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Tap into the Made-in-the-USA Revival
By Christopher Ruvo

HomemakersDistributor Linda Martinelli calls it a “new phenomenon.” Over the past year, a growing number of customers have demanded that the apparel they buy from Martinelli carry a Made-in-the-USA label. While American-made clothing still comprises a small portion of Martinelli’s apparel sales, the percentage is growing, a trend she expects to continue. “I think with the political climate and the job market right now, more people are ready to take a stand to support American production,” says Martinelli, owner of Proforma Graphic Printsource (asi/300143) in Corona, CA. “Customers feel really good buying American.”

Neither Martinelli nor anyone else disputes that apparel cut and sewn in foreign mills overwhelmingly dominates – and will continue to dominate – apparel sales in the U.S. Still, there is a market for American-made clothing, and a growing one at that. Plus, U.S. manufacturing is already exhibiting promising growth; the Institute for Supply Management reported in August that domestic manufacturing expanded for the 25th consecutive month. “More and more people are seeing the value in Made-in-the-USA,” says Howard Levine, president of Alliance Graphics (asi/117905) in Berkley, CA.

The leading customers for Made-in-America clothing are ones you might expect: unions, firefighters, police and governmental agencies. But All USA Clothing, a distributor based in West Bloomfield, MI, also sells to businesses and universities that desire the quality of domestic workmanship and the sense that they’re supporting American workers, says Vice President Emma Zerkel. That same patriotic sentiment and quest for quality has compelled resorts, casinos, banks, medical facilities, credit unions and manufacturers to buy USA from Martinelli. Consider, too, that Arcanaum, OH-based All American Clothing – the name says what it manufactures and sells – has found success selling to consumers via its website and to trade businesses, such as plumbers, electricians and builders. “Our revenue increased 65% last year, and this year we’ve seen even higher percentage growth so far,” says owner Lawson Nickol.

Of course, the reality remains that labor costs make it more expensive to produce apparel in the United States. “For a lot of companies it really comes down to price in a tough economy,” says John Resnick, a partner with Proforma Printing & Promotion (asi/300271) in Boston. “We’d like to sell more USA products and apparel, but until they can be produced at a more reasonable rate, it will be difficult.”

But the price difference may not be as great as you think. Phoenix Textile & Apparel Mills (asi/77963) in Middlebourne, WV, has been in business for 43 years. Business has been strong for the supplier, which cuts, sews and dyes polo shirts from scratch. “We’re hugely competitive with China,” says CEO Harry Candland. “When you factor in freight costs, duties and the time it takes to get the apparel over here, it’s not as cheap or beneficial as you may think.” Rising labor costs in China will continue to narrow that gap.

Regardless, when it comes to pitching Made-in-the-USA, distributors should take the discussion away from price and onto product quality and patriotism. “Being competitive isn’t about a race to the bottom,” says Levine. “You can emphasize how buying American is good for the economy and how it keeps jobs here.” Additionally, Zerkel tells clients how having American-made clothing can help them build positive cachet with intended audiences. If a client is giving away T-shirts at a trade show, the packaging and labels on the shirts should clearly emphasize they were produced in the States; the client can even include a little note saying why they bought American. No doubt end-users will take notice.

Buying American on custom orders presents advantages too, including lower minimums, increased control, faster turnaround times and manufacturers who partner with you, says Zerkel. Customs snafus and tariff markups can also be avoided. “Whenever there’s a shortage, we can turn a manufacturing and selling team much quicker and have product it back in stock much quicker than some of the major people that are producing off-shore,” says Ray Hughes, head of distributor relations for American Apparel (asi/35297), which famously produces its wares in downtown Los Angeles.

When it comes to stock, however, Martinelli voices the struggles of many distributors when she notes that the breadth of U.S.-made apparel and products pales compared to what’s available from overseas. “It can be inordinately time-consuming to find what you’re looking for,” she says, “and there still may not be a supplier who has what you need.”

Despite the challenges, Zerkel says she’ll always sell USA-made because she believes it’s the right thing to do. “We’re in Michigan, and we saw what happened with the auto industry and what that did to cities and families,” she said. “I would hate to think we stopped supporting a manufacturer and everyone in that city suffered.” Of course, she notes, selling American also makes sense from a business perspective: Zerkel is a strong player in a niche market that just may be on the up. “When the whole ‘green’ apparel thing became popular, I never heard people say, ‘It has to be green or I won’t buy it,’ ” says Martinelli. “But now, more and more, I’m hearing them say, ‘If it’s not made here, I don’t want it.’”

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