BALTIMORE (Feb. 26, 2011) The dearth of American-made gift and souvenir products in the Smithsonian’s gift shops is an old problem that needs new solutions.
ABC World News with Diane Sawyer reported this week that most items sold in the Smithsonian shops are made in China. The reporters would have found similar situations had they visited the gift shops of many national parks and historic sites.
It’s not entirely fair to blame Uncle Sam: In many cases, these stores are managed by independent companies, contractors and concessionaires instead of federal agencies. Like all other retailers, they face pricetag pressures. At the end of the day, imports are often cheaper than American-made products.
At least the imports in the Smithsonian shops bear labels informing the consumer that the items are made in China. Less scrupulous retailers have taken to removing or covering country-of-origin labels, to dupe the shopper. Even more heinous are the collaborators who steal the designs of hard-working American artisans and manufacturers, commission knock-off goods overseas, and then send the look-alike products back into the U.S. market at prices that undercut the originals.
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.
Senator Bernie Sanders ( I-Vt.) recently addressed this topic in a letter to Brent Glass, director of the 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. These businesses should recognize the privilege and symbolism inherent in their unique locations at taxpayer-owned and federally funded institutions. It is more than reasonable that cultural travelers, school groups, tourists and federal workers expect to find American products in the stores inside American institutions.
Outcry from policymakers and consumers will help, but we’ve heard it before. It’s going to take fresh ideas, collaboration and new policy to influence the stores to stock and promote more authentically American products.
Policy writers and lawmakers:
- Fund access-to-market education for the small, studio-based makers who can fill Uncle Sam’s stores with affordable American-made products. Yes, these manufacturers do exist. Organizations such as our American Made Alliance can identify thousands of them. Many are home-based or studio-based small businesses that are already filling orders from retailers. Many are unfamiliar with the federal procurement system through which some U.S. institution-based stores must acquire goods. Most do not sell through distributors. They are poised to grow and even to create jobs, if only they could win more contracts and orders on a national level. It starts with education.
- Help us fight the retail fraud that steals the American maker’s living. We need enforcement of existing country-of-origin indelible marking laws, which require a permanent identifying mark on imported products. Enforcement would deter the use of paper stickers that are easily removed or covered by a price tag.
- The smallest of the small manufacturers, solo ventures and studio-based businesses with three or fewer employees, need a voice at the policymaking table. Stop treating them like hobbyists: they are micro-enterprises. Amend your classification systems to accurately count them as manufacturers and calculate their contribution to the economy. Our industry’s last comprehensive study estimated that craft workers made a $14 billion economic impact, and that was based on data from several years ago; an update is in the works.
Retailers and concessionaires at taxpayer-owned institutions:
- Send your buyers to the wholesale tradeshows that exhibit authentically American-made jewelry, home and fashion accessories, souvenir items and art works. Slapping an institution logo or label on a cheap imported souvenir does not transform it into an American product. Instead, buy from local artisans who can customize products for you. Our database lists 88 federally backed museums, sites and parks with gift stores. Of these, only 10 have ever visited the Buyers Market of American Craft, the premier wholesale tradeshow showcasing products by U.S. and Canadian artisans.
- Follow the lead of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which recently held an informative public seminar for small businesses, outlining its procurement rules and its needs. By mandate, the Visitor Center’s two stores seek American-made products inspired by the Constitution, the Capitol Building, the Congress and historic legislation that shaped America. Also desired: high-quality American-made gift objects that federal workers and lawmakers can be proud to buy and give as gifts. Know that our nonprofit guilds and associations will work with you on getting the word out. “I can’t find an American maker” is a weak excuse if you have not reached out to give small producers a chance to compete.
- 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.)
Artisans and small producers:
- Don’t be the needle in the haystack waiting for Uncle Sam to discover you. If you want to supply this market, study it and evaluate your product lines: Despite what you may think, you probably don’t have to paint your products red, white and blue to break in. Get involved in advocacy on behalf of small artisans and producers to learn about opportunities.
- Shop local. According to The 3/50 Project and other organizations that support America’s brick-and-mortar retailers, about 60 cents of every dollar you spend in local stores stay in your community. When you visit the nation’s capital and historic sites, ask for American-made and locally made products. Let your purchases be investments in the American dreams of studio artisans, cottage industries, small independent manufacturers. Your dollars recycle on Main Street. Don’t settle for a knock-off. Be part of the solution. Don’t know where to find American-made products? Start here: www.findAmericanmade.com
WENDY ROSEN is the founder of the American Made Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that engages in advocacy supporting fine craft artists and studios. She is the president and CEO of The Rosen Group, which publishes AmericanStyle magazine and produces the Buyers Market of American Craft wholesale tradeshows of artist-made products.
Jean Thompson, 800-432-7238, ext. 218 (office) or 443-845-6130 (cell)