Fall 2016
Developing a relevant Made in America product assortment By Chris Lake | Special to Museums & More

Research shows consumers want Made in the USA, but price can stop them from buying

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Whether buying for a national park, museum, zoo or some other cultural attraction, the importance of buying American-made products has always been essential in my product assortments. I can’t think of a better place than an American cultural destination to sell themed American made products that support the local destination as well as the local artisans.

Over the past few years, many research surveys have shown Americans expressing increased interest in buying American-made products. However, when it comes to everyday shopping or impulse buying, the retail price on comparative products usually keeps them from buying. In the past few years, there have been some major players that have helped bring more manufacturing and a larger supply chain of American-made products which have helped drive overall costs down. Also, more and more handicraft vendors are coming into the marketplace offering unique products that are typically themed to their local region.

How do you develop the right Made in America assortment for your gift shop? Here are a few concepts that I have implemented over the years to make my assortment relevant to the destination:

Are you authentic? Be Real, seek transparency over mixed messages. Obviously, if you have been in the retail business long enough, your entire store can’t be all Made in America and offer your guests everything they want. First, search for 100 percent Made in the USA products. This includes not only a local artisan or manufacturer but the packaging as well.

Even with an increasing amount of American-made suppliers, it is difficult to find 100 percent American-made, especially in some categories. The gift, glassware, and accessory categories have the most to offer in products. Apparel, books and plush are the most difficult classifications to carry with limited suppliers and higher costs.

Second, use the secondary sources, as in not 100 percent American made, but make sure to make distinctions as to why it isn’t 100 percent American made. For example, apparel is the most difficult to source for the garment and cost but you can speak to the design that was made in the USA and that the garment was made overseas or in North America. This transparency avoids any confusion about American-made products and let’s your guests know that you value a true commitment to products fully created in the United States. Coaching your team members on the proper messaging as well as the right signage helps this authenticity appear seamless to your guests.

Support Local over Anywhere USA. In the past, there have been limited offerings of Made in America. However, these days, you can find local artisans in almost every city or region in the U.S. From the Olympic Peninsula to the rural areas of Tennessee, there are many local vendors for you to find and support.

Sharing where the item is from in the United States sends a much stronger message and connection point with guests than saying it is just made somewhere in the U.S. As much as retail tourism is driven by logos and destination themes, I am finding more and more guests just looking for a unique gift from the destination area. Having local artisans share their story through signage and product demonstrations in your gift shop will help increase sales dramatically.

Themed Collections that relate back to your destination and local themes that translate back to your city or region enhances the selling and merchandising of American-made products. Here are some examples:

  1. Grouping by Graphic Design (apparel, glassware, gift, souvenir and gourmet foods made exclusively for you with one connecting theme and graphic)
  2. Themed Classifications — women’s accessories, gourmet foods, T-shirts, etc.
  3. Grouping by Local Artisans — Display a Made in America gift section
  4. Transition/Local Event Specific Collections
  5. Embrace Americana —nostalgia/vintage is trending and using those popular themes enhances your Made in America collections

Keep the main thing the main thing

When the first generation of eco-friendly products hit the retail market, they were not functional and they were more novelty than anything else. For example, those early pens that didn’t write or would break after the initial use, or the healthy foods phenomenon was more about the novelty over taste. We have come a long way in both categories and that holds true in the Made in America category as well. Only select products that fit into your product assortment, don’t force them to fit. In other words, just because the it is created in America, that doesn’t mean it is a fit for your guest’s tastes and/or price range. Made in America is no longer a novelty and every product needs to be functional. So if you don’t need a cardboard T-shirt, keep looking for a better source. They are out there!

Inspiring and educating your team members

Don’t forget the guest experience. All the above is less effective unless you get your team members involved in the why and what you carry in American-made products. Three essential factors:

  • Educate team members on the importance of having USA merchandise. Supporting local artisans and having the artisans share their stories and how they make the products at a team meeting goes a long way in helping this cause.
  • Engage them on being passionate and able to talk to specifics about the product selection. Look books and product knowledge sheets are good tools are good ways to do this.
  • Don’t talk about the price. Quality, perceived value and locally made are key talking points in sharing information about the products. If you start comparing pricing, then it is all about the price. Focus on the uniqueness and value of the product as well as supporting local artisans.

Through transparent messaging, emphasis on local artisans, themed collections, focused functional products, and creating the right guest experience, you are on the way to having a successful season in American-made products.

— Chris Lake is a member of Service Systems Associates and retail buyer for the Denver Zoo and History Colorado Center. 






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