Aunt Jenny’s Egg Beater, Hoodies, and Water Heaters; The Evolution of Manufacturing, the Future of Fast Fashion and the Impact of the Internet

My Aunt Jenny died maybe 12 years ago at the age of like 97. I helped clean out her house and one of the things I saved was her egg beater. It was made by the Dazey Manufacturing Company in St. Louis. I don’t know if it’s 60 or 90 years old. The company is out of business. 

I didn’t keep it for sentimental reasons (I mean, it’s an egg beater). I kept it because it’s the best damned egg beater I’ve ever seen and I wouldn’t know what to replace it with. It’s made of heavy duty stainless steel. Except for some paint chips on the handle, it looks and works like the day it was made. It spins so effortlessly and smoothly that it keeps going for north of half a dozen turns after you release the handle and is well balanced and almost vibration free.   No planned obsolescence here.
I really miss products like this. I believe that paying more for a product that lasts a long time (if you can find them) is a better financial decision than paying less and having to replace it often.
So I was intrigued to find this article on a hoodie made by American Giant. I’ve ordered the full front zip one for $79.00 (shipping included). It’s made in the U.S., only available online, and is supposed to last a long, long time. The product is backordered due, I assume, to all the favorable publicity they’ve had.
They started by redesigning the hoodie from scratch, as you’ll read in the article. CEO Bayard Winthrop “…argues that by making clothes in America, he can keep a much closer eye on the quality of his garments, and he can make changes to his line with much more flexibility. An Asian manufacturer wouldn’t have been able to do all of the custom, intricate work that American Giant’s clothes required.”
Okay, hold that thought. Let’s move on to the water heater.
The December issue of The Atlantic has an article called “The Insourcing Boom” by Charles Fishman which you can read here. Anyway, General Electric owns something called Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. It includes six factories, each as big a suburban shopping center, and it’s where GE use to make all its appliances. It employed 23,000 at its 1973 peak, but only 1,863 by 2011. They tried to sell it in 2008 but there were no takers.
But in February, 2012, they started a new line to make their high end GeoSpring water heaters there. On March 20, they started making high end French door refrigerators there. By now, they’ve probably started making a stainless steel dishwasher and they are working on an assembly line to make front loading washers and dryers, the article says.
Bringing certain products back to the U.S. to make has to do with higher Chinese labor costs and, for better or worse, lower U.S. ones.   But that’s not the whole story. When they took a close look at the GeoSpring water heater, they found it was a manufacturing nightmare that could only be justified when labor was $0.25 an hour. In their redesign, they cut out 20% of parts and reduced the cost of materials by 25%. They cut required labor hours from 10 in China to 2 in Kentucky. Quality and energy efficiency improved.
Okay are you ready for this? The Chinese made product retailed for $1,599. They were able to cut the retail price of the U.S. made one by 19% to $1,299. I assume they are holding their margins or they wouldn’t have done it.
Here’s what I said in a recent article talking about U.S. manufacturing.
“Once the labor cost differential isn’t so dramatic, then other costs become more important. Travel, freight, time to market (which impacts the amount of inventory you have to hold), communications issues, surprise delays, custom duties, control of intellectual property and quality control are among the costs that may be higher with foreign production. But most general ledgers aren’t set up to isolate those costs.”  I missed, by the way, energy costs which are also making the U. S. more attractive.
“It’s an accounting hassle, and no fun. But if you take the time to figure out those costs, you may find there’s a certain logic to making some formerly foreign produced products in the U.S.”
I’m guessing the CEOs of both General Electric and American Giant would agree with me.
The American Giant business model works because the product is only sold through their web site. They have no brick and mortar retailers. I may be willing to pay for quality, but if you had to add a retailer’s margin in there, it would be out of my price range.
Pretty clearly, the internet can facilitate the sale of higher quality products by avoiding a level of distribution and cost. I’m not quite sure if that’s completely good or bad, but it’s a fact. I’ve written before that I thought we were early in the process of figuring out the model for internet and retail coexisting. Here’s an impact I hadn’t thought of until now; it might facilitate U.S. production and higher quality. The benefits of having design, production, marketing and fulfillment in one place are, I suspect, significant. 
Let’s distinguish between fast fashion and supply chain and inventory management. Fast fashion (which I define as rapid turnover of artificially supply constrained product) is a marketing idea. Good supply chain and inventory management is necessary to fast fashion, but it would be a good idea even if nobody ever came up with the fast fashion moniker. It can never be bad to be able to react quicker to the market and hold less product in inventory.
Every company I write about these days is talking about managing their supply chain better, reducing their time to market and “micromanaging” their inventory. They don’t all use the term fast fashion, but to some extent that’s what they are reacting to or trying to emulate. It’s so universal it seems like a bubble.
I’m wondering if fast fashion isn’t a trend that will run its course. I understand the excitement it can generate, but once the novelty wears off, I am uncertain shopping more often for product that isn’t really that well made just because it’s “new” will support a long term business model. 
In the days of our ongoing economic malaise, it can be hard to find a lot to be positive about. But as I use Aunt Jenny’s eggbeater to make an omelet, wait with anticipation for a hoodie I expect will last a long, long time and wonder if I should be replacing my water heater, I’m feeling kind of hopeful about what might be an important long term trend back towards higher quality products and domestic manufacturing.



8 replies
  1. lawless
    lawless says:

    I would love to see a shift back to higher quality, more thoughtfully produced goods. There are some smaller niche companies doing it well – Patagonia, Nau come to mind.

    I had a similar analogy with cast iron skillets and my search for a more durable, better performing surfboard –

    Funny how quality cookware is always held in such high regard and the benchmark to which we measure other goods by.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Lawless,
      Lasting quality is really a good financial decision and has environmental benefits as well I think. I hope this is a trend too. I really think it might be because we’ve gone so far the other way, and all bubbles burst.

      Thanks for the comment,

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Thai,
      Thanks for the link. It has some more information on American Giant but I also like it’s insights into how to improve a web site.


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