USA Made Plus Brand Story Equals Sales
Stocking domestic-made products is just the beginning. Shoppers love to hear details on exactly where, why and how those items came to be.
Specifics spark customer interest: "Made in Texas" vs "Made in USA"
To connect with today’s typical pet-coddling consumer who also wants to pamper the planet, retailers can boost sales by offering true, compelling stories that enhance a customer’s journey.
Making time to do a little extra storytelling serves to emotionally connect consumers to a brand in a powerful way. This is a huge sales driver, retailers reported. To start, they suggest offering at least a few completely USA-sourced brand lines made by manufacturers or local artists that offer a heartwarming (and creatively interesting) story of brand philanthropy.
Details that attract consumer interest include whether a product is 100 percent Made in the USA or only fractionally sourced domestically.
“More people ask this now, and it’s getting to be quite an issue for them,” said Alisha Navarro, owner of 2 Hounds Design Inc., a manufacturer in Monroe, N.C. “This question comes up a lot at trade shows.”
Despite so much pet owner interest in American-sourced safety, quality and sustainability, retailers report that some owners still are dissuaded from buying when they see a premium cost attached, and some are not.
“The way to make the sale is to have a brand story that emphasizes the good such a product will contribute to the world, from recycling to jobs to safety,” said Debra Leow, retail director and buyer at George, a retailer with boutiques in California. “This makes customers feel like they’re on the side of doing good.”
Once Upon a Time...
Nothing engages people like a good story that’s also true. The manufacturing journeys behind many USA-made products can be anything but boring.
Case in point: Leow said stocking Business Catual bow ties for cats (and now Top Dog for dogs) was a big hit with customers from the get-go.
“It’s a great example of a brand that doesn’t just say ‘Made in the USA,’” she said. “The genius of these recycled, handmade novelty bow ties is that each product tag tells exactly where the fabric was found in rich, human detail.”
For example, she said, one bow tie’s tag might say in a delightfully crooked scrawl: “This fabric was recycled from Dad’s old shirt” or “This bow tie was made out of recycled fabric from Scrap PDX—a nonprofit art supply store, with a cinch made out of fabric from Chris’ mom in Flagstaff, Ariz.” And the brand doesn’t stop at identifying a fabric’s previous life; Business Catual goes on to promote its devotion to local no-kill animal welfare organizations and eco-friendly paper and ink sourcing.
Indeed, Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products, a Neenah, Wis., manufacturer of all USA-made products, noted that just having a red, white and blue store isn’t enough. He said retailers will find profit power by messaging key selling points on the American-made front: unique brand story, quality design, environmental sustainability and trustworthiness of the manufacturer.
Manufacturers in the consumables sector can tout compelling stories, as well.
“This year marks Sojos’ 30th anniversary,” said Ward Johnson, owner and president of Minneapolis-based Sojos. “We pioneered the alternative pet food category, and we’ve been using many of the same time-tested recipes for decades. Through it all we’ve remained 100 percent family owned. That independence has allowed us to stick to our principles when it comes to ingredient sourcing—as well as stay true to the independent pet specialty channel that helped us get to where we are today.”
Every Business Catual bowtie tells a fun, detailed story.
Domestic Demand Is Up
Increased demand for USA-made is primarily in the consumables segment, according to Steve King, president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association in Abingdon, Md.
“I would add to this an overall word of caution: In our global economy today, it’s not always easy to distinguish products that have 100 percent domestic content. In some cases, ingredients might be sourced from several different countries, depending on seasonal availability, suppliers searching for the best pricing, etc.,” he said, adding that even products assembled in the United States might have some content that’s made elsewhere.
“It’s important to understand the term ‘USA-sourced,’” said Sojos’ Johnson. “A company could conceivably purchase ingredients from an importer who buys and re-sells Chinese ingredients—and still call them ‘USA-sourced.’”
“To be clear, some essential ingredients in our formulas are only available from overseas growers—but the majority are grown right here in the USA, and none are from China,” Johnson added. “All Sojos products are made on-site, at our own facility in Minneapolis.”
Dena Tucker, owner of Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC in West Hartford, Conn., creates bird toys with an emphasis on eco-friendliness and USA-made. For a long time, she said, she’d been using a certain brand of USA-made cupcake paper holders as material for bird toys. Recently, she saw the brand’s packaging had changed and, upon closer inspection of the new label, she found the words “made in China.”
“So that’s an example of how important it is to keep an eye on the label before you promote a product as USA-made in your store,” Tucker said. “I have to check everything: glue, wood, you name it. Be vigilant.”
In the past four years, Navarro reported a dramatic increase in sourcing-related questions.
“I tell [people] what’s from the USA but honestly add that some parts, like stainless steel or velvet, are imported,” she said. “Clients appreciate this, and they know whatever I can get domestically, I will.”
—Ward Johnson, owner and president of Sojos in Minneapolis
The same goes for customers perusing the aisles of Reber Ranch, a store in Kent, Wash.
“The question is being asked many times a day,” said Bill Greene, general manager of Reber Ranch. “Customers want to know if the products are made in the U.S. And then they follow up with: Are all the ingredients sourced in the U.S.?”
He said that assuring pet owners that Reber Ranch only works with the most reputable manufacturers means a lot.
“Further, our distributors contribute by doing an excellent job to help ensure the products we offer are safe—and sourcing claims are accurate,” he added.
“Certain exotic ingredients in [Sojos’] formulas are either not native to the United States or not available in adequate supply to meet our demand,” said Johnson. “In those cases, we source from other countries—for example, our lamb and venison is from New Zealand. That said, we’re proud of Sojos’ high sourcing standards that clearly spell out 100 percent human-quality, USDA-approved, and nothing coming from China.”
Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association in Greenwich, Conn., pointed out that the best policy for retailers is to make sure the products they carry are truly in compliance within the guidelines for making the Made in the USA claim.
“Otherwise,” Vetere said, “you’ll put yourself in a potentially embarrassing and compromising position.”
Spotlight Product Sourcing Creatively
“Retailers shouldn’t hesitate to dedicate in-store displays or sections to USA-made products,” said Sojos’ Johnson. “A clear commitment to Made in the USA products can go a long way toward providing the assurance of quality and safety pet parents are looking for. Again, be careful to check the exact wording on packages. ‘USA sourced’ does not necessarily mean that ingredients were grown in the USA.”
Navarro recommends that whenever possible retailers spark more customer interest by displaying a product as being made in, for example, “Indian Trails, N.C.,” as opposed to using the broad term “USA-made.”
“You can even add stickers or other signage to attract interest in a place or a local artisan’s works,” she said. “Then people will ask you why it’s made there, and you’re suddenly having a conversation, telling a story, creating a bond.”
At The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt., owner Cindra Conison uses in-store signage and a chalkboard outside to advertise her commitment to domestically sourced products.
“This is so important to people, especially in pet food and treats … my customers tell me that’s why they shop at my store,” she said. “It’s about trust.”
The idea to offer all USA-made merchandise came to Conison four years ago while getting the store ready to open for the first time.
“I was pouring over product information spreadsheets to choose merchandise to stock,” she said. “The more I looked, the more I saw the word ‘China.’ So I made the commitment right there to make my store all about USA-made.”
Conison often calls manufacturers to check sourcing, and she finds that most are very frank about what percentage of their products are domestically sourced.
“If they don’t want to be totally transparent, I won’t sell it,” Conison said.
George’s Leow added one last tip for retailers: “If you ’re a retailer that also pulls in a significant amount of tourist dollars, this is a great position to be in for brand storytelling. Tourists want to purchase meaningful things that will evoke memories of their trip, so if you have a good story about how and where it’s made, that’s a big plus.”
What’s the cost of doing USA-only business?
“The advantages many offshore-produced products had is eroding. Higher costs of labor and fuel around the world mean many items can again be made in the United States at competitive prices while maintaining or improving quality. In addition, these products will have a smaller carbon footprint, and the people who make them will have a better standard of living. This is all part of sustainability.”
“As with so many products, there is some fact and a lot of fiction in the pricing of goods. In some USA-made cases, there is a legitimate higher cost to produce, but that’s not always true. However, since the public perceives this as a premium product, they are willing to pay premium prices. The market is the indicator of the consumer price vs. the actual cost of production.”
“In some categories, there is a definite price difference to obtain 100 percent U.S.-sourced product. Manufacturers are aware of the categories where the differential is significant, and they are working hard to reduce costs to be more competitive. In the hard goods pet supply world, we generally see anywhere from a 10 to 15 percent premium in price. A U.S. production facility simply cannot produce at some of the low prices you see out of Asia. Consumables that we carry (treats, jerky, biscuits) vs. some of the overseas products are generally 10 to 30 percent higher. The consumer in pet specialty is expecting a better product at a fair price. To achieve and meet the consumers’ expectation, our buyers need to work very hard to succeed. We also have great distributors, and we attend up to six trade shows a year to find these products.”