Throughout this would-be U.S. economic recovery, job creation has not matched what it has been in prior recoveries and incomes are under pressure. Once mighty retailers like Sears Holdings and Barnes & Noble (BKS) are shedding locations, while Coach and others are seeing their domestic sales fall. While many businesses and entrepreneurs are using the online world to enhance their businesses and profits, few are also setting out to return manufacturing and jobs to the United States. One such company doing just that is American Love Affair, an e-tailer that deals exclusively in goods made here in the United States. If you’ve listened to my PowerTalks with Abe’s Market about its online business model and Motorola Mobility about how and why it’s building its Moto X smartphone here in the United States, then you’ll get exactly what American Love Affair founder and CEO Noelle Nguyen is doing. If you haven’t, Noelle and her team are using the power of the Internet and e-tailing to drive awareness and retail sales of American made fashion products from clothing, footwear, and jewelry to baby products and other soft goods. That means jobs and incomes here in the US, and shows the difference that small business can have here in America.
American Love Affair stands for my love affair with America. We are an online retailer of clothing and other consumer products made in the U.S.A. I founded the company as a means of aggregating and distributing American brands domestically and abroad to underserved end consumers who want to purchase American-made products, who might otherwise have a very difficult time finding them. It is also our intention to help strengthen and glorify the “Made in the U.S.A.” label both at home and abroad. Ultimately, we’d like to play a hand in the restoration of manufacturing to our shores by supporting American-based SMEs (small and medium enterprises).
As to the “how” part of your question, American Love Affair originated as a live case study in the Presidents and Key Executives MBA program at Pepperdine University, which culminated in a capstone project that faculty and peers helped me create and fine tune, and bring to life at the completion of the program. The fact that this originated as a live case study in an executive MBA program has been of interest to many, which has surprised me. I think it speaks to the growing appetite for entrepreneurship in this country.
It looks like that rather than price, which is a strategy than many associate with Wal-mart Stores, Target, Kohl’s, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx (TJX), the strategy is to differentiate American Love Affair based on where the product offering is sourced?
Yes, we only sell products that are manufactured in the U.S. We’re not cost leaders but we’re value leaders. We would never dream of competing with the likes of Wal-mart or Amazon.com (whose Jeff Bezos is my business hero). They are brilliant resource-positioned players while our strength is our agility and edge. We compete in a broad market scope using very focused messaging–which is different for domestic and overseas consumers. Our value discipline centers on customer intimacy–what I coin “emotional allegiance”–because we want to capture consumers’ hearts. We can only do this by being an enterprise that is concerned with both doing well and doing good. The minute we become insincere, we will lose that consumer allegiance. So in many ways, how we compete is the easiest function for American Love Affair because all we have to do is be ourselves.
We’re coming off of a very important time of year for retail in general, but we’ve heard from a number of retailers – Sears Holdings, Gap, JC Penney, American Eagle Outfitters, Bed Bath & Beyond and Pier 1 Imports (PIR) — that the holiday shopping season wasn’t as expected. How did American Love Affair fare this past holiday season?
We did much better than expected and I attribute that to the surprisingly supportive press, who really helped push our Buy American campaign. Ours is a mission every American can support. Also, as is often said, when you’re new, there are few places to go but up.
Given your product offering, how do you compete with not only those retailers but also the growing behemoth that is Amazon? Why an e-commerce platform for the company rather than a boutique brick and mortar presence?
If we’d ventured out to compete with Amazon, we would have given up long ago. Let me start on a personal level: I learned long ago to define exactly what my strengths are. I also learned that this is a country that values natural talent. I’m not brilliant like a Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates; I’m not talented (or tall) enough to play ball like Kobe Bryant, not beautiful enough to be a supermodel like Gisele, can’t sing like Beyonce and certainly can’t act like Angelina Jolie. So I had to focus on strengths that I could hopefully cultivate into a talent–or a competitive advantage, if you will. And I chose to cultivate my work ethic and indomitable will–both factors I can control–and I can say with absolute certainty that on these two dimensions, I can’t be beat.
Sorry for the roundabout answer but this is my way of re-framing the question. Simply put, we do not compete with Amazon. They are, instead, an inspiration. In the absence of vast resources, we can only play to our strengths, in this case the willingness and desire to work hard–and stay the course in the face of big challenges–to bring value to consumers so that we can all prosper together, because when American Love Affair succeeds, our industry cluster succeeds, our suppliers succeed, our service providers succeed, and most importantly, the American people succeed. Delivering win-win outcomes is the only way forward for long-term business sustenance, in my judgment.
On a more granular level, we focus on niche brands that are typically produced by SMEs that might otherwise have a difficult time getting exposure.
I want to make a last point about competition, which is this: We do not fear competition. In fact, we invite competition, because it forces us to continuously challenge ourselves to innovate. If we cannot be or become the best at what we do, if there is another player better equipped to bring value to consumers along the lines of the mission and vision of American Love Affair, then we do not deserve to—and should not—stay in business.
Lastly, are there any strategic partners — United Parcel Service (UPS), FedEx (FDX), Amazon’s Web Services business or some other companies— that have been critical in the success of American Love Affair?
Yes, we rely heavily on Volusion, UPS, and Dropbox, etc., to carry out the day-to-day functions but the most important strategic partners are various American vendors who managed to keep their production in the U.S., and still create economic value day in, day out, to boot. One need only browse our website to see what kind of value these vendors enable us to deliver every day. We have grown to encompass over 50,000 product SKUs in a short amount of time and are looking to expand our product selection this year, mainly into organic and eco-friendly products, men’s soft goods, baby products, and other consumer goods.