WASHINGTON — Weakness at retail played a role in overall apparel and textile import declines in April as well as in the first four months of the year, according to industry sources.
Overall textile and apparel imports to the U.S. from the world fell 4.2 percent to 4.6 billion square meter equivalents in April compared with a year earlier, the Commerce Department’s monthly trade report showed Friday.
Apparel imports fell 1.5 percent to 1.8 billion SME, while textile imports fell 5.8 percent to 2.7 billion SME.
Seven of the top 10 apparel and textile supplier to the U.S. saw modest import declines in April compared with a year earlier. That followed major declines in combined imports in March when the majority of top 10 suppliers saw a double-digit plunge on a year-over-year basis.
For the first four months of the year, combined apparel and textile imports were down 1.35 percent.
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said she has heard concerns from member companies about inventory management, which is reflected in the “relatively flat import numbers in the first four months of the year.”
Lamar said the pace of apparel import growth from both Vietnam and Bangladesh has slowed. In April, apparel imports from Vietnam fell 6 percent to 244 million SME compared with April 2015, while apparel imports from Bangladesh fell 7.4 percent to 141 million SME.
Apparel import growth from both countries was much slower for the year-to-date than in the previous 12 months, Lamar noted.
“Both Vietnam and Bangladesh saw strong [apparel import] gains over the past year that now appear to be slowing down during the first four months, particularly in April,” Lamar said. “That suggests to me inventory controls” are being put in place.
China, the top supplier of apparel to the U.S. posted a 10 percent increase in imports to 629 million SME in April compared with a year earlier, but textile imports fell 5 percent, dragging the combined total from China down by 0.5 percent to 1.96 billion SME.
“China will continue to be a strong part of the sourcing matrix,” Lamar said. “On a volume basis they represent a 41 percent [share of the U.S. apparel import market] and that number has held pretty consistently.
“The big growth in recent years has come from Vietnam, which is in the 11 to 12 percent range [in terms of share of U.S. apparel imports],” he added. “I think people are still looking to diversify out of China and developing alternative sourcing option arrangements.”
Meanwhile, some countries have internal wage and labor problems in addition to the broader inventory controls that have led to import declines.
Cambodia, the seventh largest apparel supplier which has struggled with wage and labor issues, posted the largest apparel import decline — a 30 percent drop to 65 million SME in April.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in Cambodia, mainly driven by the labor situation there,” Hughes said. “I’m a little concerned with two months of such substantial declines [apparel imports fell 34.4 percent in March] that we may see a longer-term shift in production although it’s hard to say at this time. I don’t think the labor problems will be resolved any time soon.”
The one bright spot in the apparel import numbers in April was El Salvador, which posted the largest increase of 33.9 percent to 73 million SME compared with a year earlier.
“There is definitely far more interest in being in the Western Hemisphere and Central America in particular,” Lamar said. “You are seeing pockets of strength throughout Central America more and more. A lot of our members are talking about that.”