WASHINGTON — Textile and apparel imports to the U.S. fell 5.4 percent to 4.8 billion square meter equivalents in September from a year earlier, as eight of the top 10 supplier countries, including China and Bangladesh, posted declines, the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel said Thursday.

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Apparel shipments declined 7.6 percent to 2.3 billion SME compared with September 2010, while textile imports dropped 3.2 percent to 2.5 billion SME.

September is traditionally a strong import month for retailers and apparel brands stocking inventory for the holiday season, but a weak economy and uneven consumer spending have forced companies to play it cautious this year.

“September was surprisingly not as big a month for imports as you would have [expected] for the holidays,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “Basically, things are tough right now. You are seeing a lot of weakness as we head into the holidays.”

As a result, Hughes said, companies are stressing how important it is to ship later in the year than they normally would.

“I do think companies are holding back on making decisions to see what is selling,’’ she said, adding October’s import numbers will be the most telling gauge for the holidays.

The overall trade deficit narrowed sharply to $43.1 billion from $45.6 billion in August, marking the lowest trade deficit this year, according to Gregory Daco, principal U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.

“Traditional consumer goods imports rose a bleak 0.1 percent,” Daco said. “Since September and October import data typically include orders for holiday sales, this report is in line with our expectation of a modest holiday season.”

Apparel sourcing has continued to shift away from China in the past year, as rising labor and transportation costs have driven business to other Asian competitors such as Vietnam, which, along with Cambodia, were the only top 10 supplier countries where apparel imports to the U.S. rose in September. Apparel shipments from Vietnam, the second largest apparel supplier to the U.S., rose 0.6 percent to 178 million SME, while shipments from Cambodia rose 7.2 percent to 106 million SME.

Combined apparel and textile shipments from China fell 5.6 percent to 2.5 billion SME in September, as apparel imports fell 7.6 percent to 1.1 billion SME and textile shipments fell 3.9 percent to 1.3 billion SME.

“This supports what industry leaders have been talking about for awhile,” Hughes said. “China is firmly, solidly the most important source of apparel, but it is not the only source and most companies are looking, for a number of reasons…for other sourcing destinations.”

Several of the top 10 apparel suppliers posted double-digit declines in September compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports from Bangladesh fell 21 percent to 114 million SME, while imports from El Salvador fell 20 percent to 63 million SME and imports from Honduras fell 17 percent to 96 million SME.

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