Jennifer and David McMillan used the profits from selling their house to buy manufacturing equipment to make their line of kitschy signs locally. Sales skyrocketed.
For several decades now, American consumers have been inundated with stories of long-time domestic brands outsourcing their manufacturing to China. Inexpensive labor became more important than making quality American-made goods, which provided millions of our friends and neighbors with rewarding jobs.
Now the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands of small American businesses closing their doors and millions of Americans losing their jobs. But if there is anything positive that can be said for these troubling times is that more Americans seem to have taken an interest in buying Made in USA products.
Proof positive of this domestic support is in the story of JennyGems, a gift shop in Harbeson, Delaware that specializes in decorative wooden signs for the home — and a 2020 Made in America Holiday Gift Guide pick.
The story begins in 2008, when Jenny McMillan began selling her signs online after she was laid off from her banking job. She sold books, clothes, toys and other small items to supplement her husband’s income as an animal control officer. They were raising two young daughters, but when the children became adults and set out on their own, the McMillans decided to launch JennyGems.
When the couple opened the store in 2015, they were sourcing their inventory of signs and monogrammed towels from China. JennyGems was making a profit, but the logistical headaches proved too much to bear, and the McMillans gave serious thought about becoming an all Made in America store.
The McMillans had sold their home to invest in their business, and decided to use that money to go all-in on Made in America. And against all odds, JennyGems has become an even greater success. In addition to the retail store, the McMillans now run a manufacturing facility to make their popular signs.
“We didn’t realize what we were getting ourselves into,” said Jenny McMillan. “We bought our first piece of equipment and it arrived a week before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, our sales dropped to almost nothing and it was horrifying.
“We just started an aggressive social media campaign telling everyone we were going to be making our signs in the USA and people started supporting us right away as soon as we said that.”
JennyGems had five employees before the pandemic hit, who they immediately laid off as the retail store was closed as a non-essential business.
But sometimes in business, timing is everything.
Not long after the McMillans’ Made in USA social media blitz, the orders started pouring in. Not only were they able to bring back those five laid-off employees, but they were also able to hire many more craftsmen to staff the manufacturing workshop that produces the signs.
“I am a bit shocked,” said Jenny McMillan. “Not only did we bring back our five employees, but we now have a total of 23 people working here and are looking to hire a few more. We are growing so fast, it is hard to keep up with the orders.
“We have businesses calling us up saying we have a little gift store, and their customers are coming in and saying they don’t want overseas products anymore. They want American-made. Can you make us stuff?”
JennyGems’ main revenue source comes from its specialty signs that people purchase for their homes. Wedding, family and pet signs are particularly popular, and the company expects they will sell at least 250,000 signs this year via the Internet.
Learning on the Job
All of the signs JennyGems sells are now crafted at their 7,500 square-foot retail store where David McMillan has set up a wood-working shop. The couple spent several hundred thousand dollars purchasing expensive printers, CNC routers, table saws, sanding machines and drum sanders.
Not having any prior manufacturing experience, it has been a learning process complete with many self-admitted mistakes for the McMillans. But there is not a lot of manufacturing and available warehouse space in Southern Delaware, so the community has taken notice of the growth of JennyGems.
Just last week, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) even stopped by the store to discuss with the McMillans how the government could help them grow even further and create more jobs in the area.
“Everything we sell now is American-made,” said Jennifer McMillan. “We decided to stop altogether with China. We are completely done with made in China.
“We do make a lot of mistakes now, but we can fix them right here on the spot. It is just wonderful. We’ve brought every single task in-house.”
Mistakes aside, the McMillans’ dogged persistence has paid off. They expect to do between $2 to 2.5 million dollars in sales this year despite the pandemic. They have already broken their previous sales records for Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
And the McMillans are in it for the long haul, relieved to be free of the restraints of depending on China.
“I cannot tell you how glad I am to be done with China, because there were just so many nightmares that happened with importing,” said Jennifer McMillan. “Customs can seize your inventory for random inspections and they just hold it for however long they want to hold it for.
“Our first large order from China when we launched in 2015 was defective. They corrected the mistake, but it took three months, and our money and inventory were tied up and we were just starting out.
“China also was using a very low-quality wood. Now looking at the stuff we are making with real American birch wood, a real American product, it’s almost embarrassing looking at our old China stuff because the quality is like night and day.”
JennyGems currently makes about 300 different signs with varying messages. The company plans to begin producing custom signs, but that endeavor is on hold until next year, in part because they are overwhelmed filling orders for Amazon and Walmart this holiday season.
Like many companies, they also have had some staffing problems with employees needing to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.
But the company is keeping at it, and there is still time to order signs for Christmas, including options like, “Home is Wear the Heart Is,” “Mother,” “Take Your Shoes Off” or a pandemic favorite: “Text If You Need More Toilet Paper.”
If you order a sign as a Christmas gift, JennyGems offers free shipping, a free gift box and a hand-written card. The most popular signs are box or flat wall signs that measure 8 x 6 inches, 6 x 13 inches or 10 x 12 inches. They retail for $14 to $30.
Some of the signs hold personal significance. The McMillians’ oldest daughter, Jillian, is a lawyer in New York City, and 26-year-old Sarah is a nurse. One popular sign during these tough times is one that is close to Jennifer’s heart: “Not All Superheroes Wear Capes, Some Wear Scrubs.”
But for all the long working hours and learning process, Jenny and David McMillan are now proud to be American manufacturers.
“Contributing to the American economy and my employees is one of the best parts and what keeps me motivated,” said Jennifer McMillan. “We once had to rely on China for every little thing. It’s just so good to have everything ourselves right here in Delaware.”