Thursday, January 31, 2013
Two men traveling the country in an old fire truck decked out with “Made In America” banners hope to bring an important message to big box retailers everywhere: Let's make it easier for people to buy American-made products.
Aaron Lorell and Tim Morris, who were in Summerville recently visiting family friends of Lorell's, climbed aboard their truck back in December, in Washington, D.C., to kick off their cross-country journey to bring awareness to their message.
Specifically, they want companies such as Wal Mart and Target to set aside specifically designated spaces in their stores for American made products. Calling these designated areas “Patriot Zones,” the idea is to make it easier for shoppers to find American made products by locating them in one designated, easily accessible location in the stores.
“We're talking about taking the idea of “be local, buy local” to another level,” Lorell said. “And we aren't picking on Wal Mart, but they are the 500-pound gorilla and we believe that if they do it, the others would follow. If they would just try it, we believe it would go nationwide.”
The two want everyone to understand that they are not anti-big box nor are they seeking to make some political statement. In fact, they make it plain that this is not a partisan-political crusade, but rather about simple economics and the importance of taking steps to help rebuild a thriving middle class.
Lorell and Morris said they have talked to many, many people who say they would buy more American made products if they could find them. Wal Mart and other retailers do carry those products and have publicly stated that they would carry more American made products.
Nonetheless, there are several issues that need to be addressed, Lorell said.
“Big box retailers are all about product placement,” he said. “Therefore, the biggest hurdle is simply that it's too hard for most people to find American made products. The patriot zones would solve that problem.”
Because the profit margin for a big box retailer is much larger in sales of inexpensively made foreign products, those products get prominent shelf placement, and almost no effort appears to have been made to clearly label products that are made in America, much less showcase them in prime shelf space, he noted.
“We've spoken to so many people who say they would buy American products if they could only find them, but they don't have the time to hunt around,” Lorell said. “So if Wal Mart and others would create these “Patriot Zones,” it would make it much easier for people to find those products – and the company would still make a profit, not to mention generate positive PR. In fact, it would very likely create an additional – and very lucrative market for them.”
Another problem is that, with major manufacturers relocating overseas, millions of good paying jobs have been lost. This means people who used to spend the money that drove the economy cannot anymore, Lorell said.
He knows this first-hand: he owned and operated a tour boat business on the west coast for several years. In the early years, it was very successful – in large part because the economy was good and most of his customer base was made up of middle class people spending money on leisure activities. As the economy tanked and jobs were lost, his business fell off until he finally had to sell.
Later, he took a job with a marketing company, but the economy worsened, and he lost that job as well, he said.
“A strong America is an America with an employed middle class,” Lorell said. “You hear about things like the fiscal cliff, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to the losses suffered by the middle class. The middle class has just been decimated.”
Companies that are still manufacturing products in America are operating on a smaller scale, he noted. Since big box retailers generally buy in huge increments, many smaller manufacturers have been unable to get their products in the stores, Lorell said.
Lorell believes that if big box retailers try implementing Patriot Zones, it could be an important step in regaining some of the losses in manufacturing jobs in America, which would ultimately be an important step in strengthening and rebuilding that middle class.
“If the big boxes can add locally made products, even though it may be at a smaller scale -- that helps the companies and ultimately the communities in which they are located,” he said.
Lorell and Morris are not politically motivated; in fact, they are paying for this entire trip with personal funds.
“We'd like to maybe get a fuel field sponsor, but it would have to be an American company employing people making products in America,” Lorell said. “We don't want to be affiliated with any political group or movement because we don't want anyone to misunderstand our message.”
Lorell did say that while his friend Craig Giuntoli, owner of Carolina Custom Screen Printing of Summerville did donate banners, and the Giuntoli family donated supplies for the truck, they routinely turn down monetary donations from people wherever they go.
“What we tell them is, don't give it to us, take that money and go out and buy American-made products,” Lorell said. “That will help more than anything else, and that's what we're about.”