By Wendy Rosen
Our demonstration May 27-29, 2011, at the Grand Canyon was a real eye-opener. Thanks to everyone who attended, and all who contributed by calling radio stations and newspapers, creating YouTube videos and sharing our posts! Special thanks to our partners: The Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture, The Zuni Tribe, Craft Emergency Relief Fund, and American Made Matters.
The foundation of any economy or business transaction, is trust. In a world of imports, contemporary American craft retailers learned long ago that trust is what separates their shops and galleries from gift stores filled with imports.
The retail experience in our National Parks should be just that type of experience built on trust, but sadly, it’s not. At the Grand Canyon this weekend, I met hundreds of park visitors who revealed their apprehension and distrust about attempting to purchase anything other than imported souvenirs. They came to the area hoping to meet local artisans, learn about local handmade pottery, jewelry and native arts. Instead they felt almost forced to buy imports they didn’t want. The Bright Angel Gift Shop has removed all native artisan-made products, leaving visitors with not even a suggestion to visit the Hopi House gallery up the hill. At other park stores, authentic handmade items are buried in dark cases, under scratched glass or behind lock and key, while imports are out in the open for customers to spin racks, explore, touch and purchase.
Confusion or Fraud?
Inside and outside the boundaries of the Grand Canyon National Park, stores were filled with products specifically designed to confuse any consumer. Packaging, hangtags, signage and store design are designed to confuse anyone searching for American Made or Native Made products. Bright Angel does carry some “native style” works that “might” be from cooperatives or native businesses, but there is little information or background story detail for the souvenir the customer might wish to buy and take home as a keepsake.
While federal laws clearly state that non-tribal merchandise in “native style” must have a printed disclaimer, “Not Indian Made,” many manufacturers use deception to compete in the marketplace for cheap (and sometimes expensive) souvenirs. We found hangtags on imports or manufactured products openly using words like “Native Art,” “handmade,” or “tribal,” printed in large type, while the “Not Indian Made” disclaimer was printed discreetly in 4-point type.
English-speaking tourists may take the time to pull out their reading glasses (or a microscope) to read the disclaimer. But nearly 30 percent of the tourists at the Bright Angel store are foreign tourists. They are easily duped.
Foreign and domestic manufacturers like Wheeler Jewelry employ some very creative practices to keep their works selling, and use confusion to their benefit. Imported small items, like silver earrings, have the “country of origin” printed on the back of the carrier card, where it can be conveniently covered with the price sticker. Is this just an oversight? Not likely. Wheeler features the “Made in USA” statement proudly on the front of the carrier cards for similar items produced in its South Dakota factory.
We found T-shirts with a label “Made in Honduras,” prominently featuring a large, full-color sticker with an American flag, a Xanterra logo, and again, in 4 point type, the disclosure “designed and printed in the USA.” Duping foreign visitors, either intentionally or unintentionally is a piece of cake.
We interviewed many visitors exiting at the Bright Angel gift shop during Memorial Day weekend. What did they think of the way these T-shirts were marked? They were appalled that the Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Craft Board and our U.S. government would permit this type of consumer fraud on National Park lands.
The Price is Right
You may ask, “Are the imported Wheeler items from Thailand or China so much cheaper than the Made in the USA jewelry?” The true answer is: Not by much! In fact, when comparing Wheeler “composite turquoise” silver rings to authentic Navajo turquoise rings, the cost for authentic was just $5 more than the import. In this specific case, I’m sure the imports will outsell the tribal jewelry by leaps and bounds, as the tribal pieces were hidden in a dark case, under deeply scratched glass that obliterated the possibility of even making a comparative choice between the two items. The Wheeler jewelry is on a large rack on top of the case.
We discovered high-quality jackets, T-shirts, sweats and fleeces in the stores that were American made, right next to cheaper items that were imported. So why carry foreign items that were, in several cases, comparable in price or even higher priced?
Fighting for American Made
In 2005, park concessionaires were threatened with a bill proposed by Congressman Jim Costa, which would have required retail businesses within the national park system to carry 100-percent American-made products. While the bill was eventually withdrawn, some park store management companies like Xanterra decided to make an honest attempt to add more American-made products to their merchandising mix. However, an honest attempt is not always a competent attempt.
Xanterra’s response created even more confusion and frustration for park tourists. And it effectively raised the prospects of selling more imports, not more tribal works, as competition for shelf space between imports and domestic products really heated up.
In an effort to appease House Appropriation Committee demands, and to reduce the confusion, Xanterra store managers came up with a simple solution: Mark nearly every store display with the disclaimer “Items are Imported Unless Otherwise Marked.” Now that’s a real confidence- building statement for your shoppers! (Translation: Consider all native-style stuff here imported junk from China unless you see a sticker that “might” indicate otherwise.)
While Xanterra executives boast with pride about their “training program” for retail associates, the training about native art works often begins days or weeks after an associate starts work. On Memorial Day weekend, at the opening of the high season, we found a foreign exchange student left to his own devices to manage a store alone …on what I was told was his first day of work.
Xanterra also claims that in the past year it purchased 200 percent more authentic tribal inventory than in 2010. In fact, it’s likely a true statement. The locked displays in the hotel lobby that are almost museum-like are full of beautiful native jewelry. They might display it, but selling it is another issue. Imported and manufactured items are displayed so prominently on open racks out where customers shop without the assistance of a sales associate. This strategy pushes the imported jewelry with phony turquoise, while authentic Navajo, Zuni and Hopi jewelry at a comparable price can’t be found: it’s all stored away in the dark, under deeply scratched glass.
Walmart of the Parks
Xanterra’s problem is that it’s trying to employ the retail sales and merchandising strategies of Walmart, utilizing those “best practices.” These practices do little to sell native or local fine crafts or help the local economy of the canyon or Southwest region. The stores are designed to provide the maximum dollars per square foot, ringing up $15 items in high volume, using minimum-wage workers stationed behind cash registers — just like we used to have at the grocery store before we were forced to scan our own merchandise (is that Xanterra’s next step?). The net result is a whopping $6,000 per square foot at the Bright Angel gift shop, a hyper-retail environment that the likes of Disney would envy. Compare that number to Walmart at $900 per square foot. But this isn’t Walmart, it’s America’s most visited National Park, located in one of the richest cultural regions of America. It’s a privilege to have our nation’s trust to serve visitors in our national parks. Do visitors come to the Grand Canyon just to look over the edge, or do they also come for the culture of the Southwest region, which, if managed properly can be as rich a cultural experience as visiting the most exotic places on Earth.
It’s not that I have a problem with Xanterra selling imports, it’s that I have a problem with our national parks stores not competently selling domestic products, giving priority to imports and permitting labeling fraud to continue, even after they discover the problem.
It’s the missed opportunities to sell more American Made and Native Made merchandise, and ultimately raise the standard of living, creating new jobs in places like Window Rock, Williams, and Gallup, New Mexico. Xanterra is in the driver’s seat — they could tell all their domestic and foreign sources to label it right or we’ll return it promptly. But, they don’t.
Native Arts Sold Right… Almost
On the other hand, Xanterra also runs an incredible store called “Hopi House.” They don’t call it a craft or art gallery, but for the most part it is. Xanterra management doesn’t seem to be able to make a “commitment” to strictly format its stores by product theme. At every opportunity, they still want to sell those cheap imported earrings. It’s as if they are looking at numbers only… not the visitor profile, staff expertise or store design.
If Xanterra made the commitment to create a true 100-percent Native Arts Gallery at Hopi House, removing the imports and only selling fine Native arts, tourists would feel like they could trust the products displayed and the information provided by sales associates. There is one drawback: Hopi House is also a historic building with all the restrictions of a historic property, no elevator, no air conditioning, and dark corners filled with incredible works that can’t be seen and appreciated. So at the height of the tourist season, visitors who wish to purchase fine crafts… must do it in an uncomfortable environment.
Serving nearly 5 million visitors each year must be difficult. But with all the diverse expertise Xanterra has, they still could learn a few tricks from other contemporary craft retailers. Remove the signs that erode confidence by telling customers that everything is imported unless otherwise marked. Instead, work diligently to stop confusion. Provide prominent signage directing customers to the Hopi House for authentic Native American art and fine craft.
At the most high-trafficked store, Bright Angel, you find no certified native artisan works at all, and tourists leave that store wondering why there are not authentic native crafts in the shop. There wasn’t even a sign to promote or direct those “seekers” to authentic tribal art at the Hopi House. Visitors were left to assume that all the stores offered the same imported gift-y stuff. The stores are merchandised for a low demographic, when actually, the visitor profile is very different. Visitors to the Grand Canyon are spending about a thousand dollars per family just to get there by plane, train, or one of the thousands of $80,000 RV’s you see on the road heading for the canyon.
At an average of about $200 per night, few “average” families stay overnight at the El Tovar, and yet cheap imports are the most prominently displayed jewelry in the shop. I must admit that the El Tovar is full of authentic tribal jewelry — and it’s all displayed in museum-type cases under lock and key, with no sales associate assistance. Xanterra claims that well-educated, authentic Native American sales associates staff the El Tovar Hotel shop, but all I saw was the J-1 exchange student (from China) on his first day at work.
Solutions for Success
The solutions are simple, and really shouldn’t hurt sales volume. In fact, the solutions should really increase average sales totals at the register.
• Remove all “native style” imports. The price difference is slight and authentic is the best choice when price is close. Imports are unnecessary if the “price is right.”
• Take those “expert” sales associates and use them to provide short events with demonstrations each afternoon at Hopi House, in front of Bright Angel or in the lobby of the El Tovar. The demonstrations showing the difference between authentic tribal arts and the “tribal style” stuff found outside of the parks could be listed on the daily park event calendar and maps. It would go a long way to instill trust and raise sales of all artisan merchandise.
• Increase the lighting at Hopi House, add some tribal flute music and make it an actual gallery, no magnets, no hats, no T-shirts, just authentic native arts.
• Change out the jewelry cases in every store so that the view glass is at an angle. It will reduce the need to replace glass every three months. Even better, take the gift shop at the El Tovar and separate the store into two different sides (it already has two different entrances) — one for gifts, one for tribal art jewelry and a few other authentic tribal items, with flow between, but distinctly separated.
• The Bright Angel gift shop really needs some work to increase the average ticket sale, and eliminate visitor confusion. Most visitors to the Grand Canyon visit only one gift shop, and that’s the Bright Angel. Put imported small items only in the cash wrap area. Create specific areas and signage, separating products by individual artist certified, native group or business made and American made.
• Get creative, and look for things that are American made just for the Grand Canyon stores. By shopping at true Made in America trade shows, store managers can start a dialogue with small manufacturers and production artisan studios whose creative efforts will provide visitors with authentic American-made souvenirs at affordable prices. Require larger suppliers to become “certified” as American-made by one of the three certifying organizations.
How will we identify if we’ve succeeded at our goal?
Unemployment in New Mexico and Arizona will fall by at least 1 percent statewide…and maybe from 50 percent to 25 percent on our reservations where so many unemployed artists live.
WENDY ROSEN is founder of the American Made Alliance. She is a leading advocate for American-made products, and for the micro-enterprises, artisans and studios that make them.