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American Giant and Small Business
Feb 3rd, 2012 by Nancy

This came across my sights the other day:

How American Giant Hacked the Supply Chain

For years, it was cheaper to produce goods overseas. But Bayard Winthrop believes that’s changing, in part because of one big culprit: The Internet.

“There’s a general growing comfort level with not only consuming online but buying things like shoes and apparel online,” says Winthrop. “I think one of the reasons we’re so excited about what we’re doing is that we’re in a new time now in that for the first time you can begin to really assess the non-manufacturing related costs. Even two years ago you couldn’t do that.”

American GiantIn a nutshell, start-up clothing manufacturer American Giant, which opened its ‘doors’ this week, is doing the improbable – high quality, reasonably priced, American made clothing – by only having them available online, thereby short-circuiting the overhead of retail space, distribution, and everything else that goes into getting products into traditional brick & mortar retail.

Market forces and cultural forces have conspired against US garment manufacturing for decades.  However, with that loss has been the unfortunate loss of quality and durability.  Sociologist Julie Schor has verified what many of us have assumed for some time: garment prices have flatlined or dropped in the last 20 years, in large part due to cheap overseas labor but also because of cheaply made, low quality materials and deferred environmental costs. We therefore buy many more garments now than we did in the early 90’s, partly in response to the lower (real) prices, but also in part because of diminished quality and durability – the old saw “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to” is quantifiably, verifiably true in the garment and other soft goods industries.

Thanks to the reach of the internet and the comfort level we have achieved with online shopping and financial transactions, however, it’s very possible to do an end-around the biggest costs of bringing a new item to market – namely, renting retail space, hiring and training staff, or hiring sales reps to shlep your shiny new thing to stores in hopes they will add it to their inventory.

I’m really delighted to see this hit the big time, and I strongly encourage you to take a look at the link in the title of the quote above – there’s a succinct video demonstrating the plight of, and the hopefully bright future for, American manufacturing.  The U.S. is full of the hand skills, the machinery, and most of all the people who can, simply put, manufacture great stuff.

I’m also compelled to say, “It’s about time somebody else caught on to what we at Lunchsense have been doing all along, and why.”

After the design for Lunchsense lunchboxes came into being and I realized I wasn’t the only person on the planet who needed a better way to pack lunches, I started scouting around for local manufacturing.  I hit paydirt with Oregon Sewn Products – they are the right size in the right place and the right price, and wonderful, entertaining individuals to boot.

It’s noteworthy to temper my enthusiasm with a shot of reality, though.   If everyone were to do what American Giant is doing, it would be at the expense of American retailers.

I do manufacture a fair number of my lunchboxes in Vietnam, at a factory I visited (trip of a lifetime!) and vetted for its labor standards, working conditions, and environmental initiatives.  I’m pleased to say the factory not only passed muster but holds SA8000 certification.  Yes, the lunchboxes I manufacture overseas cost me far less than the US made lunchboxes.  They do allow me, however, to sell lunchboxes to stores, which then can sell them to you, which allows us both to make an appropriate profit in the endeavor. In other words,

I manufacture in the U.S. (and support a local manufacturer) —–> I sell to you, directly, on the internet

I manufacture overseas —–> I sell these lower cost (but identical quality) items to stores (and support a local retailer) —–> they sell to you.

Doing it this way allows me to support both U.S. manufacturing AND U.S. retailing.  I wouldn’t want to cut either business type out of my model. There are plenty of folks who just want to buy a lunchbox off a store shelf, and I am happy to meet their needs.  There are plenty of others who are fine with buying things online, and I’m here for them too.

Lastly, note that if you want a lunchbox assembled in the U.S., just say so in the comments field when you place your online order, and I promise you will get exactly that.

I wish American Giant all the best, and I really hope they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, because their success is my success, and ultimately, yours as well.       

Nancy's Yogurt: what customer service should strive to be
Oct 20th, 2010 by Nancy

nancys_logo_wstarsI wrote a few weeks back about how and why I gave up my fax number, and mentioned that I’d have a nice customer service story as a follow-up.  Here it is:

Awhile back I bought a small tub of sour cream (Nancy’s brand – a local dairy) and, upon opening it found it was laced with grainy little bits.  The sour cream tasted fine but the texture was unsettling, so I pitched it and dropped the Nancy’s company a quick email explaining the problem.  I didn’t have my receipt, and it was only a couple of bucks’ worth of sour cream, so my highest expectation was that they’d write back and say “thanks for letting us know” and maybe they’d send me a coupon.

But no.

I did get that email, which explained that the grainy bits were protein something-or-others, and the writer asked if I could tell them what I paid for the sour cream so they could reimburse me.  They also mentioned that they taste-test every batch of sour cream before it gets packaged and shipped.  Overall it was a very nicely penned note, and I was satisfied.

I wrote back to tell them that I didn’t know what I paid, and a coupon would be fine if they had one, and I envied them their taste-testers job.

Then about a week later I received a big, bulky enveloped from none other than the Nancy’s yogurt company.  In it was not one but three coupons, and a beautiful canvas shopping bag, AND a HAND-WRITTEN NOTE from Elaine Kesey, owner of Nancy’s yogurt herself, thanking me for my support.  The postage alone for that package far exceeded what I paid for that grainy-but-otherwise-edible sour cream in the first place!

As a small-biz owner I’m confronted daily with one of the hard facts of business life: expenses.  Customer service is just one of many, and happens to be one expense that (unlike rent, payroll, taxes, etc.) we are not beholden to pay just to stay in business, or at best we pay “in-kind”: we reimburse our dissatisfied customer with just what that customer paid.

But the problem is that we can’t put a dollar amount on dissatisfaction.  Nancy’s yogurt demonstrated exactly what I hope Lunchsense will always offer: a genuine, heartfelt, personal response to every customer.

Please, let me know how your experience with Lunchsense turns out.

Life and times of a small biz: what's a fax number worth to me?
Sep 24th, 2010 by Nancy

fax machineA couple months ago I eliminated my fax number.

Although I wasn’t going out of my way to get rid of it, I am now no longer reachable by fax.

I guess it isn’t accurate to say I eliminated my fax number.  Actually, it was taken from me.  Here’s what happened:

I subscribed to a service called eFax that assigned a telephone number to me that served as my “fax” number.  If someone wanted to send something to me, they’d dial that number then eFax would email me a digital file (like, though not, a pdf) of the sent pages, and I’d be good to go.  Best of all, it was free, simple, and seemed a good environmental choice – no trees were killed in the conveyance of information to me.  eFax did offer several other “premium” plans that came with a monthly price tag, but since I’d receive maybe one fax every other month, the free option was absolutely sufficient for my needs.

Recently, I worked with a customer that apparently didn’t have my email address, but did have my fax number, so he sent me a handful of faxes – about six in all, each about three or four pages in length.

What I didn’t realize (or more likely since I’d had this service for a couple years, what I didn’t remember) was that if I sent or received more than 20 pages in a single month I’d not qualify for eFax’s free service any longer.

So I was a bit surprised to get a notice from eFax stating that because of my recent activity I no longer qualified for the free option and in order to continue using their service I’d have to upgrade to the premium plan.

SO – Does $17 a month seem a bit steep for a biz to pay for a service that it uses maybe 6 times a year? To send or receive information that can also be conveyed – in better form – via email?  Which, ironically, became my only choice not because I sent a bunch of faxes, but because someone else sent just barely 20 pages in a 30 day period?

‘Seemed that way to me, but I wanted to find out if eFax felt the same way.  I called them several times, and was given the same answer several times – in order to keep my fax number I had to cough up $16.95 a month.

After mulling it over, I realized that (even though it feels otherwise) THIS WAS NOT BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.  The eFax phone people were cordial, honest, and straightforward. The 20 page limit was there in my original plan, I exceeded my free limit, and I was shown the door.

THIS IS ONLY A REALLY LOUSY BUSINESS MODEL.

The fax number just sat there in my signature block, quiet and safe and staid: address, phone, fax, email, website.  It wasn’t really doing anything except adding one more line to the block, and maybe adding the perception of one more nugget of legitimacy to my operation here: “see? I’m a REAL biz – I have a fax number.”  Now that it’s gone, though, I realize it won’t be missed.  While I feel for the people that have my contact information but don’t know the fax number isn’t live anymore (although so few of them fax anything I’m not losing any sleep over it).

But as a small biz owner, I am somewhat more concerned to think that eFax considers this a viable way to do business. Yeah, they weren’t making any money off me, so why should they care?  Here’s why:

They hasten the demise of their own services by kicking me out.  They weren’t losing any money on me either, but they did lose a whole lot of goodwill.

I hear it said that bad customer service stories are repeated nine times by the “victim”.  I don’t want that kind of storytelling about Lunchsense, ever.

It’s actually not been that big of a hassle to get my fax number off my “collateral” (that’d be the name for all the paper stuff that has my biz information on it), as most of it I print on-demand – for example, I have the file with the letterhead, and when I need to write a letter, I write it and print it (or, more often, email it).  Invoices, packing slips, carton inserts, whatever – most of it either didn’t have the fax number to begin with or I only print in small quantities.

I can also email printer scans for someone who has to have my signature, so the ONLY THING I’m now left without is the ability to receive a fax.  It is no significant loss, frankly.

Please: do you have a similar story?  If you were me, what would you have done?

Next week: a customer service tale that I strive to emulate.

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