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Stars, Stripes and Sales: Strategy Matters When Selling ‘Made in USA’


May 30, 2018

Most consumers, if you asked them in the abstract, would probably tell you they prefer to buy made-in-America products, all things being equal. That doesn’t mean it’s at the top of their minds when they’re shopping or that they make the effort on their own to find out where things come from before they put them in their carts, but if you prompt them with the question, they’ll say, “Sure.” Why not? Buy American… all things being equal.

The problem is that all things are usually not equal. Products sourced from overseas are competitive in American retail markets for reasons. They might be popular brands that utilize overseas manufacturing operations for logistical reasons. They might be made with lower labor costs so they can sell at a lower price point, which understandably makes them appealing to consumers.

And sometimes, let’s face it, there’s a quality many consumers find cool about foreign-made brands—even as they nod their heads at your “buy America” sentiments.

So is it a solid business strategy to highlight made-in-USA products as a way of inspiring the economic patriotism of your customers?

It can be, but it depends how you do it.

What you don’t want to do is bludgeon customers with guilt trips. People who stop in to buy pet products on the way home from work don’t generally want to be accosted with burdensome sentiments. In order to make made-in-USA an effective merchandising strategy, you have to make people feel good about buying American, not make them feel like they’re awful human beings if they don’t.

How can you do that?

One thing we know is that consumers like the idea of buying locally-sourced products. They like the idea of supporting their neighbors, and they like the idea that if there was ever a problem with a product, they might be able to connect with the company responsible. Now, every American manufacturer isn’t “local” per se, but they probably still come off as more accessible than the equivalent in China or Singapore.

Emphasizing that you carry U.S. products whose manufacturers stand behind what they make would probably appeal to a lot of customers, especially when you’re talking about products they’re going to trust to give to their pets.

And while it doesn’t work to guilt-trip people about American jobs, that doesn’t mean the mirror opposite is necessarily true. People do like the idea that, by keeping their money in the U.S., they support the U.S. economy. That’s something you can communicate via signs and displays in a very simple, straightforward way:

“MADE IN AMERICA: Keep Your Dollars in the USA”

Even someone who’s not intimately versed in the nuances of the gross domestic product can figure outmgmt calabrese that keeping their dollars in the United States is better for the economy than sending them elsewhere.

Granted, we’re talking semantics in some ways. By the time you’ve sourced a product from overseas, that’s a sunk cost for you. Whatever the consumer spends on a purchase is going to you. But again, the consumer doesn’t have to be a Harvard economist to know that a company that sells more products will make more money—and remember, they’re probably not standing there thinking it through that thoroughly anyway.

“Buy American. Your Dollars Stay Here.”

Yeah, true. The details can work themselves out.

Now, how do you actually go about doing this in a retail setting? Do you take a page from the efforts of retailers to highlight other specialized products?

Many grocers now have special sections for gluten-free products, for example. It makes sense because people who need to buy gluten-free exclusively would otherwise have to spend a lot of time in each aisle picking up labels and trying to find an indication that this or that product is truly gluten-free. By putting them all together in a special section, you save that particular consumer a lot of time.

But I’m not sure that translates to what we’re talking about here. The gluten-free product is still a pretty niche category, and for the most part, the products in the gluten- free sections are alternatives to mainstream products that would normally be expected to contain gluten, and are unobjectionable to the vast majority of shoppers.

The “Made in the USA” classification would presumably apply to a significant percentage of the products you sell in just about every product category, so it would be unwieldy to separate them into a special section. The special section might take up more than half your store.

Let’s face it: You don’t want to imply to your customers that your foreign-made products are undesirable. Unless you plan to sell USA-made products exclusively, you don’t want a bunch of foreign-made products not moving because you discouraged your customers from buying them.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but here’s an approach I think could work:

1. Find a simple way to label select products as “Made-in-USA.” Maybe you could use red, white and blue labels that are easily recognizable but don’t bludgeon the customer with a guilt-trippy appeal to patriotism.

2. Erect signs in strategic locations urging people to look for those labels and take the opportunity to put their dollars back into the U.S. economy.

3. Find a way to have fun with the promotion and tie animals into the appeal. Who can resist a dog who’s decked out in the stars and stripes? It might be harder to do with fish, but hey, prove me wrong.

You have to decide, of course, if this is worth the staff hours and investment of resources. If the result of the effort is mere statistical noise, it’s probably not worth continuing. But given the right mix of customers, products and patriotic appeal, it just might be the basis for a successful sales promotion.

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