Outside Huntsville, Ohio, halfway between Lima and Columbus, you’ll see a sign that proudly states, “Not from China. Buy USA.” This simple patriotic declaration is courtesy of Ohio Lumber Building Supply, an independent lumberyard in Huntsville.
Jeff Ramsey, the manager at OLBS, can’t actually point to any new customers the billboard has brought in, but it certainly throws down the proverbial gauntlet that this is a store that aims to sell as much U.S.-made product as possible. With that as a goal, Ramsey says that if you were to sell only American-made tools, hardware, and other LBM stock, “you’d have a pretty small store.”
Like many independent LBM dealers, OLBS has as its biggest competitors the big box retailers who carrye a lot of products not made in America. To that end, Ramsey says he hopes that the billboard – or, more important, the message – will increase sales and encourage customer loyalty. “We can’t possibly have the product mix that they can,” he admits, “but we can strive to have as much of our stock as possible made in America.”
One of the biggest challenges that many dealers face is simply getting others on board, whether it’s the pros and their clients or even the team in the store. For Marc Currie, general manager of Niece Lumber in Lambertville, N.J., persuading his vendors has been an ordeal. “I understand that on a manufacturing level it’s an international business and a lot of things are globally sourced,” he says.
“I find it hard to believe that ... our interior door shop doesn’t have enough clout to get someone to start making a residential hinge and lockset here in the U.S.,” Currie continues, adding that manufacturers and vendors won’t change until dealers and pros communicate their desire for more American-made products.
Both Niece Lumber and Ohio Lumber Building Supply began their American-made initiatives by placing “Made in the U.S.A.” labels on select items. Signage and bin tags further informed customers that yes, quality products can be made and sourced on the home front. And while Currie admits that these are small steps, it’s nearly impossible to be a dealer with 100% made-in-the-U.S. products, at least for the time being. On the other hand, Ohio Lumber’s Ramsey was enthused by the number of products he came across that weren’t just made in the U.S. but closer to home in Ohio.
Chris Yenrick, president and COO of Smith Phillips Building Supply, Winston-Salem, N.C., says that some American-made products are hard to find, and that when you do find them, they’re often more expensive. “The market is so ultra-competitive right now that [builders] are looking to save money wherever they can,” he says, adding that Smith Phillips stocks U.S.-made Maze Nails that a lot of local builders use. He adds that demand for other U.S.-made items hasn’t been there, at least not yet.
However, John Pace, president and COO of U.S. trimboard manufacturer Versatex, believes the old adage that you get what you pay for holds especially true in this case. “Let the buyer beware,” he says. “The import may look the same as the one made in the U.S.A. and have a much more attractive price tag, but looks can be deceiving. After a couple of years in the field, you may regret buying on price instead of quality.”
According to Pace, that decision rests with each individual. “It’s dependent on many factors such as the budget for a particular project, the competitive price pressures in his particular market, the product specified for the project, the level of pride the builder and contractor take in their work,” he says, “as well as their viewpoint on product quality and product loyalty.”
High-end custom builders and remodelers that put their reputation on the line understand the importance of investing in quality, and that usually means more expensive, American-made products, according to Pace. “They also know what it costs them in additional field labor to correct product tolerance issues or imperfections,” he says, adding that “a dealer can explain the benefits of U.S.-made trim over imports, but at the end of the day, the final buy decision still rests with the builder or contractor. Whatever is the driver in his buy decision will determine the product he purchases.”
84 Lumber has actually partnered with a builder for its “We Build American” initiative, which encourages builders, remodelers, and home buyers to use American-made materials and tools when building or remodeling. “We Build American” was the brainchild of Marnie Oursler, a Bethany Beach, Del., builder after she built a client’s home with products that were almost entirely made and sourced in the U.S. And the best part, according to Oursler, is that the cost of using American-made materials is within 1 1/2% of the cost of using materials manufactured on foreign shores.
“The [American-made] products are of equal or, in many cases, better quality,” Oursler says. “I am confident that I am building a home that was well researched and has top-quality materials. It is also important to me, as an entrepreneur, that I give back to my country by looking at the products made in the U.S. whenever feasible. I think, as builders, we can help in the recovery by making sure we help the U.S. economy by creating jobs in the industry whenever possible. This includes purchasing materials made in our country, to keep people in our country working.”
If you think selling “Made in the USA” is a good move for your yard and your market, there are many things you need to consider. While some steps are fairly easy and just require some man-hours (inspecting your inventory in the store or online), other steps might require retraining your sales staff and yard crew on an entirely new approach to selling.
Take Stock. Taking inventory – like Niece Lumber did – is certainly a good way to get started. It will inform you and your salespeople of exactly what you have in stock that is born and bred in the U.S. Placing labels on the bins, shelves, or products themselves is an easy – albeit somewhat time-consuming – way to get the ball rolling.
Dig Deeper. Researching suppliers and manufacturers whose stock in trade is American-made products is another vital step, according to Pat Smith, a Muncie, Ind.-based building products specialist. It takes a fairly hefty time investment to research and interview companies whose products are American-made to ensure they are high quality and offer the best performance because these are givens in your customers’ minds, Smith says, adding that “you must be willing to invest the time to market yourself as the dealer who sells ‘made in the U.S.A.’ products.”
Share the Lesson. Not only must you educate your pro customers, but your customers have to educate their clients. Niece Lumber’s Marc Currie says that this can be a challenge with some contractors who might not want to rock the boat with their clients. “They just want to get the job and get it in under budget,” he says.
Create Demand. A marketing and advertising campaign promoting your pro-U.S. products initiative is certainly the first step to raising awareness. Print ads, billboards, radio spots, commercials, etc. will all get the word out. Your own sales team and yard staff are vital to creating the demand as well. Smith says that it can be as simple as training your sales staff to always ask a customer, “Do you want a product that has been manufactured in the U.S.A.?” Currie concurs, adding that it is a slow process that will get easier only if the awareness is there. “[When you get guys] asking for it, they can only ignore so many customers till we all kind of step up to have that option to install an American-made product,” he says.
Finally, Oursler says that selling products just because they are made here at home is not enough; they have to be at least equal in quality to, if not better than, foreign-made items. “Most of the time, you will find that the prices are very competitive and the quality is better,” she says. “You might have to be a little bit more organized in purchasing to make sure you can get the product you need when you need it. But in most of these instances, U.S. companies have been able to meet my needs.”
Building American: A Builder's Perspective
Delaware homebuilder Marnie Oursler explains the pros and cons of trying to build a home out of only American-made products. Read More
Building American: A Manufacturer's Perspective
John Pace, president and chief operating officer of U.S.-made moulding and trimboard manufacturer Versatex, explains the upside to stocking American-made.