Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON — Several top retail executives said Monday, after meeting with Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, that they were optimistic the Clinton administration would quicken the pace of quota elimination on apparel.
“I believe he had an open ear to this, and he was supportive,” said Allen I. Questrom, chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores, at a press briefing in the headquarters of the National Retail Federation.
The retailers were protesting the administration’s schedules for phasing out quotas under the Uruguay Round agreement for liberalized trade. That plan, they argue, would eliminate quota on only 11 percent of the apparel products now under quota until 2005, the final phaseout date.
Assistant Commerce Secretary Rita Hayes, also chairman of the inter-agency Committee on the Implementation of Textile Agreements, told the retail executives the integration proposal “is not cast in stone and changes can be made,” said Martin Trust, president and ceo of Mast Industries, the sourcing division of The Limited.
The retailers did not advocate any particular categories for earlier phaseout, said Donald Fisher, chairman and ceo of The Gap, San Francisco. But they did recommend that 50 percent of quotas be eliminated in the 1998 and 2002 rounds.
The administration’s current proposal is “not in the right spirit” of free trade, Fisher contended. He said leaving most of the phaseout until the end would allow domestic manufacturers to claim that the sudden integration would cause hardship for their industry, and bolster arguments for additional delays.
The retailers played the consumer card with Brown, arguing that each U.S. family pays $400 each year — $34 billion — to cover the cost of quotas on apparel goods. “This is an easy way to put that money back into the pocket of the consumer,” said Raphael Benaroya, chairman and ceo of the United Retail Group, Rochelle Park, N.J., which owns the large-size chains The Avenue and Sizes Unlimited.
Jay Carothers, president of Federated Merchandising & Macy Product Development, said he asked the secretary to consider whether the quotas slated to be phased out in the final stage cover only “sensitive items,”as the trade pact dictates.
NRF president Tracy Mullin described the Brown meeting as “very productive. It’s just part of the process we have to go through to educate the administration about our concerns.”
The next step in the integration debate is an all-day hearing March 20 sponsored by the Committee on the Implementation of Textile Agreements. The deadline for the final list is May 1.
Others who met with Brown were W. Thomas Gould, chairman and ceo of Younkers, and James Oesterreicher, vice chairman and ceo of J.C. Penney Co.
In addition to the textile integration, the retailers and Brown discussed:
Mexican tariffs. Mexico recently announced it would increase its import tariffs on all goods that are not from countries with which it has free-trade pacts, to the maximum levels allowed under international treaties. Brown promised to communicate the retailers’ concerns to his Mexican counterpart, Herminio Blanco, Minister of SECOFI, the Mexican commerce ministry.
China’s most-favored-nation trade status. Although the Clinton administration agreed last year to divorce human rights issues from the granting of MFN, Questrom said “special interest groups” are still trying to link the two. The retailers stated their support for maintaining China’s MFN status.
Mexico’s certificate of origin requirement. NRF vice president for government affairs Robert Hall said at the press briefing that officials from Mexico and from the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and the U.S.Customs Service are working with the NRF to make it easier for exporters into Mexico to supply proof of a shipment’s country of origin.
The change in rules of origin for apparel. Fisher said this was mentioned as a “fait accompli” in the Brown meeting. The retailers did not suggest any initiatives on origin rules, which were changed by Congress last year under protest from retailers and importers. — Fairchild News Service