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‘Excuse me, sir, but do you carry this in American?’

Go China go! At the current rate, China will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy by the year 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund. Each day, U.S. consumers cheer on China by blindly buying Chinese-made products, giving the communist country’s surge to the top of the global economic ladder their implicit endorsement. As a business owner who strives to champion American-made products, I find this a troubling statistic and economic possibility.

Too many Americans pay too little attention to where the products they buy are made, or they couldn’t care less. That’s a big problem. But it’s far too easy to point the sole finger at them. A deeper question is whether U.S. manufacturers and retailers are giving consumers domestically manufactured products that are worthy of real consideration alongside appealingly low-cost, and equally low-quality, Asian-made goods. From where I sit, U.S. manufacturers and retailers have sacrificed what I see as the U.S. “brand promise” on the altar of every-increasing profit margins.

The basic tenets of a brand promise are as follows: deliver a specific product, of a specific quality, at a specific price. “Made in the U.S.A.” is our patriotic brand promise. For some, it’s a tired, economically isolationist slogan. But it used to really mean something.

At one time, products made in the U.S. were globally respected for their high quality, their reflection of American innovation and our culture. U.S. manufacturers did a good job of keeping this brand promise, and U.S consumers valued it. If you look around, you can still find evidence.

Classic design and 30 years of service
I have a Hamilton Beach blender that was made in the early ’60s. It’s a classic American industrial design. As far as blenders go, it’s elegant, and nearly bulletproof. I’ve used it every day for 30 years. It’s a fine example of what “Made in the U.S.A.” used to mean.

Apparently, good design and build quality — and even the notion of value itself — are old-fashioned concepts. Rather than spend a bit more for a quality product, today’s American consumer is satisfied with the illusion of quality, opting for cheap, disposable products that make a brief stopover in their homes on their way to landfills. Think I’m exaggerating?  Examine your own closets. I’ll wager that most of your clothes, personal items, tools, appliances, toys and other items have labels attached to them that say “Go Team (Made In) China!” somewhere near the iconic American brand logos emblazoned on most of what we buy. From the little red wagons made by Radio Flyer Inc., to Black & Decker tools, the products of so many famous U.S. brands are now cranked out in Asian factories. Premium brands fronting cheaply made goods. So much for brand promise.

Yet few consumers take companies that break that promise to task. My son bought a blender last year. Plastic, shiny and cheap. Within months, it stopped working. It’s not worth fixing; you can’t find parts. We did our best to find an American-made blender. Ask most retailers for American-made products and you often get confused silence — silence that says “Go Team China!” We found another vintage Hamilton-Beach blender at the local Goodwill store and, yes, you can still find parts for them.

We still have some islands in our economy dedicated to preserving the “Made in the USA” brand promise. In Minnesota alone, companies like Duluth Pack and P.M. Bedroom Gallery stake their reputation on producing and selling domestically made goods. While they also sell Asia-imported products, Menards often promotes U.S.-made merchandise. Internet sites like Keep America intend to direct consumers to only U.S.-manufactured products. Keep America states on its website that, on average, each American spends $700 on Christmas gifts and if only $64 of that were spent on American-made products, we could save over 200,000 American jobs each year.

Guitar of Jaggers boyhood dreams
When I started my own business selling guitars nearly 25 years ago, I made the commitment to sell, whenever possible, only American-made merchandise based on my belief that products designed and built here, from any generation, are intrinsically more valuable. Nearly every day, customers from around the globe — collectors, working musicians, even rock stars — tell me nothing compares with American-made instruments. A few years ago, I sold British rock star Mick Jagger a guitar he dreamed of as a kid. It was originally sold by Sears for $55 in the early ’60s. He was visibly thrilled to get the American-made student guitar of his boyhood dreams and took it onstage the next day at Xcel Energy Center. He and countless other professional musicians still understand what “Made in the U.S.A.” is supposed to mean. For artists like him, quality and Americana are inseparable.

I’ll concede that “Made Elsewhere” is here to stay. But it’s time to reclaim the American brand promise. Let’s other countries take the low end of the market. U.S. brands once again need to be synonymous with high quality and the made-on-U.S.-soil vibe that, not long ago, commanded the respect of consumers around the globe. U.S. retailers need to have faith in the concept that stocking higher-quality, longer-lasting, American-made products is worth the premium prices and better margins they should command.

Lastly, consumers need to really commit to “Made in the U.S.A.” or risk losing it forever. That means demanding quality and asking for American-made goods by name, holding manufacturers and retailers that don’t deliver them accountable, and being prepared to pay a little more to reward the ones that do. 

Nate Westgor is the owner of Willies American Guitars in St. Paul.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by R MARK REASBECK on 12/20/2011 - 09:47 am.

    This story could be repeated in any town in America. We need to “step up” and ask for Made-in-USA products. This IS the key to a true recovery. A married man doesn’t come home and drop-off his paycheck at his neighbor’s house, but that’s what we have done to our Manufacturing base, dropped it off in China. I created a website to help find the Mom ‘n Pops, small and medium American Businesses that make stuff , right here in the USA. We even have a company that restores American Appliances if you can’t find a new one. Please check it out: http://www.USAonly.US

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/20/2011 - 09:52 am.

    Thank you for this, Mr. Westgor. One of the problems for buying American (besides the lowered quality) is the almost absolute absence of American-made products in stores. One way around that is to buy locally. Shop at holiday fairs and coops. Try Etsy online.

    But then, sometimes you just can’t beat the value of a foreign product. Take, for example, Hyundai vehicles– 10 year drive train warranty (5 years bumper to bumper), all the bells and whistles, and still $5-10k less than the equivalent class base model Ford. Even worse, look at GM–but be careful not to look too hard, something might fall off.

    Some people are willing to pay more for American goods, but only if the quality is at least as good as the foreign product. More and more, that’s unlikely, even with “luxury” items. And most are not willing to pay a LOT more without seeing a LOT more quality and/or value.

    You are right, Mr. Westgor, that “buy American!” has been sacrificed to profit. There is no pride in buying many American products for those of us that are conscious of the source of our goods. The rest of us just don’t care, and until it hurts our pockets to buy foreign, we’ll continue to buy the cheapest product out there.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/20/2011 - 10:48 am.

    Over the years I’ve purchased two fine Fender Stratocasters from Willie’s.

    But buying American guitars is made more difficult by Obama’s Justice Department.

    On August 24 of this year, the Gibson guitar manufacturing facilities in Nashville and Memphis were raided by the federal government who accused them of using “illegal” wood from India.

    “The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law in India even though the action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India” said Gibson’s CEO.

    To bring back manufacturing in this country, we need to start with a government that understands how the economy works and is more supportive of manufacturing jobs than in government regulator jobs.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Conlan on 12/20/2011 - 05:04 pm.

    Thanks, Nate, for the column. I knew there was a reason I spend so much time in Willie’s when I’m in the cities (made a special trip just last week. Tried out a Firebird, National and an old Fender Champ. Love the Rickenbacher laps.)

    It’s so important that we just look at what we buy, and make informed decisions.

    Playing the electric guitar is a lot about look and feel. Mojo. You have to feel good about picking up the instrument to play. For me, I love my ‘70’s and earlier UNION made guitars and amps (thank you former Gibson employees in Kalamazoo and the many fine craftsmen in Chicago and New Jersey who gave me Valco, Airline, CMI, etc., for the years of enjoyment). I take comfort and pride knowing that the people that create my instruments in the USA make enough money, and have the benefits necessary, to be able to afford and play these fine instruments themselves. That can’t be said of workers in China.

    I would like the other posters to know that I take a great deal of pride in buying products made in places that have fair labor, environmental and legal standards. I’ll put my American/Canadian/European tools, cars, furniture, clothing, etc, up against any the world has to offer. I believe I’ll win that argument every time. Outsourcing is not a result of poor quality. It’s the other way around.

    By the way, one may want to go looking at Gibson’s recent labor record before holding them up as the victims. Lots of outsourcing, union-busting, corner-cutting…less quality seems to equal more profit.

    Keep up the great work, Willie’s, and I’ll keep supporting you.

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/20/2011 - 05:45 pm.

    Actually Dennis (while I too do not approve of heavy handed government actions), Gibson was importing “endangered” ebony and rosewood from Madagascar — both clealy prohibited by what is called The Lacey Act. What teed off the government was that Gibson apparently KNEW they should not be doing this, they had been on the ground in Madagascar before the shipments were made, and just decided to thumb their nose at government regulations. Many trees are now almost extinct, and log poaching is as bad as animal poaching, if you care about the environment

  6. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/20/2011 - 05:46 pm.

    @#3
    Considering no one appears to have done any substantive investigation of this particular issue, it’s hard to say whether the raid was justified or not.

    It appears that Gibson was raided over an amendment to an old law–the amendment was sponsored by a Republican in 2008, so it’s unlikely that Obama had anything to do with it. The wood was either mislabeled intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, on its face, it appears that the wood was not imported appropriately. If, in fact, it was exported legally from India, then it would be fine. This does not constitute a requirement that the wood pieces be finished in India, only that it be sufficiently finished to pass legal export restrictions from India per Indian law. Having dealt with Indian law for my job, it’s my experience that it can be a very squishy thing, depending on who you talk to.

    So, the particular issue with Gibson has little to do with the “buy American”-based economy or political vendettas, but everything to do with treaties (supported by both sides of the aisle) and proper trade.

    By the way, the fact that Gibson was raided suggests that someone reported the product as illegal. That is, if it wasn’t stopped on entry to this country, then someone probably reported it TO the Feds from either the importer or Gibson, itself.

  7. Submitted by David Hanners on 12/21/2011 - 11:19 am.

    I know from reading MinnPost comments over the years that Mr. Tester has an axe (no pun intended in the present case) to grind, but the Obama administration was merely enforcing an amendment to the Lacey Act that was passed with bi-partisan support during the Bush administration in 2008. The Bush administration supported the amendment, which had 10 Republican co-sponsors. And it wasn’t like the issue came out of the blue; Gibson is a repeat offender. American guitar builders such as C.F. Martin, Taylor, Santa Cruz, Collings, Bourgeois, Huss & Dalton, Breedlove (the list goes on) have somehow managed to build some really nice guitars without violating the Lacey Act. (And I write this as the owner of a ’98 Gibson J-45, which I didn’t buy at Willie’s, but I did buy a ’66 J-45 there once.)

  8. Submitted by John Woodland on 09/08/2013 - 12:49 am.

    Dennis, Henry J has politicized the recent raid in an irrational, surreal way, and has twisted it into a message around jobs. Illegal logging is real, and musical instrument manufactures need to be accountable just like any other manufactures of wood products. As far as China goes, one third of the world’s illegal wood is processed there. From 1997 to 2006, exports of manufactured wood products from China to the U.S. increased by 1000%.

    As a former ten-year employee of Willie’s and an American musical merchandise manufacturer myself (www.masterybridge.com), I can say that Nate has set a business model standard in the retail guitar industry that several have copied but few have succeeded. Why? Because of what he just said.

    John Woodland

  9. Submitted by John Briggs on 12/22/2011 - 09:54 pm.

    Great article. I am blogging on all things Made in America everyday at simply-american.net. Please stop by to read posts on all sorts of great American made products like Estwing hammers, Wigwam socks, Jack Donnelly Khakis and Lambsom & Goodnow knives.

    All the best

  10. Submitted by just joseph on 12/23/2011 - 02:17 pm.

    For about ten years now, you havent been able to buy a toaster made in america. Think about it…a simple TOASTER!! Why, the toaster was invented here, improved and designed to match the decors of our homes as they evolved over the years. FOr decades, GE and others employed legions of workers
    who made a good product that lasted (for generations sometimes) and these workers fed their families and bought things they needed ( like, well, TOASTERS) until someone in the big corporate found out that the chinese would make them, package them and ship them for a fraction of the cost of making one here, and the corporation gets to pocket the difference. Profirs soared, brands were destroyed by year of rural bad product, and soon there will be no one left who can afford to buy their products. GE and others forgot that the worker is also a consumer. If you ruin income for workers, you are also ruining it for your consumers.
    Polaris closed their 4wheeler factory in Osceola last year and moved it to Mexico. Think people in Osceola dont buy 4 wheelers? I dont think they’d be caught dead on a Polaris.

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