Chances are, the last time you bought something that was "Made in the USA," at least part of it wasn't. In fact, up to 50 percent of an item can contain foreign-made materials and still bear a label saying it was made here.
But when Mark Andol says it, he means it. His Made in the USA store, opening next Saturday, will sell only goods that are 100 percent made in the United States -- from the thread in the teddy bears to the shelves on which they sit.
From a business he started in his father's garage in 1985, Andol built General Welding & Fabricating -- a four-plant, 56-employee manufacturing company. But by last year, he had been forced to close two locations and lay off nearly half his work force. The last straw came when he lost the $2.5 million manufacturing contract he'd had with CertainTeed building products to China -- taking away one-third of his company's sales.
"I'm about livelihoods. I saw the blue-collar worker affected, and that's what made me want to investigate how much is really made in this country," said Andol.
It turns out, not too much. In fact, deciding to open a store with high-quality, 100 percent American-made goods was the easy part. Finding goods that met Andol's standards -- things made by Americans in American-owned factories in America -- has been more of a challenge.
"I didn't realize half of this until I really started digging into it, but there is a lot of false advertising out there. And salesmen don't want to tell you about the [lower-margin] American stuff, they want to sell you the stuff they get made cheap in China," said Andol. "But once we looked deeper, we found things. They're out there, they're just usually on the bottom shelf."
So far he's found plenty to fill the Elma store; toys, food, decorations, clothing, soap, shovels, garbage cans, furniture. There are Cheese Please dog treats made with Wisconsin cheese ($4.99), All American At Work Union Roast coffee ($12.99), and American Boy yo-yos ($9.99). He also sells decorative fire pit rings, funky fishbone chairs and waterjet-cut steel decorations made at his General Welding shop.
Andol has already sent back or destroyed items he later found don't meet 100 percent made in the USA standards. Now he asks for a letter of authenticity for everything he buys.
"That stops a lot of sales pitches," he said.
After much research, he was able to find everything from 100 percent American-made picture frames holding decorative pictures in the shop to the hangers holding the T-shirts. He couldn't find an American-made computer, so a friend spent a month building a computer tower from scratch using American parts. Finding a monitor has proven impossible, so the foreign-made monitor will bear a disclaimer sticker. He had to go vintage for the cash register, which is a giant metal one made here in the 1950s.
The community response to the store has been tremendous, Andol said.
"People come in and shake my hand and tear up. They really get it," he said. "We've heard from people all over the country. One guy said, 'I'll buy from you no matter what your prices are.' "
In fact, price is the first thing people worry about when it comes to buying American-made goods.
After all, if things cost much more to make here, won't they cost much more to buy?
But the prices of goods at the Elma store are comparable -- sometimes even cheaper -- than products from overseas. The difference is that the profit margin is much thinner.
For example, a can of U.S. grown sliced peaches (emblazoned in red, white and blue with the message, "To survive, a nation must feed itself") fetches $1.49 in Elma. A can of Del Monte peaches in the same size runs $1.39 at the supermarket. A seven-pack of Wigwam brand crew socks costs two dollars less at Made in the U.S.A. than they do at a nearby big box sporting goods store.
"There are different types of consumers and target markets, and this is quite evident when looking at the effect of 'country of origin' on buying behavior," said Charles Lindsey, assistant professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo's School of Management.
Some consumers focus solely on buying the least expensive product or the highest quality product without considering where it was made, Lindsey said. Other shoppers will buy "home country" products as long as their price and quality match overseas products closely enough.
"Still other consumers are very focused on purchasing 'home country' products and are willing to take a significant hit in terms of quality or price to purchase such products," said Lindsey.
Debu Talukdar, associate professor of marketing in the UB School of Management, said Made in the USA should already have a built-in core group of patriotic customers, especially in a post- 9/1 1 world.
"It is appealing to those who like an overt way of demonstrating a sense of patriotism and national pride, especially at a hard economic time with many jobs being lost as products get manufactured off-shore in places like China and India," he said.
Andol hopes other companies will be inspired and has said other merchants have already said they would like to start selling more American-made goods.
"If someone wants to compete, that means they'll have to buy all 100 percent American-made products and keep Americans working," he said. "What's so bad about that?"