By Timothy Aeppel
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Americans say they love U.S.-made goods. They are less enthusiastic, however, about paying a premium for them.
At the AMES Companies Inc factory here, the wheelbarrows coming off the assembly line once every six seconds cost the company more to make in the United States than abroad, but U.S. retailers generally will not charge more for them because consumers would balk, AMES President Mark Traylor said.
Nearly all U.S. manufacturers face the same squeeze.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found 70 percent of Americans think it is “very important” or “somewhat important” to buy U.S.-made products.
Despite that sentiment, 37 percent said they would refuse to pay more for U.S.-made goods versus imports. Twenty six percent said they would only pay up to 5 percent more to buy American, and 21 percent capped the premium at 10 percent.
U.S. President Donald Trump rode into office on promises of bringing back manufacturing jobs and boosting economic growth, and has criticized companies that move production overseas.
Trump has also been quick to promote U.S.-made goods, and on Monday released a state-by-state "Made in America Product Showcase" that included AMES wheelbarrows.
Lower-income Americans were the most enthusiastic about buying U.S. goods, the poll showed, despite being the least able to afford paying extra for them.
Indeed, the biggest U.S. retailer is well aware of the priority buyers place on price above all else. A spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc said customers are telling them “that where products are made is most important second only to price.”
(GRAPHIC - Price of Patriotism, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2veSOVN)
EYE ON QUALITY
The good news for U.S. factories is that Americans like the quality of many domestic goods.
Thirty-one percent in the poll said American-made cars are the best in the world. German cars were voted best by 23 percent of respondents. And thirty-eight percent said U.S.-made clothes were best.
Still, domestic manufacturers could be in trouble if they fail to capitalize on perceptions about the quality of their products while also keeping a tight lid on costs.
In order to compete, companies like AMES have to find ways to offset their disadvantage
“We don’t have to be as cheap as imports,” says Traylor, who estimated he sells his wheelbarrows to U.S. retailers for about 10 percent more than importers.
Factors like cheaper domestic freight and a desire among retailers to carry lower inventories can help make up some of the cost differential.
AMES is also better positioned than overseas suppliers to help retailers be agile. When spring comes early, for example, AMES can respond quickly to ship goods to stores, Traylor said, something importers with longer lead times on orders struggle to do.
Traylor said another secret to success for U.S. manufacturers is investing in technology to cut costs.
AMES, a subsidiary of New York-based Griffon Corp, is pouring $50 million into upgrades at several locations. The Harrisburg factory, built in 1921, is dotted with aged machinery that has been fitted with robotic attachments to reduce reliance on human labor.
AMES' annual sales are $514 million.
The company said it recently convinced a major retailer, who they did not want to identify, to switch from Mexican-made wheelbarrows to carry their product.
AMES also said business is so strong that it is hiring 100 employees across its five Pennsylvania locations, including the Harrisburg factory.
Traylor says AMES wants to bring more work back from overseas. But that can be difficult.
And the production of certain components may prove impossible to ever bring back to U.S. soil.
In late April, Trump marked his 100th day in office with a visit to the AMES plant. With workers chanting “USA, USA,” Trump asked if every part of the wheelbarrows was made in America.
Everything, he was told, except the Chinese-made tires.
U.S. manufacturers stopped large-scale production of air-filled tires for garden equipment years ago, and the cost of setting up production now would be hard to justify for the low-margin product.
Some rubber makers still manufacture solid rubber tires in the United States, but the last time AMES bought any they cost nearly twice the roughly $7 they pay for a Chinese tire, a big added cost for a wheelbarrow that often retails for less than $100.
“Is it feasible to get U.S.-made tires?” asked Mark D’Agostino, the company’s vice president for supply chain. “We don’t know yet.”
To be sure, some manufacturers can command a big premium for American-made products.
Klein Tools Inc, a privately held company based outside Chicago with annual sales of $500 million, makes hand tools that are highly sought after by electricians and other workers.
A pair of 9-inch Klein pliers sells for about 30 percent more than a comparable import.
But betting on the allure of American-made goods can be risky.
In 2012, High Point, North Carolina-based Stanley Furniture Co brought back production of cribs and other baby furniture from China to a U.S. plant, wagering that parents worried about a string of Chinese factory quality scandals would pay $700 for cribs nearly identical to imports selling for $400.
Customers refused to bite, however, and the High Point factory closed in 2014.
Still, Stanley Chief Executive Glenn Prillaman said the Trump administration’s emphasis on American-made goods is a hopeful sign that resonates with “people that work for a living,” because they can see how it impacts their own jobs.
"The lower-end consumers certainly care, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But they’re also not in a position to pay the premium.”
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States from May 24 to May 31. It gathered responses from 2,857 people, including 593 adults who made less than $25,000 per year, 1,283 who said they earned between $25,000 and $74,999, and 805 people who earned more than $75,000.
The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points for the entire group, 5 points for the low-income respondents, 3 points for the middle-income respondents and 4 points for the high-income respondents.
(Reuters/Ipsos poll data: http://tmsnrt.rs/2u686NT)
(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Joe White and Meredith Mazzilli)