Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Softness in retail sales may have contributed to a slowdown of textile and apparel import growth during November, which increased only 7.2 percent from year-ago levels. That’s the lowest growth rate since a 4.1 percent monthly gain in July 1999, according to Commerce Department data released Friday.
Textile and apparel shipments have posted double-digit gains also since July 1999, with the exception of a 9.7 percent increase in September. In November 1999, imports rose 23.9 percent against year-ago shipments.
However, on a year-to-date basis, textile and apparel imports in November continued to grow at a double-digit pace, increasing 16.2 percent from the previous 11-month period. Individually, year-to-date apparel imports rose 15 percent and for textiles were up 17.4 percent.
The falloff in November imports could reflect the slowdown in consumer spending reported by retailers, said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. In addition, early shipments of holiday merchandise may have contributed to the lower growth rate, Hughes said.
“This doesn’t mean that imports are going down,” Hughes said. “I wouldn’t want to read any trend into [the November numbers].”
Apparel imports in November increased 9.9 percent against November 1999 and textile imports grew 4.7 percent.
Charles Bremmer, director of international trade of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, said a major contributing factor in the slowdown in apparel import growth is that quotas in some of the large shippers like the Philippines, Pakistan, Hong Kong and China had been filled. For textiles, Bremmer pinned the falloff in shipments on the economic slowdown that’s put a crimp in demand for imported, as well as domestic, textiles.
“I think we will see low rates of growth in December” for textiles and apparel, Bremmer said. However, at least for apparel, in January, the start of a new quota year, “we will see those apparel numbers go right back up again,” he said.
Even countries without quota saw a decline of apparel and textile shipments in November, notably Mexico and Canada, part of the NAFTA agreement.
Mexico, the largest U.S. foreign apparel supplier, has repeatedly seen double-digit or near-double-digit year-over-year increases, but in November shipments grew by 1.45 percent. Shipments from Canada, the top foreign textile supplier, increased by 3.25 percent.
Hughes speculated the decline in trade with NAFTA partners may be due to importers preparing to switch orders to the Caribbean Basin, which as of October, began to receive free-trade benefits for apparel made from U.S. textiles.

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