By  on November 16, 2004

WASHINGTON — It’s a race against time right out of “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Retailers and manufacturers are scurrying to beat potential U.S. Customs embargoes on critical holiday merchandise and get their apparel shipments across the Pacific Ocean from Asia and into stores. They’re being squeezed by the crucial Christmas shopping season and the impending end of quotas on global textile and apparel shipments come Jan. 1.

The first product being hit is bras, which currently are the subject of a U.S. Customs & Border Protection review for alleged transshipment and are part of the intimate apparel category, one that does 27 percent of its annual sales during the key holiday shopping season. Meanwhile, bras are close to filling their quota for the year, one of up to 60 apparel categories nearing the end of their import limits for 2004.

In a sign of how desperate things are, many large retailers and producers are shipping bras by air to the U.S., an expensive route, to beat the anticipated embargo and get them through Customs before the ships carrying competitors’ bras arrive.

Further complicating the sourcing picture is the fact that retailers can’t borrow against next year’s quotas in order to get additional shipments into the country in 2004. Since there will be no quotas in 2005, once a category is filled this year, all further imports will be barred. In addition, West Coast ports are already backlogged by importers looking to get goods into the country under quota and in time for holiday sales and promotions.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection has issued a public memo to importers that it is scrutinizing shipments of bras, dressing gowns, and robes and knit fabric from China due to “numerous entries not claiming the country of origin China,” despite documentation proving otherwise.

“VF Corp., Maidenform, Sara Lee and Warnaco have a lot on the line,” said an executive at an intimate apparel company, who requested anonymity. “There could be big exposure out there and companies could lose millions of dollars.”

The executive also pointed to private label manufacturers that might do 20 percent of the volume with a Target or J.C. Penney and lose it in the last two months of the year.

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