WASHINGTON — Textile and apparel imports to the U.S. in April rose 1.6 percent to 4.2 billion square meter equivalents compared with a year earlier, with a notable shift in production away from China and into other Asian and Central American countries, the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel said Thursday.

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Apparel imports increased 4.9 percent to 1.8 billion SME compared with April 2010, while textile shipments fell 0.75 percent to 2.4 billion SME.

The overall trade deficit shrank to $43.7 billion, its lowest level of the year, from $46.8 billion in March, helping to cheer investors. Retail stocks, on the wane in recent weeks, were among those to benefit as the sector enjoyed its best day in almost a month.

The S&P Retail Index rose 0.8 percent, or 3.78 points, to 505.56 — its biggest one-day gain since May 12. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.6 percent, or 75.42 points, to 12,124.36.

Combined apparel and textile shipments from China, which controls a 41.1 percent share of the U.S. apparel import market, rose 4.9 percent to 1.8 billion SME in April, as a 7 percent increase in textile imports to 1.2 billion SME offset a 0.9 percent decline in apparel imports, which fell to 580 million SME. China’s apparel and textile imports to the U.S. have been uneven this year, posting a major decline of 13.3 percent in March against a year earlier, preceded by a 12.4 percent year-over-year gain in February and a 11 percent yearly increase January.

Apparel imports from Vietnam, the number two apparel supplier to the U.S., rose 19.6 percent in April to 169 million SME, while textile shipments fell 5.9 percent to 135 million SME.

Vietnam has been a major recipient of new apparel production, as rising labor, raw material and transportation costs have forced companies to shift sourcing to lower-cost suppliers. The country is also participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations with the U.S. and eight other countries and will seek duty free benefits for its apparel and textile exports, which could further boost its shipments to the U.S.

“I think what you are seeing here is that finally everybody that kept talking about moving away from China is now actually doing it,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “You are seeing it in the import numbers for Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Cambodia. It’s across the board for the top 20 suppliers and most of them have benefitted from the fact that people are looking for alternatives to China.”

Herman said the continuing shift out of China is also a “reflection of a change in the U.S. market, which is looking for smaller runs and a faster turnaround. China is built for larger runs and not very fast turnarounds.”

As a result, the Central American countries of Honduras, which had a 25 percent increase in apparel imports in April, and El Salvador, with a 20.5 percent gain, have seen their market share grow.

Of the top 10 textile and apparel suppliers to the U.S., China, Vietnam, Mexico, Indonesia, Honduras and South Korea all posted gains in April compared with a year earlier. Pakistan posted the biggest drop in apparel and textile imports to the U.S., with shipments declining 26.3 percent.

The decline in the overall trade deficit resulted from, among other factors, an 13.2 percent decline in auto imports, primarily from earthquake-ravaged Japan, and a 5.5 percent drop in oil imports.

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