Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

Buy American, They Said

 

We are exhorted to “buy American” to “keep American jobs.” But when we tried to buy an American appliance from a noted American company we experienced nothing but headaches. How can you “buy American” when American brands are now owned by Chinese corporations and South Korean brands manufacture in South Carolina? A tale of two refrigerators and one frustrated couple.

buy American
Circuit Board, original photograph by Jeanne Grunert

“June 21.”

“June 21? We’d have to live out of a cooler for almost three weeks!”

“That’s the earliest the website says it will be in stock.”

My husband and I stared at the Lowe’s website. There, gleaming in all its pristine technological glory, was what we thought would be our new Whirlpool refrigerator. It contained every gadget, every convenience known to refrigerators. It fit the space where our current refrigerator wheezed its last. And, wonder of wonders, it even came in the dark gray – excuse me, graphite or black stainless steel – color that nearly matched our existing appliances.

“But they’re advertising it on t.v.!” My husband raked a hand through his hair, a sure sign of frustration. “They even sent me an email. How can they advertise it on t.v. and send me promotional emails if the thing isn’t in stock in any warehouse throughout the entire state of Virginia?”

“Well, I could call them.”

Crackling hold music with unintelligible messages greeted my dutiful pressing 1 for English, pressing 3 for sales. Twenty minutes later, after I had been reassured of the importance of my call and business countless times, I still hadn’t spoken with a human being. I hung up.

“Time to try the chatbot.”

Christy, our friendly chatbot, was all chipper and helpful, as any underpaid artificial intelligence worker would be on a Friday morning. “How can I help you today?” she chirped.

“Christy, when can you deliver a Whirlpool model number — to zip code — if we order it today?”

In the background on the first floor, I thought I heard our current refrigerator snicker. But it may have been the motor, which had been running steadily, and growing louder, for the past twenty-four hours.

“We are experiencing higher than normal demands,” chirped chatbot Christy, “and expect a shipment of that item to arrive in our Washington D.C. warehouse on or about June 21. We can get it you by July 7.”

“Great,” I muttered as I thanked Christy and clicked off the Lowe’s website, “I’ll be living out of a cooler for a month instead of two weeks. Thanks a lot.”

II.

Higher than normal demand should be expected when you run a nonstop television and email campaign. My husband, muttering darkly about inept marketing departments to his marketing executive wife, stomped downstairs to do some research on his tablet. Meanwhile, I wondered how long milk would stay fresh as the interior temperature of our barely-hanging-on refrigerator climbed about 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Everywhere you go these days, the media exhorts you to “buy American.” President Trump tends to mutter vaguely coherent threats about losing American jobs to foreign manufactures while on our own shores, manufacturers struggle.

 

What’s so puzzling about the decry of the loss of American manufacturing jobs is that, while it is true, it is not true that American manufacturing itself is declining. The Pew Research Center reports that while 4 out of 5 or 81% of Americans can say with accuracy that the number of manufacturing jobs has declined, only 35% know that output has increased. I’m one of the remaining 65% who would have sworn to you that there is a lack of American manufactured products on the shelves.  And I’m right – sort of.

 

American manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979, right around the time when my generation X raised its head and realized that parents actually worked and that this work supported our baseball card and video arcade habits. From 19.4 million jobs in 1979 to 17.6 million when many of my cohort graduated from high school doesn’t sound like an enormous loss of jobs, but tell that to families living in the rustbelt, the south, or in other areas where entire towns were swallowed up by the shutdown of major factories.

 

In my adopted hometown, we’ve seen this happen quite recently. In the past 10 years, Thomasville Furniture, one of the area’s largest employers, shuttered its factory in Appomattox, leaving approximately 150 families without a paycheck. Families now commute 40 minutes to Lynchburg or two hours into Richmond or Charlottesville for comparable jobs while the cost of gasoline eats up whatever marginal increase they may have eked out.

 

 

III.

 

The situation in my kitchen, meanwhile, had grown to yellow alert. The refrigerator motor finally stopped running. Silence ensued. The temperature settled at 6 degrees in the freezer and 46 in the fridge.

 

“Should we buy a new one?”

 

“Why don’t we order the Whirlpool and wait.”

 

“This could go at any time!”

 

“But look what I found.” My husband showed me his tablet. “The GE Adora!”

 

We love our GE Adora appliances. Well, love is too strong a word – like them greatly, I should say. When we built our kitchen in 2008, we ordered a GE Adora dishwasher and refrigerator. So far, both had stood up to the test of time, we liked the look of them, and we liked the fact that we had bought from an iconic American brand, GE.

 

Or so we thought.

 

In October 2017, Chinese company Haier purchased the GE Appliance line for $5.6 billion. Our current GE Adora was certainly as American as apple pie, since it was likely assembled from parts made all over the world. That reflects the American sentiment to a T where most of us are mixtures of European, Asian, African or other heritages.

 

But I digress. Haier chairman Zhang Ruimin, in an article  in the South China Morning Post, outlined an exciting shift in the GE appliance line, which had been a money loser for the venerable American brand. “Imagine touching a screen on your refrigerator and ordering from online shops,” Zhang crowed as he outlined innovative and imaginative features for the future GE Adora line of products.

 

Meanwhile, in my kitchen, the refrigerator motor kicked on again. Loudly.

 

 

IV.

 

“They have it,” my husband announced triumphantly. “Not the same color – they seem to have discontinued graphite and now it’s called slate. But it’s the GE Adora!”

 

I let my coworkers and clients know I was taking off for the afternoon. Considering that I had just worked an 80-hour week, I thought it was fine. We set off on the 40-mile drive to Lynchburg.

 

In our rural part of the world, the closest Home Depot is a 40-mile drive away. Lowe’s is closer, with a new shop open in Farmville (yes, there really is a town called Farmville, and it is beautiful, thank you.) But only Home Depot carries GE Appliances.

 

There, on the showroom floor, was my GE Adora refrigerator. We whipped out our folder of notes from 10 years ago and compared specifications. Same height, same width, and same depth. More cubic feet! An ice maker in the door instead of a clunky old ice maker taking up the top shelf in the freezer compartment. New shelves!

 

Sold. We marched over to the appliance desk and a helpful employee typed our order into the computer. “What is your zip code?” she asked.
We told her.

 

“I’m sorry, but we can’t ship to there.”

 

I blinked. “What do you mean, you can’t ship to there?”

 

She spun the computer monitor around as if it was the ultimate judge and tapped a fingernail on the screen. There, blinking on the Home Depot website – the website we had just visited an hour before in the comfort of our kitchen, as we stood contemplating our dying appliance – was a pop-up box that shouted, “DELIVERY NOT AVAILABLE.”

 

“Why not?”  We pulled 10-year-old paperwork from the folder in our hands and waved it in front of her. “We purchased an identical model, from this very store, almost 10 years ago to the date, and had it delivered to our home. Why can’t you deliver it now?”

 

“We changed delivery companies, and now the policy is different,” she babbled, “they come out of Roanoke and they only for as far as Appomattox count. You’re in Prince Edward.”

 

“We’re less than a mile over the county line!”

 

“I’m sorry, but we don’t deliver to that zip code.”

 

“But you did 10 years ago.”

 

“But we don’t now.”

 

“Let me get this straight,” I said, “We are ready to spend nearly $2,000 on a new refrigerator. And yet you won’t deliver it to us.”

 

“You could rent a truck,” she said helpfully.

 

“How is that going to help us?”

 

“You could get it delivered to a friend in Appomattox for free,” she added, “And then you would just have to ship it a mile from there. Or, you could pay an additional $100 and have it delivered.”

 

“I thought you said delivery was free.”

 

“Only to Appomattox. That’s as far as the delivery area.”

 

“But that’s about a mile from us. We are literally just over the county line. And in the past, you have delivered to us for free.”

 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the policy has changed.”

 

 

Two managers later and no one could help. Policies could not be changed. Credits could not be given. No one could help.

 

“We’re locked into what the website offers,” the store manager said sympathetically.

 

“So basically, we could have gotten the same results if we tried to order this online.”

 

“Yes, exactly!”

 

 

V.

 

On to Lowe’s in Bedford County, Virginia. Hey, why not – we had already driven 50 miles, total, and taken the afternoon off to be told we couldn’t get the exact appliance we were willing to purchase on the spot without any arguing or haggling. Let’s go see what Lowe’s could offer.

 

There, gleaming like the black stainless-steel god of commerce it is, was the Whirlpool.

 

Not just any Whirlpool refrigerator, but THE Whirlpool model…on the floor, ready to be sold, hooked up and running.

 

We oohed. We aahed. Two more cubic feet of space. Air filter and water filter?

 

Where can we buy it?

 

Our helpful sales man tapped up the store inventory on the computer. “Oooh,” he said sympathetically. “We’re out of that one. I’ve got two on back order. Let me see what the other stores say.”

 

An hour later, feet sore, back hurting, every inch of the store examined while we waited, he reported the results.
“There’s not a single one of these to be bought in all of Virginia,” he announced.

 

“When will you get more?”

 

“The Washington DC warehouse has more en route,” he said confidently. “Looks like we can get it here by July 21st.”

 

I blinked. “I thought the website said June 21st. That’s what Christy the chatbot said when we checked earlier this morning.”

 

“It’s been updated since then.”

 

“If it’s an American product, what’s the holdup?”

 

“It’s an American brand,” he said helpfully. “But it’s shipping in from overseas.”

 

Right.

 

Because to Buy American these days means to buy an American brand, with parts made overseas, partially assembled overseas, and slapped with a label in the United States.

 

My refrigerator was probably still somewhere in China, or Korea, or India, as a conglomeration of parts on an assembly line.

 

Meanwhile, back at home, the ice cream was melting.

 

 

VI.

 

Gone are the days when products were manufactured to last forever. We had a 1950s chest freezer, purchased secondhand in the late 1980s, that was still going strong when we sold our last house. It was so big, too heavy to move, so we left it there. For all we know, it’s still humming away.

 

Our Frigidaire freezer, purchased in 2009, lasted just six years before we needed to replace it.

 

We have a 1920s Singer treadle sewing machine, now more of a conversation piece than a household necessity, but the heavy steel parts still work smoothly. If the leather belt connecting the treadle to the machine is replaced, it still sews beautifully.

 

Meanwhile, the Singer machine my husband purchased for his mother in the 1970s worked for about three years before jamming the thread, losing tension, and finally burning out.

 

To be fair, many manufactured products in the 1970s were dreadful. Automobiles, for example. But today, we expect more. We expect better.

 

We are exhorted to be green, think about the environment, recycle and more. We carefully tote canvas bags to the market to save the oceans from plastic bags and we eschew plastic water bottles for refillable containers. Meanwhile, our appliances, which consume electricity, contain plastic made from fossil fuels, and use coolants that may or may not pollute the environment, remain planned obsolescence.

 

But only if you can replace them.

 

 

VII.

 

 

Back at Lowe’s, I pointed to the Samsung refrigerator which had been my second choice after the Whirlpool. “Is that one in stock?”

 

The clerk tapped into the computer. “Yes, looks like we have two in stainless black.”

 

“Can you ship from this store?” Bedford was even further from our home than Lynchburg, a radius of about 50-60 miles instead of Home Depot’s 40.

 

Tap-tap-tap. “Yes ma’am. We can get it to you by Monday. Delivery is free. $20 to haul away the old refrigerator.”

 

“Sold.”

 

As we walked away, my husband said quietly,  “We’ve never had a Samsung appliance before.”
I knew what he meant.

 

It wasn’t American.

 

But it was. A quick internet search revealed that Samsung, a South Korean firm, was opening a manufacturing plant in South Carolina. By 2020, the American plant of a South Korean firm would provide over 900 jobs to the local economy.

 

Buy American, they said. Someone needs to redefine what that means in today’s global economy.

 

 

VIII.

 

When we arrived home, five footsore hours after we left, we found our GE Adora humming along again. The ice cream had frozen. The milk was cold.

 

The new refrigerator was scheduled to arrive within 72 hours.

 

Home Depot still refuses to deliver appliances within their free delivery policy to our entire rural county.

 

Buy American, they said.

 

 

 

This piece also appeared on Medium.com, June 2018. The author retains the copyright to both works. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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