Comment on – Getting What We Pay For; When Foreign Merchandise Is Very Low Priced, Beware, There Is Something Inferior

No free lunch! No free lunch! No free lunch! We should paste this phrase on imported goods, post it in classrooms and living rooms, and slap a sticker on the front door of retail stores. And let’s teach this to our kids when they’re old enough to start looking over the counter at goodies on display.


Assume the average workers’ pay levels in China are about 1/30th or perhaps less than those of the manufacturing worker in the USA. Is that a factor – – should it be — in quality of output? As commentator Frank Attardo points out in his Ontario op-ed, if the Chinese producers are paying market prices for energy, raw materials, commodities, and even more for shipping to the USA, etc.– why are their goods so much cheaper than if produced in the USA or Canada? It’s about wages — generally low, very low, extremely low wages compared to western pay levels. (The primary contractor may pay good wages for China but the sub- sub-sub and sub-sub-sub contractors probably aren’t.)


Knowing this, as the world’s retailers and marketers bottom fish in the cheapest markets they can find…not just China but Bangladesh and other nations… they must be ever-vigiliant…their brands and reputations are at stake. Anything wrong with foreign-sourcing? No — unions don’t like it (US jobs disappear) but consumers want the lowest prices possible. They want at least some lunch “free.”


Caveat Emptor! the wise Romans said — buyer beware. Buyers starting with the sourcing managers for large US retailers or distributors who contract to manufacture in the Far East; with retailers buying from manufacturers or distributors (middle men) who are sourcing in the region; importers, etc. Do they not think there will be shortcuts taken, or inferior or perhaps dangerous components used for manufacture and assembly?


Yesterday a National Public Radio broadcast on the dangers of imports asked a national [manufacturers] trade association representative about the recent spate of recalls…there are laws on the books, he replied, that make this illegal. So? Well, said another guest, we have the Consumer Product Safety Commission that is supposed to stop dangerous goods from entering the retail channels. But — the CPSC is under-funded (“starve the beast!” cry the conservatives) and inspectors are at the lowest level in years (less than 400 inspectors now). And they have little enforcement power. Same with the Food & Drug Administration — too few inspectors. Same with US Department of Agriculture — starve the beast! is a great strategy for shrinking goverment.


(Stay Tuned, we advised in this space, to the Attorneys General of the states — in New York and California, the AGs are on the case with lead toys, phoney pharmaceuticals, with problem goods at retail in general.


So maybe there is a free lunch here after all — for the folks who wink & nod (in government, in the manufacturing industry, in retailing, in importing) and hope the stuff they sell to consumers is really OK.


We need to keep in mind that the recent toy recalls got kicked off because alert consumers spotted the problems and to their credit, big toy makers began voluntary recalls. One dad working for New York State government and with access to a lab is a great problem-spotter.


The resulting financial crisis for the toy industry underscores the importance of vigilance in the supply line — don’t mess with Moms! — and that for now at least, there was a hefty bill for lunch.


There is much more to come this holiday buying season regarding the safety and acceptability of imported toys — stay tuned. And bring your own lunch or get ready to pay for lunch (with higher retail prices) — but if that translates to safer products, maybe consumers won’t mind.


Let’s put that “NO FREE LUNCH” sticker in as many places as we can…in the end,we are all accountable for the safety of products in our retail channels…no? Your thoughts?


Hank Boerner




Accountability Central