Trend grows for products made in America

Manufacturers cite consumer demand

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionNovember 11, 2012 

There's a 2001 GM Chevy Suburban parked in Melissia Perry's garage. Next to that is a '68 Ford Mustang. Inside her Woodstock, Ga., home are fully functional radios and televisions from the 1940s.

Perry, 44, sometimes uses her great-grandmother's crochet hooks to make crafts, and her original Slinky — a toy she saved from her childhood — is still in top shape.

While Perry may be surrounded by items from the past, she's an example of the future — one in which more American consumers are seeking out and buying 100 percent American-made goods.

"It is very difficult to find a truly 'made in America' product," said Perry, a married mother of four. As a small-business owner, she understands the costs associated with U.S. manufacturing, but as a consumer, she wants high-quality goods made right at home.

"How many plants have to shut down or jobs have to be lost because we do not manufacture in this country anymore?" she asks.

For several decades, "made in the U.S.A." — a label once proudly imprinted on everything from apparel to cars — hasn't just been hard to find; it's been a hard sell.

In the minds of many American consumers, foreign goods came to represent superior quality at a lower cost. Shoppers showed their preference with their purchases.

Several previous attempts to invigorate consumer interest in American-made products fell flat, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group.

But this time around, the movement seems to have more traction with a broad range of consumers, including younger generations.

In the past two years, retailers, fashion designers and even musicians — most recently at a two-day benefit concert last month in Philadelphia curated by rapper Jay-Z — have all seized some aspect of the modern made-in-America movement.

"Made in the U.S.A. now is all about patriotism," Cohen said. "It's about supporting jobs in the U.S. rather than shipping them off."

The topic is a hot issue in the current political climate, fueled in part by outcry from members of Congress over the Chinese-made U.S. Olympic team uniforms.

Buford, Ga.-based Okabashi Brands Inc., which has designed, manufactured and assembled its sandals and flip-flops in the United States since the company launched in 1984, is changing its tag line to reflect that history.

The company is on the verge of deals to manufacture private-label shoes for several large companies — including one that holds a 50 percent share of the flip-flop market — seeking to launch made-in-America lines, said Jason Boswell, vice president of sales.

Work wear brand Carhartt recently announced that its manufacturing plants in Kentucky and Tennessee have begun making entirely American-made products, including the material from which the clothing is sourced.

Carhartt has plants in Kentucky cities including Irvine, Edmonton and Hanson, near Madisonville.

"For 124 years we've never stopped making clothes in America, and we never will," chief operating officer Linda Hubbard said in a statement. "Carhartt's 'Made in the USA' line of apparel is entirely based from consumer response.

"They wanted an option to buy products made here, and we responded to their needs."

Traditionally, U.S. manufacturing has come with a higher cost, but as overseas labor costs increase, the gap is closing, said Boswell of Okabashi Brands. Consumers, seduced by decades of low-cost goods or facing economic constraints, have resisted paying higher prices for American-made products, but this, too, is slowly changing, Cohen said.

"Consumers will say, 'I'll pay (up to) 10 percent more (for American-made goods).' Some will say up to 25 percent more," Cohen said. "I believe half of that to be true, but the fact that they are willing to spend a little more tells you something."

Still, the desire to buy American doesn't always translate into action, and one of the challenges consumers face is figuring out which products are truly American-made.

In addition to buying antiques that she knows were made in America, Perry will email or call companies to ask if their products are 100 percent American-made. It takes effort and sometimes she is forced to take her business elsewhere — often to mom and pop stores where she may pay more.

But Perry isn't complaining.

"Either society has to shift and be willing to pay a little more for something that is a little better," Perry says, "or 'made in America' simply isn't going to exist anymore."

Herald-Leader business writer Scott Sloan contributed to this report.

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