WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile imports to the U.S. were down 3.1 percent in 2011, as retailers and brands played it safe on inventories in a slowly recovering economy, a report from the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel showed Friday.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Apparel imports fell 3.5 percent last year compared with 2010 to 23.8 billion square meter equivalents, while textile imports dropped 2.8 percent to 29.8 billion SME.

Shipments from China, the top supplier of textiles and apparel to the U.S., declined 3.2 percent on a year-over-year basis to 25.1 billion SME. Apparel shipments from China fell 6.2 percent to 9.7 billion SME, while textile imports decreased 1.2 percent to 15.4 billion SME.

Vietnam continued to take business away from China, which is facing higher labor and wage costs. Combined shipments from Vietnam rose 8.7 percent to 3.1 billion SME for the year. Apparel imports were up 4.6 percent to 2 billion SME, while textile imports increased 17 percent to 1.1 billion SME.

Seven of the top 10 supplier countries posted declines in textile and apparel imports to the U.S. in 2011 compared with 2010. The three countries that posted increases in imports last year were Vietnam; India, which had a 1.5 percent hike to 3.3 billion SME, and Indonesia, with a 0.86 percent gain to 1.7 billion SME.

The overall trade deficit in goods and services increased to $558 billion in 2011 from $500 billion in 2010. The increase in imports was driven by industrial supplies and materials, capital goods, consumer goods, autos, parts and engines, food and beverages. The trade deficit widened to $48.8 billion in December from a revised $47.1 billion in November.

“China had a number of months where they were substantially down in 2011,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. “Even with the decreases, China still has 40 percent of the [import business to the U.S.]. We are just seeing some re-calibration of sourcing, a little less from China, which is partially driven by prices and some positive movement from Vietnam.”

Hughes said one country that does not get as much attention and has been steadily growing its apparel import business is Indonesia, which rose 3.6 percent last year to 1.3 billion SME.

“Indonesia is the fourth largest apparel supplier and is continuing to grow, but is like they are the sleeper of top suppliers,” Hughes said. “The industry is vertically integrated and there are a lot of terrific sourcing opportunities there.”

She also pointed to Cambodia, up 9.5 percent year-over-year, and Nicaragua, which was 13 percent higher in 2011 compared with 2010. Bangladesh, the third largest apparel supplier, has lost some apparel sourcing business, dropping 4.1 percent year-over-year. Honduras, the fifth largest apparel supplier, also lost apparel business last year, as imports fell 7 percent.

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