Taking a Stand

“Independence Day” glass chocolates by Hulet Glass of McKinleyville, Calif., wholesale for under $25.

In February, ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer reported that most items sold in Smithsonian Museum gift shops are made in China, not in the United States. A similar situation exists in gift shops at many national parks and taxpayer-supported historic sites. This is an old problem that needs new solutions.

It is not entirely fair to blame Uncle Sam: In many cases, independent companies, contractors and concessionaires, not federal agencies, manage these stores. Like all other retailers, they face price tag pressures. At the end of the day, imports are often cheaper—and sell faster—than American-made products.

At least the imports in the Smithsonian shops carry labels informing the consumer that what they’re buying is made in China. Less scrupulous retailers have taken to removing or covering over country-of-origin labels to dupe the shopper. Even more outrageous are conspirators who steal the designs of hard-working American artisans and manufacturers, commission knock-off goods overseas, then send the look-alike products back into the U.S. market at prices that undercut the originals.

The Trickle-Down Effect

Make no mistake: This robs us all. It ruins the market for American-made products, it deprives the originators of the value of their creations, and it destroys jobs for American small businesses. That, in turn, hurts Main Street’s economy and the communities we live in.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently addressed this topic in a letter to Brent D. Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The senator bemoaned the lack of American-made items in the museum store. He was correct when he wrote: “As a nation, we have all got to be aware that one of the major reasons unemployment in this country is so high is because it is increasingly difficult to find products in our nation’s stores that are manufactured in this country.”

In other words, price point is not the only point that matters. It is a privilege to have a store in a location steeped in symbolism. Cultural travelers, school groups, tourists and federal workers reasonably expect to find American-made products in the shops inside American institutions.

We understand the dilemma faced by the Smithsonian stores, which on March 9 pledged to try harder. Many of their customers are school children seeking a memento that sells for only a couple of dollars. But we also know that federal workers and Washingtonians also frequent the stores in search of holiday presents. Congressmen and executives come to buy business gifts. And visitors from all over the world come looking for a piece of America to take back home with them.

How You Can Help

It’s going to take fresh ideas and collaboration to fill Uncle Sam’s shelves with more authentic American-made gift items. What can you as small business retailers do?

  • Buy from a domestic artist who can customize products for you. Slapping a corporate logo or label on a cheap imported souvenir does not transform it into an American product.
  • Send your store buyers to wholesale tradeshows that exhibit authentically American-made jewelry, ornaments, accessories for home and office, fashions, souvenirs and more. At the Buyers Market of American Craft, for example, you’ll see thousands of gift items at every price point. “I can’t find an American maker” is a pathetically weak excuse if you haven’t even given small producers a chance to compete.
  • Know that you’ll be dealing directly with the artist: Most of these studios are not familiar with federal procurement procedures and are not represented by distributors. So follow the lead of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which recently held an informative public seminar to outline its acquisition rules and product wish list. The Rosen Group would be honored to help by sponsoring a workshop to educate exhibitors at the Buyers Market.
  • Sell more than a gift, sell a story: In our experience, the consumer who cares about product origin also cares to know about the maker and his materials, skills and processes. With mass-produced imports, you don’t get that promotional bonus. In fact, given the record of human rights violations and worker exploitation in countries known as sources of knock-offs, the stories behind some products on your shelves might not instill pride.

Now, Not Later

Let’s all do our part. Help us help Uncle Sam fill museum and national monument gift shop shelves all over the country with beautiful, handcrafted, authentic American-made products we can all be proud of.

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