When we planned this trip to Southeast Asia, we knew that we would be encountering some wacky weather. For most of the trip, it was going to be hot. But for about a month, we anticipated some stormy and cool weather. That month happened to fall while we were in Vietnam, specifically in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. We arrived on February 15, and for the duration of our 8-day stay (while we recovered from illness), it was cold and rainy, for which I was completely unprepared. So, I decided to buy a fleece jacket. And in my successful outing, I realized that the way I shop at home is really stupid.
Throughout Vietnam, tourists will see more than their fair share of Made in Vietnam stores. Some will be legitimate storefronts with quality goods inside, and others will be small shops with considerably cheaper goods. It’s all made in Vietnam. But unlike the message they are sending when they stamp a “Made in the USA” or “Made in Italy” label on things, which is that these are high-quality goods made by quality labor (as opposed to goods made by children in, for instance, Southeast Asia), the message here is, “It’s cheap and made locally.” So if you see something with the North Face label on it and it is in a Made in Vietnam store, it may or may not be the real deal, but you can be confident that you won’t — or at least shouldn’t — pay REI prices for it. And even if it isn’t the real deal, who cares?
(Side note: There are legitimate brand stores all over the place, too, where you can buy authentic branded merchandise at real American prices, like Adidas soccer cleats for $120. But after a few days in Vietnam, those prices seem not just ridiculous but criminal.)
So I walked into this store looking for a fleece. I didn’t care which brand, and it didn’t have to be the best quality, but I wanted it to be decent enough to give me a few good months of wear — at the very least, it had to get me through Hanoi’s chilly, rainy climate. I perused the racks of Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Champion, North Face and other big brand merchandise, priced similarly to what one would pay in the US (again, a huge ripoff by Vietnamese standards), and then found a winner. It said it was Rossignol, a somewhat well-known foreign ski brand, and it was priced at $26, without having to negotiate. It’s great — well-made, wears nicely, and keeps me warm and dry.
Which begs the question: why don’t I shop like this at home?
At home, for the same thing, I would have walked into a specific “fleece” store, paid probably $70, and it still would have been made in Vietnam (or heaven forbid, Bangladesh). Here I get quality goods for a much better price, and I am completely satisfied. So why do I fork over three times as much at home, and why oh why do I care about brands at all?
I’m interested academically in marketing and branding. Branding done well helps a consumer make the right choices, and gives a customer more after a purchase than just a thing; it inspires loyalty and community. But I think that unfortunately, what has happened is that marketing has convinced us to pay more for status and get less in return.
If a product were made in the USA, with American wages and good working conditions, paying a lot is one thing; we should be buying locally produced goods to promote better labor and help those who are producing them. But instead, we are paying way too much for name brands that use foreign labor to produce their goods. (In Vietnam, by the way, $26 is far too much to pay for pretty much anything, since a decent wage is about $5 a day.)
We should be demanding more from our brands. If we are going to pay $80 for a fleece, there should be some other kind of benefit that we get, or there should be more benefit to those that produce those goods. Otherwise, we should just be looking for a quality product at a decent price, no other benefits added. We should be making companies work for us, not the other way around. If they don’t, then we should be paying $4 for their t-shirts and $26 for their fleeces. Leave your comments below.