UPDATE: Williams-Sonoma to Pay $1 Million to Settle FTC Lawsuit over Misleading Made in USA Claims
May 21st, 2019
Editor’s Note: Updates have been posted at the end of this article.
On Tuesday, TINA.org filed a deceptive made in the USA marketing complaint against California-based specialty retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. with the FTC. Here are five things to know about the complaint against one of the largest e-commerce retailers in the country.
1. It follows a TINA.org investigation. The probe found hundreds of products deceptively marketed as American-made on e-commerce websites for various Williams-Sonoma Inc. brands: Williams-Sonoma, Williams-Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn, PBteen, Pottery Barn Kids, Rejuvenation and West Elm. Products in TINA.org’s sampling include furniture, lighting fixtures, kitchenware, rugs, jewelry and bedding products.
2. It also comes after the FTC investigated Williams-Sonoma. But the FTC dropped its inquiry into the retailer’s made in the USA claims last June after Williams-Sonoma corrected what it attributed to a mix-up with SKU numbers, which it blamed on “company personnel.” The “isolated error,” as the company described it, resulted in a Chinese-made mattress pad being labeled “Crafted in America” on the PBteen website. At the time, Williams-Sonoma assured the FTC that it has a process in place to “prevent consumer deception with respect to country-of-origin claims for products on its websites.” That process appears to be badly broken.
3. It exposes how origin information is hidden from consumers. For example, in order to find out where this bar stool that is part of a collection that Williams-Sonoma markets as “Handcrafted in the USA” is actually made, visitors must scroll down more than half the length of the product page — past where they might select the fabric, color and finish they want and click “Add to Cart” without scrolling further — to a list of four options. One of these options, “Dimensions & More Info,” holds the key to unlocking the actual country of origin of the bar stool. But in order to access the information, visitors must click to expand the section. Only then is it revealed: Made in China.
Elsewhere, such as on the Rejuvenation homepage, above, Williams-Sonoma markets the brand as “Made in America,” with a call to action to “shop all furniture.” Yet TINA.org found that many Rejuvenation furniture pieces are imported or contain imported parts. For example, in a blog on the Rejuvenation site that is several clicks removed from the homepage, Williams-Sonoma states that its leather – clearly a critical component of its leather furniture — is not sourced domestically but rather from Italy, Thailand and New Zealand. Based on this information, none of Rejuvenation’s leather furniture, including the sectional above and the chair below, meets the FTC’s “all or virtually all” made in the U.S. standard for unqualified made in the USA claims. This, despite the furniture appearing in close proximity to such claims in the company’s marketing materials (the chair was featured in a promotional email from Rejuvenation).
4. It notes there’s more than one way to say “made in the USA.” In its marketing materials, Williams-Sonoma uses several terms to convey that its products are made in the USA — including artisanal-sounding words such as “benchmade,” “handcrafted” and “crafted” — when frequently that is not the case. Williams-Sonoma compounds the problem by occasionally using these terms interchangeably with others like “assembled,” which, according to the FTC, conveys a different meaning (i.e., that the product is not entirely made in the USA).
5. It urges the FTC to send a message. If the FTC wants its enforcement policy statement on U.S.-origin claims to be taken seriously, it needs to take strict action against companies it finds in violation of the law. Otherwise, what deterrent do companies have against breaking the law? They know the majority of Americans prefer American-made products to imported ones. If they have to stretch the truth or outright lie about where their products are made, what’s stopping them if the cop on the beat isn’t going to hold them accountable for their deceptive marketing? This is not the first or even the second time that the subject of an FTC closing letter continued to make false U.S.-origin claims after the FTC ended its inquiry. But the FTC can send a message that it could be one of the last by reopening its investigation into Williams-Sonoma and taking appropriate enforcement action this time around.
3/30/20: Ten months after TINA.org filed a complaint with the FTC against Williams-Sonoma, the agency on Monday announced a settlement with the home goods and kitchenware company over misleading claims that its products were “all or virtually all” made in the United States. The FTC made the announcement in a press release that includes some of the same deceptive made in the USA marketing materials that TINA.org alerted the regulator to in May 2019 (such as the two examples above). The company will pay $1 million and is prohibited from making misleading made in the USA claims in the future.
5/29/19: A week after TINA.org filed a complaint against Williams-Sonoma with the FTC, simultaneously alerting the company to its findings, a third of the more than 100 made in the USA claims in TINA.org’s database have either been taken down or edited to reflect accurate origin information. An example of the latter can be seen here.
Read more about TINA.org’s complaint against Williams-Sonoma here.