"When the economy was strong and the sales of product companies were strong, they were placing big orders offshore," says Free. "They'd order a billion widgets and they'd get them shipped here. When the recession hit, they were stuck with that inventory, and that hit their profit margins pretty quickly. They knew it would cost more [to place smaller orders domestically], but it was a less risky capital outlay. And if consumer demand turned, they wouldn't be stuck holding a lot of inventory they would have to eat."
Meanwhile, advances in technology domestically have made it easier to be competitive with overseas companies.
"We have some new machinery and new methods that can be more competitive with China," says Bruce Brandel, president of The Packaging Team, which supplies blister packaging for consumer product goods. "We're starting to see people who moved to Mexico or China say 'If you look at the total picture and cost, it's not much of an advantage — and maybe a disadvantage — to be there'."
For The Packaging Team, the degree of that competitiveness varies by product and order size, but the savings comes from new equipment Brandel says increases the speed of sealing packages ten-fold.
"If you're spending $2 an hour there, you should be able to spend $20 an hour here with the machinery making up the difference," he says. "Also, there are what I call soft costs [that go with offshoring]. Things like lost opportunities, being unable to meet timelines or dealing with late deliveries. What does that cost you?"
There are risks to re-shoring, too. Xu says Chesapeake (which has since transitioned to machine-filled candles) spent $5 million to secure a large factory in Maryland when it moved manufacturing here. That plant spans 125,000 square feet and can produce up to 2,000 candles per hour. But right now, it's not being used to capacity.
The ability to ship product in two weeks versus six or seven is certainly beneficial, but there are overhead concerns. Xu notes that she remains optimistic, though. The number of people required on the manufacturing line is significantly lower in the U.S., which helps lower costs, she says.
Right now, the cost to make a candle in the U.S. is approximately the same as it is to make one in Vietnam, but Chesapeake says its betting it will see notable savings in the future, given the rising salary trends and fuel prices.
Despite what many people might think, capitalizing on the "Made in USA" movement is less of an incentive for many companies.
"In my opinion, there's only one thing that runs corporations today, and it ain't pride, it's all dollars," says Brandel. "[Made in America pride] is a good concept, but if the dollars don’t make sense, it isn't going to happen. And maybe that's the way capitalism is supposed to work."
Even U.S. consumers don't seem to be as passionate about it as many claim — though, ironically, there's a notable demand for U.S.-made products in overseas markets — including China.
"If my Chinese consumers are asking for 'Made in USA' product, wouldn't my U.S. customers do the same and pay a bit more?" says Xu. "Our [U.S.] customers, our buyers, are saying they value [an item that is] made in the U.S.A. if it's the same price. ... If it's more expensive [at retail], there's a pain threshold and we don't know what it is — how much more they'll pay."
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