3 Ways To Compete As A “Made In America” Brand

With consumers craving a connection to their purchases these days, here's how can you make the label "Made in the U.S.A." work for you.

A funny thing happened on my way home from an Army Surplus store 25 years ago. A pair of WWII khakis I had just purchased were about to unwittingly take me on a decades-long journey from a small college town in Ohio into the buzzing factories and workshops of the American apparel industry.

I didn’t just want to wear those khakis; I wanted to reproduce them in America with the same quality and care of that original WWII pair.

So I started Bills Khakis and along the way slowly added shorts, belts, shoes, sweaters, and all manner of shirts—all made in America with that same eye for quality and timeless value. Today Bills Khakis are sold through 500 men’s specialty stores across the country and online.

And while American-made products are having a cultural moment—one I celebrate—sourcing and managing domestic supply partners in a global economy is not an easy task. Here are few lessons learned that may save you a stitch or two in time:

1. Justify Your Pricing

In 1990, there was no momentum behind the cause of American manufacturing. The manufacturing jobs that had been lost in the North were now being lost in the South to factories in Mexico and Asia. Having grown up in Reading, Pennsylvania, a region that echoes the story of Rust Belt cities across the U.S., I was compelled to try to reverse the trend of outsourcing. Besides, I needed a job too!

Fortunately, there were still remnants of a once booming textile and garment industry throughout eastern Pennsylvania. I knocked on the door of many before finding a small factory that could tailor cotton garments with the same level of quality typically reserved for wool.

I quickly discovered the reality of domestic labor rates and the impact that would have on my retail price, which was more than 20% higher than most brands in the category at the time. To further the challenge, I was pioneering a market segment, premium khakis, to which consumers had not been exposed.

Would consumers buy khakis at a premium just because it was made better and in the U.S.? I told a story of quality through a product that conjured patriotic sentiment, but would it work for a product that was viewed as a commodity?

Price elasticity is a question would-be American-made entrepreneurs need to ask about their own products, and where the power of brand must be harnessed to satisfy the value equation.

2. Find Qualified Manufacturers

Beyond the cost of labor, there are underlying conditions among domestic garment manufacturers that make it difficult to establish a long-term relationship and secure a reliable source of supply.

Many domestic apparel manufacturers operate in a “boom or bust” pattern, meaning they secure large production contracts, often for the government or work-wear suppliers, only to be followed by periods of inactivity and temporary shutdown. The process of starting up and shutting down makes it difficult to retain a qualified and talented work force.

Manufacturers who operate in this volatile state of flux typically are not reliable, especially to a brand with a “small batch” approach to manufacturing like ours. Variation to the manufacturing process in facilities not geared to change can result in poor quality and late delivery.

Furthermore, facilities geared to large production contracts will always prioritize large orders over small orders, often delaying deliveries to smaller customers. The result of this process is a limited number of qualified suppliers available to smaller brands. It’s best to have a straight forward conversation with potential manufacturing partners about the flow of work and the scope of how your work will fit into their ongoing production schedule. Ask the contractor about how you can best help them avoid issues with quality or delivery. This will set you apart as a customer with a partnering mindset.

Even with a dedicated supply partner, seasonality in the consumer buying cycle creates periods of high and low production, making it difficult for manufacturers to retain a skilled, reliable work force.

To offset the peaks and valleys in the demand curve, Bills Khakis works with key manufacturing partners to smooth out production through these demand periods. Consistent weekly work enables the manufacturer to dedicate a production line specifically to our products. The benefit to the manufacturing partner is consistency, employee retention and efficiency. The benefit to Bills Khakis is lower production costs, greater quality, and consistency.

3. Move beyond the "Made in America" label

There is renewed pride in American factories fueled by a budding generation of consumers looking for a closer connection to what they wear, eat, and drink. In simple economic terms, the United States is in demand.

With more domestically sourced brands telling a similar story, building and refining the quality of your story has never been more important. It’s not enough to just say “Made in U.S.A.” Your brand’s essence, fundamental selling proposition, and point of differentiation must be evident and relevant to the consumer at all points of contact.

Finding new ways to tell a meaningful story is an ongoing creative challenge. New products are the most likely source of news, allowing you to refresh your message. It all starts with what you are selling and how you sell it.

Bill Thomas is founder and CEO of Bills Khakis.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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9 Comments

  • mmw

    Great advice by Bill Thomas. 3 other principles that U.S. manufacturers should consider are FEWER, FASTER & FINER.

    The “Fewer” principle means focusing your operation on the ability to shorter, and/or more customized production runs.

    The “Faster” principle simply means quick turns on product orders. If it takes an overseas manufacturer three months to ship a product, you must find a way to ship it in three weeks, for example.

    The “Finer” principle means manufacturing safe, high quality products.

    Of course, it is most effective if a manufacturer implements all three principles. Given the competitive situation, two out of three may not be enough.

  • mmw

    Great advice by Bill Thomas. 3 other principles that U.S. manufacturers should consider are FEWER, FASTER & FINER.

    The “Fewer” principle means focusing your operation on the ability to shorter, and/or more customized production runs.

    The “Faster” principle simply means quick turns on product orders. If it takes an overseas manufacturer three months to ship a product, you must find a way to ship it in three weeks, for example.

    The “Finer” principle means manufacturing safe, high quality products.

    Of course, it is most effective if a manufacturer implements all three principles. Given the competitive situation, two out of three may not be enough.

  • Alice Stanton

    I am launching my own eco-conscious bag line using green fabrics and offering multi-purpose products. I use www.makersrow.com to source domestic manufacturers. They do charge a membership fee but at one time it was free. It has been very helpful for me to source manufacturers and other resources. I am hoping to one day gear up my own manufacturing facility here in the small town I live in located in Western Pa. The area has been in decline since the coal and steel industries have left the area. I'm hoping to bring back something to the local economy.

  • Earlier this week, my good friend launched Boldfoot socks, a Made in the USA premium sock company. He's already seen a lot of success and a lot of it can be attributed to his story, which match up with your three tenants. Very nice article and clearly some good advice! www.boldfoot.com

  • Rhea O'Connor

    I found this article to be helpful as a person who is starting up a Made in America business. Making leather bags that are sourced and manufactured here in America takes a lot of work to make sure we are keeping costs down in order to make a profit. We need to be clear and communicate the create meaning for our consumers in a way that makes them feel good about their purchase. Thank you for taking the time to write this article! www.markedleather.com

  • mmw

    Good luck with your Made in American business, Rhea. My comments are below, but I've been successful against China imports by also implementing the 3 principles of FEWER, FASTER & FINER.

    The “Fewer” principle means focusing your operation on the ability to shorter, and/or more customized production runs. The “Faster” principle simply means quick turns on product orders. If it takes an overseas manufacturer three months to ship a product, you must find a way to ship it in three weeks, for example. The “Finer” principle means manufacturing safe, high quality products.

    Of course, it is most effective if a manufacturer implements all three principles. Given the competitive situation, two out of three may not be enough. Below is a link to one of my YouTube videos that illustrates how one RI manufacturer is using those principles. Keep up the great work! Michael McKeldon Woody

    http://youtu.be/uBPRDIEqjHM?hd=1