Differentiating Quality Still a Challenge for the Promotional Products Industry
Of all the costs that go into making a promotional product, quality costs are often the hardest to appreciate. If we do our job well, the product simply looks good and works. But if we don't, if a product breaks, parts don't fit together well, ink dries out, seams tear, imprints are crooked—the defect stands out like a black eye and does double damage. The flawed product disappoints and it reflects poorly on the company who gave it away—exactly the opposite of what promotional products are supposed to do. And now, with ever increasing product safety regulations upsetting norms, threatening the industry, raising calls for indemnification and changing the way we source products, quality has been catapulted front and center as a critical and urgent topic for promotional products professionals. Yet amidst all of the attention, it remains a significant challenge for our industry to differentiate the highest quality products from the similar looking but lessor products, particularly when they often appear even to experienced buyers to be the same.
For personal purchases, brand names and expectation levels often inform the quality aspect of our buying decisions. We don't have the same expectations for an item we buy from a dollar store as one we buy from Ralph Lauren. In the grocery store we expect more from Del Monte and Heinz than we do from generic store brands. And we are willing to pay more for the additional quality we get from branded items.
But most promotional products are not branded. Similar looking products are available from dozens of sources with nearly identical descriptions. Search engines like ESP or SAGE can also make similar products appear to be the same.
But they aren't necessarily the same.
A month ago I received a call from a trusted industry source who said he knew of a well-respected bag factory that had some unexpected downtime and might be able to improve our price on a very popular item from our line. From the description and photos on our website his factory quoted a very attractive price. But after we sent actual samples of our bag the price went up considerably. The fabric was a higher grade than the factory had assumed and our reinforced construction required more labor. Our bag was of a higher quality but the differences were not obvious from the picture and web description, even to a 30-year industry veteran.
As hard as tangible differences are to detect, the critical quality initiatives behind the scenes are even more invisible. Many industry players are now following guidelines like the PPAI Code of Conduct and strict standards from certification organizations like QCA and FLA. These quality commitments include factory audits to verify compliance with child labor laws, social accountability, environmental stewardship, product reliability testing, QC inspections, supply chain security and third-party tests for product safety regulations. The costs of these quality efforts are substantial—one Top 40 apparel supplier told me recently that he spends $500,000 per year on compliance—but none of these efforts are apparent from ESP, SAGE or Google searches. Yet every dollar spent on quality—higher grade materials, better construction, QC inspections and product testing—contributes to the reliability, integrity and compliance of the product—and ultimately, a more compelling statement for the end-buyer.
For distributors with years of experience the challenge of selling quality against cheaper lookalikes is nothing new. They know their suppliers well and which ones have performed reliably year in and year out. These professionals understand that quality oriented suppliers are not likely to take on a product unless it has been tested and meets their standards. But not everyone in the industry has this experience and many rely on ESP and SAGE for sources, searches that focus on price comparisons, not quality comparisons.
Aside from the challenge of educating our own industry is the challenge of educating end buyers, many of whom are young marketing professionals who find lookalikes through Google with little attention given to compliance or quality. It's not that these buyers are irresponsible; they just don't understand the supply chain risks. Yet if one of these lookalike products results in embarrassment, an injury, a recall or becomes fodder for a Prop 65 bounty hunter, our industry would take the hit and pay the price.
So what are some meaningful steps we can take to help promote responsible sourcing?
Education is the most important. If everyone involved in the sale and purchase of promotional products understands the issues involved in quality and compliance, they will know the right questions to ask to help them make an informed decision of what product is best for their needs. PPAI does an outstanding job providing this education through webinars, MAS/CAS certification, its Product Responsibility Action Group and through classroom sessions at Expo. Many distributor and supplier organizations provide excellent training as well.
Second, the industry needs to do a better job of making it easy for distributors to differentiate the quality and compliance characteristics of similar products—on supplier websites, on ESP and on SAGE. Better product descriptions would help as would some kind of grading system to indicate whether a product was sourced with budget, standard or premium quality. Perhaps a series of standard icons could be developed to indicate product or supplier certifications, whether the product has been tested as a children's product or toy, and whether it is compliant with other state or federal requirements. It would be even better if these icons were active links to the actual test reports documenting the compliance claim.
John Ruskin once wrote "There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper." That has always been the case in the promotional industry. But now, with product safety and compliance presenting such significant risks to our livelihood, it is more urgent than ever that we develop easier and more effective ways for the industry to differentiate the quality and compliance characteristics of similar looking products.