Should Lehman’s be buying from China?

Posted by Galen Lehman, President, Lehman’s

A great struggle for me is what to do about merchandise that is made in China.
At Lehman’s, we have had a simple policy: We will not displace a USA vendor with a Chinese vendor. But what started out as a simple concept turned out not to be so simple.

Problem #1
Last week my sister Glenda passed a customer in our Kidron store who was holding a piece of American-made pottery. As she passed, she distinctly heard him say, “$18?! I can buy this for half that price at Wal-mart. She knows our products well enough to know for sure that the Wal-mart version was made in China.

What should we do when people accuse Lehman’s of having a high price because we carry American-made products?

Here’s an example: We know you can find a Chinese copy of this USA made camper’s axe for less than $20 at Ace Hardware We also know that the Ace Hardware version is significantly lower quality. Which would you buy?

Problem #2
Recently we received a sample product from a Chinese company. It looked just like an American-made item we carry now. Because of our policy of protecting American vendors, we put the item on a pile of rejected samples that is in our warehouse. A couple weeks later, it was spotted there by one of our telephone customer service representatives, Mark Sutter. He immediately pointed out to me that it had some design improvements that solved customer complaints he had heard about the USA version. Should we protect USA vendors even when we think they are making a low quality product?

Problem #3
There are whole swaths of the American economy that have been decimated by imports. In many product lines, there simply isn’t a single USA manufacturer (that we know of). Here’s some examples:

Balloon Boat

Sometimes, we carry two versions of the same item, one that is Chinese and one that is American. For example, we carry two toy balloon boats, one that is made by a local Amish woodworker and one that is made in China.

When we carry both the USA-made and imported version of an item, the USA-made version usually sells better. This holds true even though the USA-made version is usually more expensive.

I’d love to hear your responses to these challenges. At Lehman’s, we like to do what our customers want us to do. Do you want USA made items at any price? Would you buy an imported item if you knew it was higher quality than the USA version? Which is best, high quality (at a high price) or quality that is lower but may still be acceptable (at a lower price)?

Thanks!
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Galen Lehman

About Galen Lehman

Lehman's CEO and son of founder Jay Lehman. Homesteads on five acres. Believes in a Simpler Life...rewarding relationships, fresh, local (preferably homegown) food and the gratification of hard work. Plant a tree!

9 thoughts on “Should Lehman’s be buying from China?

  1. It’s a tough call isn’t it? Speaking for myself, on one hand I want to be frugal, and on the other I don’t want junk. Sometimes its brand recognition. For instance, Do I want a “Snow and Neally” axe or a “Shandong Pangu Tool co.” (real company) axe? In the case of the Snow & Neally axe, it becomes trickier… A quick call to S & N this morning and I now know that the axe head starts in China and is finished here in Maine. What that exactly entails I didn’t completly catch but it was something like, forged in China, tempered and edged here in Maine. The handle of course is American Hickory.
    I know I would prefer to just purchase American made products but that’s not realistic. I think it comes down to making informed purchases and buying for what your needs are.

  2. I was surprised to hear that part of the Snow and Neally “USA-made” axe was made in China.

    So, I called the manufacturer myself, who reported that the “raw forgings” are made in China to their specific quality specifications. All of the subsequent manufacturing steps (tempering, assembly, sharpening, etc) are done in the USA.

    They told me that they cannot find a USA foundry to make the type of casting (or “forging”) that they need. It seems that all the ones they know about have been put out of business by Chinese competition. (They appealed to me to help them find a USA foundry that can do this. If you know of one, let me know!)

    In addition, because of high import duties (apparently imposed too late to help US foundries), the Chinese castings cost about the same as they used to cost when USA-made.

    What a tragic state of affairs!

    For me, there were three conclusions:

    1) It reinforces my earlier comment that imports have destroyed entire categories of US manufacturing.
    2) The whole question of whether Lehman’s should sell imported items doesn’t have a clear answer when “USA made” can’t be clearly defined.
    3) Even though part of our “USA Made” axe is imported, I stand by the fact that it is higher quality than the Chinese version.

    Maybe the best solution for Lehman’s is simply to focus on quality and ignore the country of origin. What do you think?

  3. I don’t know the answer to the quandary about buying quality whether it’s American or not, but I appreciate your effort to offer American made products. Imports may be cheaper, but they cost more in the long run, regardless of quality. The loss of jobs hurts us all.

    You said, “What should we do when people accuse Lehman’s of having a high price because we carry American-made products?”

    I think you should shrug it off and keep on offering quality American products. Not everyone will agree that’s the best way to go (that’s what makes America what it is), but you can’t please everyone all the time, no matter how hard you try. Better to please those who come looking for quality goods with a realistic price for that quality.

    I agree that imports have caused serious damage to our manufacturing base and it’s painful to see.

  4. Free trade… fair trade… these are large issues.

    On the one hand, I believe in open, free trade, let the best product win. On the other hand, I think we as consumers have a responsibility to not support totalitarian regimes with our purchases. Unlike a union steel worker in the U.S., the Chinese steel worker can’t bargain for better working conditions or higher wages. The Chinese worker can go to prison for professing Christianity, which, in my personal view, is another reason not to support Chinese products, and, thereby, the Chinese government.

    I believe “think globally, act locally” is just common sense. I try to buy what little I buy from the most local source I can find. Lehman’s offers goods I can’t find anywhere else, and your reputation is based on the quality of those goods. Therefore, I think you should continue to offer the highest quality you can find, at the lowest price you can offer. If you cannot find an item produced solely in the U.S., but have a customer demand for such an item, then you will be forced to offer the imported goods. It will remain for the consumers to weigh their need for the item against the fact that it is imported.

    Is anyone else old enough to remember when having things that were imported from, say, France or England was a matter of snobbery? Or when something marked “Made in Japan” was automatically assumed to be cheaply made and inferior? My, how times change.

  5. You asked the question – should we carry 2 – one China, one US made.

    If you have the storage and funding to allow you to do that, then by all means.

    I shop at Walmart but all my axes are gransfor-bruks.
    I shop at Walmart but my sleeping bag is a Wiggy’s bag.

    I KNOW the quality I’m buying with the G-B axes and Wiggy’s sleeping bags. Then again, a lead fishing weight is a lead fishing weight no matter where it’s made.

    And as written above:
    I believe “think globally, act locally” is just common sense. I try to buy what little I buy from the most local source I can find. Lehman’s offers goods I can’t find anywhere else, and your reputation is based on the quality of those goods. Therefore, I think you should continue to offer the highest quality you can find, at the lowest price you can offer. If you cannot find an item produced solely in the U.S., but have a customer demand for such an item, then you will be forced to offer the imported goods. It will remain for the consumers to weigh their need for the item against the fact that it is imported.

  6. When faced with the option of purchasing an item “Made in the USA” or “Made in China”, I will pay more to purchase “Made in the USA”. I feel it is better quality and the hidden costs associated with “Made in China” far outweigh the few dollars I may save now. That is one thing that attracted me to Lehman’s and this website initially. With the recent recalls because of lead paint and the “date-rape” drug, Americans got a harsh lesson in this reality that so many choose to ignore for more and cheaper “stuff”. If I can’t find a “Made in the USA” alternative for something I want to purchase, I have to think long and hard about whether or not I really want the item. However, I always thought my books were safe from Chinese domination. I have a pretty extensive personal library of self-sufficiency and gardening/farming books as well as children’s literature and non-fiction for my home school. Imagine my surprise when I purchased a new gardening book by Storey Publishing, brought it home, and discovered “Printed in China” on the title page. After ranting and raving for a few days to everyone who would listen (or even pretend to listen), I finally did what all good Americans do–wrote the company. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

    My main disappointment stems from the spirit of Storey publishing–all those books on self-sufficiency and independent thinking. It seems counterintuitive to promote environmentalism while outsourcing your printing. The company’s mission statement is pasted on their website as follows: “To serve our customers by publishing practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment.” I don’t think it is environmentally harmonious to write books here, print them on the other side of the world in a place where the people are locked into slave-like working conditions and materials are consistently substandard and sometimes hazardous, and then ship them back here to teach people how to live a simple life.

    Recently, I was shopping for a book on butterflies. After comparing a book from Storey and one from another publisher, I chose the other publisher because of one statement: “Printed in China”.

    Let’s encourage our book publishers and makers of all our goods to go “Made in the USA” in the best way we can–avoid buying anything that says “Made in China”.

  7. Jean,

    Thanks for this input. I appreciate your carefully thought through comments.

    I was not aware that Storey had done some printing in China. That is a big disappointment.

    This illustrates a common problem we have run into: USA companies quietly and suddenly moving some or all of their manufacturing overseas. There have been many cases where we stated in our catalog that an item was “USA made” only to have the supplier move the manufacturing of the item overseas. Typically we only find out about it after a customer calls to complain. It makes us look like liars.

    It’s frightening that things can happen that quickly.

    Galen

  8. I think I’m with WolfBrother on this one. Above and beyond scarcity, what it boils down to is quality.

    I don’t have a problem paying a little extra upfront when I’m secure in the knowledge that I have a tool or product that will perform as expected- when expected. Whether the tool was made in the US, Canada, China, UK, Germany, or the darkest corner of the Amazon is inconsequential.

    Attempting to run down from which countries raw materials might have come from, knowing the manufacturing likely took place in a second, and the actual packaging in a third; feels like a futile exercise.

    In respect to Storey Publishing, who I have absolutely no affiliation with, what they do is “content” and that’s their product. If the books are poorly bound, the paper and ink substandard and subject to early degradation- there’s a legitimate gripe that needs to be brought to their attention. I’m sure they don’t want their product line jeopardized by printing quality issues.

    Aside: I might be mistaken but I seem recall that paper making and printing were of Chinese invention. Somehow I’d expect them to get it right for no other reason than national pride.

    And with that said, I hope Lehman’s continues to offer superior quality products.

    Now where did I leave my coffee . . .

  9. Pingback: Made in China (at VERY low cost) | Lehman's Country Life