Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Coffee mugs and global commerce...

My husband really likes his coffee. So much so that, as a Christmas gift from me, he picked out one of those whiz-bang super-duper fancy-schmancy coffee machines that, if it had a set of wings, surely it could fly!

Six weeks after Christmas he seems happy with his coffee maker. He’s a mechanical engineer, after all, and he seems to be rather pleased with his new toy, fiddling with this control or that, visiting all manner of specialty coffee shops, buying tiny sample bags of this exotic coffee or that, all for trying out in his new…it grinds its own beans!...coffee machine.

One of the more interesting side effects of his new coffee obsession is his attention to coffee cups and mugs. Like most people, we have an eclectic collection of odd mugs, mostly broken sets, but a few strange souvenir mugs from various venues. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, some tall and narrow, some short and stout, all of them holding differing amounts of liquid. Hubby likes a big cup of coffee, but one of the unfortunate things about his fancy-schmancy coffee machine is that, while the spout height is adjustable, it is only adjustable to accommodate mugs of the short, shorter, shortest variety. A tall mug that will accommodate a man-sized serving of coffee just will not fit. Alas, my man’s hero-sized Tigger mug from Disneyland has had to be shelved!

So, the other day we were wandering through our local Pick ‘n’ Pay (South Africa’s answer to Safeway, for American readers) and happened upon some mugs that seemed to be the answer to his prayers…just tall enough to slip under the spout and wide enough…in a pleasingly tapered shape…to accommodate a healthy helping of coffee. And, to make them downright serendipitous, they were blue and white, which is the colour scheme of my kitchen accessories. We bought four, but only after searching through a dozen or more to find four relatively perfect ones…the rest having nicks, chips, kiln-marks, sloppy paint, or other such imperfections.

Hubby was overjoyed…we got home and he slipped one under the coffee machine’s spout and it was one of those millimetre-close fits. “Super,” I said. “Give me the mugs and I’ll wash them for you and you can make yourself a cup of coffee.”

Did I mention that they cost less than R7 each…less than a dollar? A peculiarly low price, considering that they seemed to be well made out of quality materials. They had a soft matte glaze that I recognized from more high-end crockery in the States, and while they were obviously seconds, they were nicely designed and made. It hadn’t seemed particularly odd in the store…just a really good buy…but at the sink I had to give them a second thought. The bottom of each mug was covered with a bar coded paper sticker and as I removed the first one I saw the words “The Cellar.” Odd, I thought, continuing to work the sticker off…wasn’t “The Cellar” the name Macy’s uses for its housewares section (which is ordinarily larger than an entire Boardman’s store and more fully stocked with higher quality merchandise)?

I continued to scrub at the sticker until it finally rolled up into a little gummy ball in my fingers and what did I find beneath it? “Made in China Expressly for Macy’s”! I let out a hoot of laughter, distracting Hubby from communing with his Beautiful Machine. “Macy’s!” I crowed. “These were made for Macy’s!” He looked momentarily non-plussed, then wondered aloud if Macy’s knew that merchandise made expressly for them was being sold by other retailers. Ordinarily, when seconds of this nature are released through other outlets, the identifying labels/marks are removed or obliterated…there should have been a big blob of black paint obscuring Macy’s name before this went on the shelf.

Other questions are brought to bear? Did the Chinese manufacturer have Macy’s permission to wholesale Macy’s QC rejects to other vendors? Did the Pick ‘n’ Pay buyer recognize that s/he may have been buying goods that the commissioning retailer may have ordered destroyed (a common practice for seconds in the ceramics industry)? Does Macy’s know that substandard merchandise bearing its name is being sold overseas? Is Macy’s earning anything from the sales of its goods here in South Africa?

My husband is happy with his new mugs, but this whole thing brings up some hard questions for me in relation to South Africa’s newest trading ventures with China. Will my next trip to America find me looking at South African goods that the commissioning manufacturer never intended for sale in the US…and for which he receives no earnings? Somehow, I don’t think that’s such a far-fetched idea anymore.

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