Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — Textile and apparel imports in September surged 10.3 percent against a year ago and were up 6.2 percent for the third quarter, ending a nine-month slide and giving further evidence that apparel retailers are seeing a turnaround.
This import growth, said Ira Silver, J.C. Penney’s chief economist, “is consistent with fairly strong apparel sales of late compared with the past three years.”
Silver added that the import pickup — indicative of retailers’ expectations — coupled with recent upturns in consumer confidence, buying power and employment, indicates “this should be a good holiday season” for retailers.
Apparel imports alone in September were up 10.1 percent, and textile imports gained 10.4 percent, according to Commerce Department figures released Wednesday.
Textile and apparel imports combined in September came to 1.7 billion square meters equivalent. For the first nine months of this year, these imports were 14.1 billion SME, off 0.2 percent from a year ago, and for the year ending September, they stood at 18.3 billion SME, off 0.6 percent from a year ago.
Apparel imports in the month amounted to 884.4 million SME. For the year to date, they were up 0.9 percent to 7.2 billion SME and for the year ending September they rose 0.7 percent to 9.3 billion SME.
Textile imports in September came to 823.9 million SME. For the year-to-date they were down 1.4 percent to 6.9 billion SME, and were down 1.9 percent to 8.9 billion SME for the 12 months through September.
A trend over a quarter is a good key to determining the critical direction of these imports, averred Donald Foote, director of the agreements division with Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel. Following apparel and textile import declines of 0.1, 2.4 and 1.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 1995 and the first two quarters of this year, respectively, “the third quarter increase of 5.9 percent indicates that a turnaround has occurred,” he said.
Significantly, he added, recent trade data indicate that imports from China now are growing strongly after several quarters of precipitous declines. For example, imports of Chinese apparel and textiles plunged 23.5 percent in the third quarter of 1995, and then posted drops averaging more than 30 percent for each of the next three quarters. But these imports inched up 0.8 percent in the third quarter of this year, due mainly to a 30 percent surge in September.
The lion’s share of September’s import growth from China was due to sharply higher shipments of cotton print cloth (category 315), cotton underwear (category 352), cotton bedspreads (category 362), man-made fiber men’s non-suit coats (category 634), man-made fiber pajamas (category 651), and silk blend luggage (category 870).
Foote said the potential exists for China to continue to ship apparel and textiles here at very high rates for the rest of this year, since virtually all categories had ample unused quota through mid-November.
Meanwhile, apparel imports from Mexico and the Caribbean Basin Initiative countries continued to push ahead this year, overshadowing China. While China’s apparel shipments came to 656 million SME in the first nine months of this year, down 10.2 percent from a year ago, Mexico sent 801 million SME to the U.S., up 40.4 percent. The CBI countries shipped 1.6 billion SME, up 10 percent.
The Mexico and CBI shipments are a healthy sign for some segments of domestic manufacturing, since most of the apparel made in these nations for shipment to the U.S. utilizes either U.S.-made fabrics, or is assembled there from U.S. cut-and-formed fabrics, under the auspices of U.S.-owned apparel makers.
The import figures generally are considered a lagging economic indicator since sourcing orders typically are made six to nine months before apparel is shipped.
Nevertheless, Penney’s Silver said the third-quarter import data indicate retailers are responding to signs of an improving market. “Sales have been up 3 to 4 percent for specialty retailers for the year-to-date, compared with declines or a flat performance a year earlier,” he said.
“Early in this year apparel inventories were [low] and so it looks like apparel retailers cut back…and then found themselves with not enough merchandise when people began to pick up their buying,” he said.