WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports from China plunged in March compared with a year earlier, driving down the combined total in imports to the U.S. by double digits, the Commerce Department’s monthly trade report showed Wednesday.
All but India of the top 10 combined apparel and textile suppliers to the U.S. posted declines in imports in the month compared with March 2015.
Combined imports from China fell 42.1 percent to 1.4 billion square meter equivalents in March compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports from China fell 39.4 percent to 471 million SME, while textile shipments declined 43.4 percent to 920 million SME.
Overall textile and apparel imports to the U.S from the world fell 22.2 percent to 4.2 billion SME in March on a year-over-year basis. Apparel imports dropped 21.2 percent to 1.8 billion SME, while textile imports declined 22.9 percent to 2.4 billion SME.
Cambodia, the seventh-largest apparel supplier to the U.S., posted the second-largest decline of 34.4 percent to 79 million SME in apparel and textile shipments in March year-to-year.
Vietnam, the second-largest apparel supplier to the U.S., saw its combined apparel and textile imports fall, a 22.6 percent drop to 309 million SME from a year earlier, led by a 23.1 percent decline in apparel.
Industry officials pointed to several factors that may have impacted the March import numbers, including the West Coast port crisis last year that skewed data, and excess inventory.
“There was a lot of stuff that came in in March and April last year that wasn’t able to come in before because it was sitting out at sea or in the harbor of Long Beach,” Herman said.
The Pacific Maritime Association, representing employers at 29 West Coast ports, and the International Longshore & Warehouse union, representing dockworkers, reached a tentative deal on a new contract on Feb. 20, 2015, that opened the gates to imports that had been delayed.
Most all of the imports from Asia are shipped to the West Coast.
There was a huge gap between the apparel imports from Cambodia, which fell 36 percent in March, and imports from Bangladesh, which posted the only increase in the top 10, a meager 0.5 percent gain.
Herman said there was still a lot of uncertainty last year in Bangladesh, which is undergoing major reforms in its garment industry in the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza that claimed the lives of 1,133 people. He noted that uncertainty “depressed” the imports from Bangladesh last March.
Herman also noted that another factor might be excess inventory that caused companies to pull back on goods being shipped. In general, the shipping time from China to the West Coast is 25 days.
“Retailers might have recognized at the end summer, last fall and the holidays that they would have excess inventories once the holidays were over and decided to pull back,” Herman said.
Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said there could be a downward “correction” in the March import numbers, following a significant increase in imports in February. Six out of the top 10 suppliers to the U.S. in February had double-digit import increases for the month compared with a year earlier. China alone posted a 23.1 percent increase in February.
“You can argue that March is a bit of anomaly and could be some kind of a correction,” Hughes said. “I don’t think [March’s numbers] are a cause for alarm or that it necessarily reflects a huge contraction in sourcing, but it does raise some questions about what is the trend we are going to see. You would have thought that if China went down, Vietnam might have gone up, but we did not see that in these numbers.”
“When I was in China in March, a lot of Chinese producers were talking about the fact that orders were down to Europe and to Japan, but at that point they hadn’t seen a decrease in orders to the U.S.,” Hughes added. “That raises the questions that what we are seeing in March was either a one-off or a correction from the double-digit increases in April and this month will bring us back on keel on a 12-month basis.”
The U.S. trade deficit shrank in March to $40.4 billion from $47 billion in February, led by a steep drop in consumer imports.