Flag Day signals uptick for US flag manufacturers

On Flag Day, US flag retailers and manufacturers are optimistic about a rebound in their business as imports fall.

Toby Talbot/AP photo
Chuck Keough puts up a row of American flags to celebrate Flag Day at his home in East Montpelier, Vt., Monday. Mr. Keough is a US Army veteran, having served in the Korean War. American-based flag manufacturers are optimistic about sales of US flags this summer.

It’s Flag Day – when Americans gather together to commemorate the adoption of the US flag at the Second Continental Congress in 1777.

Or, at least, to wave their own little piece of America.

The holiday falls in the middle of a patriotic tour de force: between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. For US flag manufacturers and retailers, this is go time. So, at the tail end of the worst recession in 80 years, how are they holding up?

“The flag business is alive and well,” says Jan Hartman, owner of Flag Lady Gifts a Pennsylvania-based flag retailer.

That’s not to say that Ms. Hartman and other retailers haven’t been affected by the recession. “Certainly we’ve had to trim fat,” acknowledged Hartman. But manufacturers are seeing signs of growth.

“May was very strong in terms of sales,” said Janice Christiansen, owner of FlagSource, an Illinois-based flag manufacturer. The company was kept afloat during the worst stretch of the recession last year by government contracts, which stayed steady when orders from commercial retailers dipped.

Last month’s strong numbers seem to indicate that dealers are replenishing their inventory, said Ms. Christiansen. “We remain guardedly optimistic about the economy,” she said in a phone interview before excusing herself to join the rest of her co-workers in an all-staff Flag Day Pledge of Allegiance.

Part of what could account for the uptick in business this year could have as much to do with politics as with economics.

Tea Partiers and other conservative voters looking to express their frustration with the Obama administration’s policies have been a boon for flag retailers. This year the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag has replaced the Betsy Ross flag as the second most popular in Hartman’s store. (The standard US flag is still No. 1.)

Spikes in patriotism among Americans have not always meant good news for the US flag industry. After 9/11, the industry was effectively shut down as people rushed to buy flags in the aftermath of the attacks. Inventories were quickly depleted, and, for the first time, cheap foreign-made flags were imported en masse by retailers to meet demand.

In 2000, only about $748,000 in US flags were imported. In 2001, the dollar value of imported US flags soared to $51 million, according to the US census.

The number of US flags imported to the country had dwindled since then to $3 million in 2009, while US-made flag sales have slipped less dramatically in the last few years, hovering around $350 million from 2004 to 2006, and dropping to around $300 million in 2009.

The sharp drop in imported flags could be due in part to US-based flag manufacturers advocating “Made in the USA” certified flags in recent years.

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