Dependence on foreign goods frustrates many consumers


March 11, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Can you describe a day in the life of the typical American?

A cynic might answer that he works out in tennis shoes made in Korea, drives to work in a German automobile and spends his evenings watching a Japanese TV.

"It's kind of sad," says Jan Kohler, an Abingdon woman whose most recent family auto purchase was a Japanese import. "We'd prefer to buy American, but the Toyota was the best car for the money we had to spend at the time," she says.

Mrs. Kohler is not alone. In the midst of an economic recession, she and others are finding themselves feeling guilty when not buying American. And, despite efforts on the part of industry groups such as the New York-based Crafted with Pride in U.S.A. Council Inc. (see accompanying story at left), they are increasingly frustrated by what they see as a lack of quality American products at affordable prices.

"I do think there's guilt, but there's a sharp edge of irritation to it," says Jane Fitzgibbon, senior vice president, Ogilvy & Mather Trendsights division in New York, which monitors consumer trends.

"There's also a feeling of being 'let down' by American industry for having to buy imported products," she says. "The consumer is saying give me better quality and I would be delighted to buy American."

Recent criticism of American workers by Japanese leaders and President Bush's efforts abroad negotiating a balance of trade have heightened awareness of just how import-dependent Americans are. In addition, a resurgence of patriotism that began with the gulf war last year has grown even stronger with increasing awareness of foreign interests in this country.

"One of the most noticeable trends in the last year has been the upsurge in guilt over not buying American," says Barbara Caplan, vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a New York marketing research firm that studies changing consumer attitudes.

Ms. Caplan points to the results of an ongoing study in which 2,500 adult consumers were asked if they felt guilty when purchasing non-American products in general. In 1988, 49 percent of those asked answered yes. By 1991 the number had risen to 53 percent, says Ms. Caplan.

When the same question was asked about products imported from Japan specifically, only 44 percent of Americans felt guilty in 1988; but by 1991, the number had shot up to 51 percent.

Despite their guilt, however, Americans are still making decisions based on their wallets.

"We want to buy home products, but American manufacturers need to learn how to keep prices competitive," says Mrs. Kohler. "We look for quality and price. We have to; we're a family of six."

While foreign-made automobiles may claim the largest chunk of Americans' money going out of the country, they are by no means the only source of consternation. Consumers are concerned about the unavailability of other affordable U.S. products, too, including clothing.

"I really do look for a union label, but sometimes I can't afford to, says Sue Neely, a clerical worker for a White Marsh medical equipment firm. "I can't afford $50 jeans. Most of the jeans I wear are made in Korea and China. They're not quality, but they're less expensive."

Sometimes it's hard to even find American-made clothing, say other shoppers.

"I try to buy American, but it's not always available," says William Allen, a retired postal worker who lives in Northeast Baltimore and is proud to be driving an Oldsmobile. "I bought a Haggar jacket recently, and when I got it home, I saw that it was assembled in Mexico."

Mr. Allen doesn't feel quite so bad about having purchased a foreign-made television and VCR because "you just don't have too many American products in that area," he says. But trying to "buy American" can become pretty annoying when you can't even tell the difference.

Shopping for big-ticket items such as automobiles can be particularly disappointing, say those who have discovered that despite the American nameplate their cars include parts made overseas.

"I'd say my car is half-and-half," says Ms. Neely, referring to the hybrid nature of her American car. "I'd rather have an all-American product, but you go with what you can afford."

"Bush's trip [to Japan] and Lee Iacocca's mouth have generated a lot of consternation," says Ms. Fitzgibbon, who agrees it's hard for consumers to know what's made where. "Even products with an American brand name are not necessarily assembled here. And if a product is made abroad, profits may still be coming back." It's difficult to make a valid assessment, she says.

Mrs. Kohler confronted that frustration on a recent trip to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. After choosing a tasteful ceramic souvenir of Mickey and Minnie for her daughter, she discovered it was made in China.

"It was so disappointing to go to Disney World -- an attraction that is so American -- and not be able to find an American-made souvenir," she said. "Our country was built by craftsmen and manufacturing. People were proud to display their goods. It's sad that we have to import things to represent us now."

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