PENINSULA POLL BACKGROUNDER: Buyers want ‘Made in USA,’ but not the cost

By Stephanie Clifford
The New York Times

The designer Nanette Lepore is a cheerleader for New York City’s garment district. Most of her contemporary women’s clothing line, which sells at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, is made in New York.

Her company occupies six floors in a building on West 35th Street and uses, among other businesses, six nearby sewing factories, a cutting room and even a maker of fabric flowers in the neighborhood.

She organizes “Save the Fashion District” rallies, writes about the danger of losing local production and lobbies lawmakers in Washington to support the American fashion industry.

“If my only option as a young designer was to make my clothing overseas, I could not have started my business,” she said.

Yet Lepore said that when she signed a deal with J.C. Penney for a low-cost clothing line for teenagers — clothing that sells for about one-tenth the price of her higher-end lines — Penney could not afford production in New York.

Of the 150 or so items she now has featured on Penney’s website, none are made in this country.

“That price point can’t be done here,” Lepore said of lower-end garments.

As textile and apparel companies begin shifting more production to the United States, taking advantage of automation and other cost savings, a hard economic truth is emerging: Production of cheaper goods, for which consumers are looking for low prices, is by and large staying overseas, where manufacturers can find less expensive manufacturing.

Even when consumers are confronted with the human costs of cheap production, like the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 garment workers, garment makers say, they show little inclination to pay more for clothes.

Essentially, to buy American is to pay a premium — a reality that is acting as a drag on the nascent manufacturing resurgence in textiles and apparel, while also forcing U.S. companies to focus their American-made efforts on higher-quality goods that fetch higher prices.

Last year, Dillard’s, the midtier department store, wanted to promote American-made clothing, according to Fessler USA, an apparel maker in eastern Pennsylvania. It turned to Fessler to produce tops. Theirs was a brief relationship.

“Almost overnight, they called and said, ‘Made in America just doesn’t sell better than made in Asia, and you can’t beat the price,’” said Walter Meck, Fessler’s chief executive and principal owner.

The pattern repeats across retailers.

Brooks Brothers’ American-made cashmere sport coats sell for $1,395; comparable imported ones go for $1,098. At Lands’ End, American-made sweatshirts cost $59, while the ones made in Vietnam cost $25.

Two-thirds of Americans said they check labels when shopping to see if they are buying American goods, according to a New York Times poll taken this year.

Given the example of a $50 garment made overseas, almost half of respondents — 46 percent — said they would be willing to pay from $5 to $20 more for a similar garment made in the United States.

A majority of consumers, rich and poor, said they believe that American-made products have higher quality than imports, according to the Times survey.

Fifty-six percent of those making more than $100,000 said so, as did 67 percent of those making less than $50,000.

“With higher-end fashion goods, where it’s made is an identifying source of quality,” said Anthony Dukes, an associate professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. “But at the lower end, I don’t get a sense that people pay too much attention to where it’s made.”

He said, however, that attention to where items were manufactured “could catch on and is certainly catching on in food, so things can go in the other direction.”

Last modified: December 04. 2013 8:19PM
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