WASHINGTON — Textile and apparel imports to the U.S. in March fell for the first time this year on a year-over-year basis, dropping 3 percent to 3.9 billion square meter equivalents, the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel said Wednesday.

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Apparel imports in March declined 2.8 percent to 1.7 billion SME compared with a year earlier, while textile shipments decreased 3.2 percent to 2.1 billion SME. Combined apparel and textile shipments from the top supplier, China, were down 13.3 percent to 1.3 billion SME in March — as apparel imports from the country sank 23.9 percent to 410 million SME, and textile imports fell 7.3 percent to 881 million SME.

Apparel production in China has been hit by rising labor, raw material and transportation costs, and industry officials have said they are seeing a shift in production to lower-cost suppliers such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia to offset some of the spiraling price increases there.

Of the top 10 apparel and textile suppliers to the U.S., the only other country to post a year-to-year decline in combined apparel and textile imports in March was ninth-place South Korea, which saw shipments fall 11.18 percent to 112 million SME.

“The last time we went through a period where we saw $4 a gallon for gas and oil prices were well above $100 barrel [in 2008], it did have a real impact on shipments,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. “Transportation costs went up substantially, but that raises the question about why we are not seeing decreases in imports from other Asian countries, which are in the same transportation chain.

“I’m hearing consistently from companies that their cost of business in China is really increasing substantially,” Autor said. “That’s not to say there will be an immediate wholesale pullout of China, but it does mean possibly that new orders will be placed elsewhere.”

The nation’s overall trade deficit, driven by a spike in oil import volumes, widened $2.7 billion to reach $48.2 billion in March. The overall trade deficit with China narrowed to $18.1 billion last month.

“There is a slowdown in overall consumer spending in the U.S., relative to the strong growth we were seeing toward the end of last year,” said Gregory Daco, senior economist for IHS Global Insight.

India, the second-largest supplier to the U.S. in March, saw combined shipments rise 18 percent to 329 million SME, while industry imports from number-three Vietnam increased 6.65 percent to 227 million SME.

The top apparel suppliers in March were China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Honduras. China was also the top textile supplier, followed by India, Pakistan, Mexico and Canada.

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