January 2/9, 2017: Volume 31, Number 15
Mystery shopping exercise reveals RSAs don’t always properly identify product origins
By Reginald Tucker
Much has been made about the “Made in the USA” slogan in recent years, particularly as it applies to big-ticket items such as automobiles, appliances and, yes, even hardwood flooring products. While it has served as a rallying cry for those who support domestic sourcing and manufacturing, it can (and has) backfired when products claimed by some retail sales associates to be made in America turned out to be produced elsewhere.
Several such instances were exposed when representatives of American OEM conducted a series of “mystery shopper” exercises whereby they asked retail sales associates in select stores to confirm the origin of particular hardwood flooring products that were on display on the showroom floor. In more than a few cases, American OEM representatives report, salespeople did not properly identify the products’ origins when asked by the mystery shoppers.
Allie Finkell, vice president of American OEM, explained how the program began. “Earlier this year one of our team members who was on vacation ended up stopping at a bunch of retail stores up north. He gave the sales rep specific information in terms of what he wanted as far as specifications, style, color, etc. More importantly, he told the rep he wanted a product that was made in America. He was just trying to see if the rep would take him to a private-label brand that was manufactured by American OEM, knowing pretty much that was the only product in the rack that fit the bill.”
What the American OEM mystery shopper found, however, was either the salesperson had no idea where the hardwood flooring was made or he was simply incorrect. While Finkell realizes it’s hard for salespeople to know everything about every product in the store—including where they are made—she feels there ought to be systems in place whereby consumers can readily discern between flooring manufactured within the U.S. or outside the country prior to making a purchasing decision.
“With many consumer goods, especially clothing or seafood at the supermarket, for example, you can look at the tag or the label and see where it’s made. Then you can make a choice if that’s important to you or not. There’s so much transparency happening in virtually every other consumer category at the point of sale. But when it comes to flooring, we have so much imported product that’s coming over and some of it is being marketed with misleading information with American or U.S. sounding names.”
One of the main problems, Finkell says, is there’s no regulation in terms of labeling hardwood flooring products at the point of sale; you only have to put the country of origin on the box itself. Problem is, by the time the customer sees the box she has more than likely already made her decision. “In many cases she doesn’t even see the box in which the materials are shipped because the product usually gets installed before she comes home,” she noted.
While leading industry trade groups such as the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) do not have authoritative powers with respect to enforcement of claims regarding country of origin (that burden falls on the Federal Trade Commission), groups are working to set standards regarding “responsible” sourcing. Such is the case with NWFA’s Responsible Procurement Program, which was developed to ensure member companies observe guidelines pertaining to the environmentally friendly harvesting procedures. The program is a joint initiative between leading environmental groups and wood flooring manufacturers committed to producing products obtained from environmentally and socially responsible sources.
However, this program is voluntary and—while well-intentioned—lacks the regulatory “teeth” that federal mandates might carry.
Other industry groups have been known to take a much more fierce stance in this regard. For instance, Finkell cited the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), which was created in 1898 to establish a uniform system of grading rules for the measurement and inspection of hardwood lumber. Over time, NHLA’s purview has been expanded beyond hardwood lumber grading. Today it is the world’s largest and oldest hardwood industry association, representing more than 1,200 companies and one million hardwood families that produce, use and sell North American hardwood lumber or provide equipment, supplies or services to the hardwood industry.
NWFA, for its part, is working with retailers on the education front as opposed to serving the role of “enforcer.” As Anita Howard, COO, explains: “NWFA does offer retail sales training for wood flooring professionals, both in person and through our online courses through NWFA University. Some of the courses specifically discuss the regulations regarding chain of custody reporting, so this issue is definitely one we address through our training programs. It provides teams with consistent messages that help them steer their customers toward the right products. We also participate regularly at shows like CCA, Flooring America and ProSource to provide education and training on a larger scale.”
A matter of choice
Even those who advocate domestic manufacturing and the proper identification of products and species at the point of sale realize it’s not an issue that’s top of mind for many consumers. As Finkell points out, “Some people might not care where it comes from—maybe they just want the best price or a certain look. But for those consumers who do care about where it’s made, they ought to be able to get the most accurate information and a straight answer at the point of sale.”
For some consumers it is an important issue. And it’s one that manufacturers are sensitive to. Mohawk, for instance, believes the Made in the USA label means more today than it ever has with all the press on the various environmental issues. To that end, the company has people in place to ensure all facets of its hardwood production—including everything from finishes to adhesives—are in compliance.
“The majority of our manufacturing is in the United States, but we also have a large presence in Europe,” said Gary Lanser, president of Mohawk’s wood and laminate business. “Obviously there are many advantages to our customers and ourselves in purchasing and supplying domestically produced products. Clearly there’s the speed of supply and excellent service.”
Other major hardwood flooring suppliers share that philosophy, emphasizing the importance of properly sourcing raw materials and complying with environmental regulations. At Shaw Floors, for instance, the aim is to go beyond standards required by law to pursue independent, third-party assessments such as Cradle to Cradle, Greenguard, FloorScore and others. Shaw says it carefully considers the impact of its products on the environment and on society throughout their life cycle. More importantly, it examines the ingredient materials, the impact of its supply chain, the use of natural resources and the ability to recover and recycle its products.
While Shaw manufactures many of its own products and sources from strategic partners in the U.S. and internationally, the company takes “numerous steps to verify that its products, regardless of where or by whom they are manufactured, meet customers’ high expectations. These steps include: performing manufacturing site inspections to ensure suppliers meet the same high-quality standards the company practices internally; setting raw material specifications that restrict the use of certain chemical substances of concern; and ensuring all products meet the relevant indoor air emissions requirements,” according to a statement.