how the world sees america

America's (Over?) Educated Consumers

Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.

Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu -- What’s the thread count of your pillowcase? If you’re American, Shanthi Srinivasan, the CEO & Managing Director of Premier Fine Linens, thinks you’re more likely to know than any other consumer in the world. Flattered? Don’t be.

Working to break into the U.S. market, Shanthi realized just how brand-obsessed and labeling-oriented American consumers are. Unlike Europeans, she says, who are content with standard 300 thread count bed fabrics, Americans demand higher and higher thread counts because U.S. companies have taught them this equals higher quality. To a point this is true, she says, but when Americans order 1000 thread count fabrics, it becomes comical "because they are so heavy...they become uncomfortable."

Shanthi first came on board her great-grandfather's yarn spinning company, tucked into a hilly region just outside industrial Coimbatore in southern India, when the U.S. textile industry still imported large quantities of unfinished yarn. In the past decade, American textiles have nearly vanished, so Coimbatore has moved into production of finished textiles. Shanthi focused on tapping this growing American market for imported fabrics, and was surprised at just how knowledgeable her new consumers were.

Sitting in her office, overlooking hundreds of 18 to 22-year-old women earning 4000 rupees (US$100) per month (saving up for marriage), she tells me bed linens were her way in, capitalizing on wide-looms she already owned. Her Premier Fine Linens exports US$10 million in bed linens to America and is growing fast. 93% of the company's bedlinen exports go to the U.S. through trading companies like DW Holdings and West Point Home, which pass them along to the likes of Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, J.C. Penny’s and Calvin Klein.

What is it about Americans that makes them so obsessed with numbers on product labels? Brand names and product identification are what make America its money; when consumers can afford to choose, they pay money to believe they're choosing wisely. America itself is also a brand, and American-made products fetch higher prices than those labled as coming from developing parts of the world.

“India and China are considered cheap" these days, Shanthi says, because there are just so many suppliers. And India hasn't had the time, reach or know-how to brand themselves like America or Italy in the global market for luxury goods. So while companies and consumers do set margins for different thread counts -- $22 for 300, $44 for 800 -- they still don't pay attention to the other details of quality that Shanthi's textiles provide. Shanthi says that women in her factory inspect fabrics, remove oils, pick out loose threads, and that all costs money too. But it's the thread count that symbolizes quality in America, and that seems to matter more than the quality itself, she says.

Shanthi is patient, though. Her family's company has been growing for three generations. First they made yarn, now they make fabrics. Shanthi labels herself "a fine Asian provider" to fetch slightly higher prices than her Chinese competitors who churn out fabrics in high volume. She continues to learn how to work the American consumer market, and one day maybe her company will do it all in-house, creating their own Indian version of Donna Karan or Dolce & Gabbana.

Join Monthly Mailing List | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

Comments (11)

opposite:

Americans arn't more dumb or smarter then any other industrial country, to say so is ignorant. The American consumer likes numbers like thread count because we have no time to pay attention to sheets!

Bill:

thoreau...in the forest, without a pillowcase

Tom:

I agree that consumers in America are not really educated so much as duped. But the point is very well taken. We have so many needs being created by industries that we didnt even know we had. It's insane. And it's all about how good this or that is by numbers rather than what we really need. Where's Rousseau?

BV:

American consumers over educated? You must be living in India to consider that. If you live in US and dont read the popular news media, the view would be different. Just unleash a marketing campaign and put "uncomfortabily index" of the bed sheet with a more creative name ( Im not a marketer obviously). US consumers want the number to be more every year. As long as noone dies within a year of consuming/enjoying, you can sell anything to American consumer. Put 20 spoons of sugar into a glass of water and wrap american flag araound it, you can sell it in billions and you can make them drink 12 of them a day for $2.50!!! Put a 32 spoons of sugar into a mixture and call it 'healthy organge juice' ( don't forget the picture of Sun rise on the cover!!). Mommies will buy and feed their kids to make them strong (type-2 diabetic) ( If there is type-3 people will unknowingly compete for that too!!!). Now the consumers are becoming little more aware, wait for India to have food revolution from used machinery sale from US.

Jeremy:

another very very gorgeous video!

Tina:

I have been disheartened recently by the level of ignorance amongst my group of close friends about current world events. I'm an American myself and find it hypocritical for my friends to quip about the Iraq war but don't bother to make the effort to inform themselves about what's happening.

This is a great article and it makes me wonder whether we can get Americans to care more about events and politics abroad if we can use our bedspreads, televisions, computers, and other imported consumer goods as conduits by which our disconnected population may "connect" with the rest of the world.

And my hope is that one day we will be as informed about the current events happening in the areas where our imported goods are made as we are knowledgeable about linens and threadcounts.

Amar:

Yes, apologies, 4000 per month! American journalists, at leas this one, don't really make 4000 a day either.

suresh:

KUDOS to Ms. Shanthi Srininvasan for emerging as a doyen in the textile industry and that too in the place where there is the toughest of the competition.

all my best wishes to emerge as the captain for the Fabrics industry in America.

but the author has given Rs.4000/- per day. that is only mismatch statement which has been given.

suresh:

KUDOS to Ms. Shanthi Srininvasan for emerging as a doyen in the textile industry and that too in the place where there is the toughest of the competition.

all my best wishes to emerge as the captain for the Fabrics industry in America.

but the author has given Rs.4000/- per day. that is only mismatch statement which has been given.

Vijay:

"women earning 4000 rupees (US$100) per day ". - That's a big pay in Coimbatore. I'm guessing it's a typo. It might be 4000 rupees per month.

Mubasshir:

Great! One of your finest pieces from India! I have been waiting for a textile story ever since you travelled to the South India. It makes so much sense to a self-confirmed textiles enthusiast! I wish you could file more stories focusing on the textile business and exports to the U.S.

Post a comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.