-Made In The Categories They Want
Customers do not see all products as equal. The desire for American-made is higher in some categories than others.
- Children’s products. Terrell says toys or anything kid-related is important to parents.
“There’s so much scare of lead paint, they want American made. People are talking about that,” she says.
Without the assurance of being American made, good-quality imported children’s products need to resort to certification programs. “That’s why Melissa And Doug toys are guaranteed to have a good paint and to meet high quality requirements,” Terrell says. “They have to certify it’s not cheap paint if its not made here in the U.S.”
- Organic/Sustainable. People want American-made sustainable products for a different set of reasons. For this group of customers, they want the products shipped over fewer miles and they want to ensure safety.
“Customers want to be careful that the coatings and treatments of compost bins and rain barrels do not leach into their food and water,” Terrell says.
Llaneza has found that organic takes the place of American when it comes to edible plants.
“Customers assume plants are grown locally,” she says. “But our veggies and herbs are from a certified organic farm.”
- Tools. “People are used to paying $8 for a shovel at a big box and breaking it in clay later that day,” says Terrell. “They see those tools as crap. They see our American-made tools as quality. A little more expensive, but still reasonable.”
- Furniture. Cost can be less of a factor for this category. “Furniture is really expensive stuff,” says Terrell. “But I can tell American made makes a big difference with people in their purchasing decisions.”
- Gifts. Llaneza has found that American-made Christmas gift baskets are a big hit.
“We started using pots as gift baskets so the whole package can be Made In The USA,” she says.
4. Search For Local Artisans
One elegant solution to the challenge of finding the right American-made products is to look at what’s available locally.
“We use as many local artisans as we can,” says Hastings’ Pluckhan.
Doing so, he says, plays into the popularity of the buy-local movement among his customers. “It’s more of a movement in the way it is with food products.”
Even more importantly, however, seeking out artisans gives the garden center an edge.
“It gives us a chance to offer some unusual things you can’t find at a trade show,” Pluckhan says.
One of the most reliable products he carries is terra cotta pottery made by a family that has been in the business for generations.
“Here in the South, there has always been a number of potters, and I think our supplier is into seven generations now,” he says.
5. Seek Out The Unique
Even if a local source cannot be found, be on the lookout for the unexpected, says Llaneza.Â
“I’m always looking for unique or new. I always go to that, no matter what,” she says.
A recent risk she took was a novelty item that held big appeal for her customers, the Corkcicle. It’s a long, icicle-shaped cork that’s kept in the freezer, then inserted in a bottle of wine to keep it chilled on the table.
“We sold tons of it,” she says. “And if something new sells like this, I’ll get it, even if it’s not made in America.”
6. Get In The Habit Of Asking Vendors A Lot Of Questions
Trade shows are getting on board with creating special sections of Made In America (see the sidebar for our list). But you never know where you might happen upon products made in the U.S., so it’s best to just ask.
“We specifically look for products made in the U.S.,” says Pluckhan. “We ask any of our suppliers, â€˜Where is this made?’ It is a bragging point. If we can have 10 items that are American made, it’s good for our advertising techniques, and it creates a better space for us in the public â€” they know we honestly are interested in it.”
“A lot of it is just asking questions,” Terrell says. “You’ll be surprised at who has a line that’s made in the U.S.
“Be wary of vendors that just don’t straight-up answer you. Just tell us [if they aren’t American] â€” it’s how the business goes. We won’t be mad.”
“There’s a lot of the American made in our industry if you just look,” Llaneza says. “More and more people are putting Made In The USA on their products at AmericasMart. You do have to look around a little bit, though.”
7. Let Customers Experience The Value Of American Made
Problems with inventory are inevitable, even with the best-made products. Just as customers learn what your store is about when they have a problem you can fix, you can help them make the same judgements about your vendors by letting them in on the solution process.
“We carry Sunbrella fabric cushions for our furniture, which I order from Alfresco Home, and they order the fabric in Florida,” says Terrell.
“I had a customer who had a cusion that the seam was not aligned correctly. I called the facory directly. The said, â€˜Let me transfer you to the head seamstress.’ You can’t do that with a foreign factory. And I was able to say that to a customer â€” â€˜I just got off the phone with the head seamstress.'”
Terrell also mentions that special orders are much easier to make with American factories.
“It’s four-weeks lead time here, but much longer from overseas. Whenever you have an American factory, I can call them and they can tell me they’re running the form tomorrow, but I can’t call China to ask about it.”
8. Use Social Media To Promote The Products
Countryside Gardens has found that any mention of Made In The USA on social media gets a lot of attention.
“I had a throw-away comment about going to a tradeshow to buy made in America on Facebook, and I got three or four calls and several comments. And it wasn’t the main point of what I was saying,” Llaneza says.
She also has found that she gets great response when she includes American-made products in a single-day sale.
“This is the third year of making an effort to promote Steal A Deal or Facebook Fridays,” Llaneza says.
“On Fridays, we have something on on Facebook that is 50 to 75 percent off, and we tell customers to type in a specific word like “blue” or “color” by 6 p.m. that day. We’ll charge it to their account, when it’s gone it’s 6 p.m., the sale is gone.”