The 88-year-old company recently shifted its crib manufacturing back to the U.S. from China, to a sprawling factory here that not long ago was earmarked for closure along with Stanley’s other two domestic plants. Today, the Robbinsville factory is an oddity in an industry that has been abandoning the U.S. because of costs: It is growing and investing over $8 million in new machinery.
What prompted the move was a string of safety recalls that have roiled the industry in recent years and nearly all involved imports, including several Stanley cribs. Stanley executives contend this has soured people on imported cribs and opened a window for a domestic alternative, even if it cost considerably more.
“Will the consumer pay for ‘safer’ furniture for their child? We think so,” says Glenn Prillaman, chief executive.
Stanley, based in High Point, N.C., doesn’t mention recalls in its marketing, emphasizing instead its dizzying list of 85 colors, from cotton candy to sea grass, and a “green” certification it obtained from a third-party testing group. But safety is always a subtext.
“We let people imagine: This is American made, versus China made,” says Mr. Prillaman. “All the things they have heard about dog food, cribs—we let the consumer come to that on their own.”
Stanley’s cribs are an example of how some kinds of production that previously moved offshore have begun trickling back. But they also underscore the cost problem that drove these industries out in the first place. Furniture making is labor intensive and difficult to automate. So while machine manufacturing and other industries have offset higher U.S. costs with automation and maintained their U.S. presence, the furniture industry continues to struggle.
The upshot is that Stanley’s U.S.-made cribs, marketed under the red-white-and-blue name Young America, sell for about $700, while imports that look nearly identical can be had for $400. To be sure, there are far more expensive cribs than Stanley’s, both imported and domestic, but they represent a tiny slice of the crib market.
It helps that baby furniture occupies a niche that makes it easier for some people to pay more than they would otherwise. “We estimate 20% to 30% of the time, a grandparent is helping to pay,” says Mr. Prillaman. “So it is something where people find it easier to stretch.” Moreover, even those who don’t get help seem more willing to splurge when it comes to their children.
When Neil and Corina Khettry started shopping for a crib for their son, born last May, the Wynnewood, Pa., couple looked at what they thought was an Italian-made crib that had good consumer reviews and cost only $300. But the salesman at their store warned them production had been outsourced to Brazil, using questionable quality wood.
“He said he was much more comfortable selling us the Stanley product, because of safety, sturdiness, durability, quality,” says Mr. Khettry, who admits he had no idea about the crib recalls before he went shopping. The Khettry’s final bill, including delivery and assembly, was $779.
Michael Dugan, a business professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., and an expert on the global furniture business, says other producers may follow Stanley’s lead and bring crib manufacturing back to the U.S. Besides the recall issues, he says, children’s furniture is particularly difficult to source overseas because customers demand such a wide range of styles and colors. That is easier done close to home.”But that is not a harbinger of all furniture coming back,” he adds. “Furniture is gone for good; it’ll come back when the Dodgers come back to Brooklyn.”
The company stopped its last domestic production of adult furniture in the U.S. last year and now imports those goods. Shoppers simply won’t pay the premium it would require to make comparable goods in the U.S., says the company. Stanley revenue has shrunk to less than half its 2007 size; last year it had a loss of $8.6 million on $104.6 million in sales.
Stanley’s plant in Robbinsville was built in the 1960s, first to make carpet, but then converted to make wood furniture. Stanley bought it in the 1980s and in 2008 was preparing to shut it down as part of its shift toward selling imports. Today, the cavernous plant, where the air smells of wood dust and varnish, is undergoing renovations aimed at cutting costs by automating areas where that is possible.
Leading the way through the plant, Micah Goldstein, Stanley’s chief operating officer, points to a cluster of new machines that do the initial cutting of pieces for all types of furniture, from bookcases to changing tables and cribs. The new machines require only nine employees to operate, replacing what was formerly done by 42 workers operating a much larger collecting of aging equipment.
As the company has modernized, it has shed workers. It started this year with 375 hourly workers. But the installation of the new cutting line alone prompted a layoff of 12% of the work force earlier this year. It now employs 329 people.
Mr. Goldstein pauses at a station where six workers are hunched over sanding wheels. “In Asia, I pay 63 cents an hour for this; here it is $10 an hour.”
That is the starting pay for production workers. The factory pays up to $18 an hour for workers with specialized skills in maintaining its cutting machinery. The irony is that as they find ways to automate work, it will need fewer low-skilled workers and more of those pricier ones who are needed to keep the machines running.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at [email protected]