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t is arguably the most iconic and recognizable symbol in the world—the American flag—especially when followed by the words, “Made in the USA.” But as our economy transitioned from traditional sectors like manufacturing to technology and services, an American flag on products has become increasingly scarce. In a global economy that is ever shifting, though, there are small signs that this situation may be shifting as well.
“We try to buy made in the USA products and some of them do very well for us,” said Robert Perlaky, general manger of the Raccoon Mountain Caverns, including an 800-square-foot gift shop, near Chattanooga, Tenn. “For me, and I believe for many other people, the first thing that comes to mind is quality.”
He noted, though, “Many of the items are a little bit more expensive, but it is better quality. The Corinthian Bells wind chimes from QMT, for example, are not the cheapest, but they sound really excellent because they use good quality metal.”
“We have drinkware, things like shot glasses, bookmarks, and some apparel that is printed in the USA,” said Elena Bakaeva, assistant to the vice president of retail at Ripley’s Aquarium in Orlando, Fla. She added, “But when it comes to apparel, it is really hard to sell to guests because of the higher costs.”
“Our zoo was closed for two years because of flooding so we are just getting back into operation,” said Staci Skeldum, who helps determine what gets purchased for the gift shop at the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, N.D., in her role as Greater Minot Zoological Society coordinator, which includes event and marketing planning.
She added, “We have things like key chains, glassware and stuffed animals, but are waiting to see what sells now that we are open again. We are, however, planning to reach out to some new vendors and see what is out there. Then we will buy according to consumer demand, but I think people want made in the USA.”
According to Skeldum, “We are looking forward to this season. Our shop is fairly small, but it has a nice layout with lots of wall space. Plus, it has been relocated inside our visitor center so visitors pass through since it is actually parallel to our ticket counter.”
Although the made in USA trend shows some signs of gaining momentum, it is not universal by any means. At the Pueblo Zoo in Pueblo, Colo., Gift Shop Manager Carol Ecker, said, “I am not really seeing more made in USA items.” She noted, though, “Our shop is very small, but we do carry them when we find them, including T-shirts, some toys, and plush.”
At Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., Renee Ross, manager and buyer for their 2,500-square-foot shop, noted, “We offer animal crackers, Wild Bryde jewelry, and some T-shirts by Gildan which are manufactured in the USA.”
She observed that although a customer will occasionally inquire about made in the USA items, it doesn’t seem to be of importance to most visitors. She added, “We find that people are more interested in custom pieces featuring our animals, as opposed to stock items that can be found at many zoos and aquariums around the country.”
Yet there is a definite undercurrent out there for quality domestic products. Call it national pride, nostalgia, or whatever. “People seem to be willing to pay a little more for quality and the made in USA label,” said Perlaky. But, he cautioned, “They are not willing to pay double.”
He continued, “We get some toys from Channel Craft out of Pittsburgh and we have just started carrying some scented candles that are made in New England. Another authentic American item we carry is our Racoon Mountain hat from Pawnee Bill’s. They are well made and they sell. We also carry hiking medallions from Sunburst Company, which is located in Rhode Island. They feature high quality brass and basically have the same price point as the foreign ones. Virtually all of our T-shirts are screened in the United States, although they are usually made in the Caribbean area.”
Perlaky noted, “Sometimes we get things that are made in Canada, but I lump those things made in USA with those made in Canada. That is, things made in North America. But I am managing to get more made in USA items now than I ever have. The number continues to grow.”
He illustrated his focus on quality. “For candy items we only carry those made in the USA - for example, Pennsylvania Dutch brand candy, which has a USA flag on their items making them easily identifiable. It is peace of mind for us, especially with edible items. The big unknown on some of the foreign items is what is in it. We sell a lot of candy to kids so you can’t be too careful.”
There seems to be a consensus across the industry that the best avenues to seek out authentic American products are at trade shows, along with having a close partnership with vendors.
The source of products, of course, is ultimately a matter of basic business. So—when it comes to made in the USA—deal breakers come down to significantly higher cost, unless the potential customer believes the quality warrants the higher cost. If the cost is reasonable, though, American products definitely have a special appeal to shoppers.
Another key factor is safety, as is the case with edibles like candy or crackers. The trick is to scour the markets through vendors and at trade shows to find high quality, affordable items that have the made in USA label or tag. Once acquired, you can spark interest and demand by highlighting that unique characteristic through special signage or displays. After all, most experts believe there is a dormant market out there that is worth tapping into.