WASHINGTON — The volume of U.S. apparel and textile imports reached the highest level in history last year, as brands and retailers beefed up inventories in anticipation of a rebound in consumer spending in conjunction with the economic recovery.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Apparel and textile imports jumped 19 percent to 55.4 billion square meter equivalents compared with a year earlier, marking the highest level reached since at least 1989 when electronic data collection first began, the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel said Friday. An OTEXA official said it was a record level historically even prior to 1989, when domestic production was more prevalent and a smaller population translated into a lower level of consumption.

Apparel imports also set a record in 2010, rising 16.1 percent to 24.7 billion SME compared with a year earlier. Textile imports rose 21 percent to 30.6 billion SME.

“From a general consumer goods perspective, what you had was a ramping up of inventories [last year],” said Greg Daco, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. “There is bound to be an uptick for consumer goods in general given the fact that we’ve seen strong consumer spending momentum due in part to President Obama’s payroll tax deduction, which is giving stimulus to consumer spending.”

Combined apparel and textile shipments from top-supplier China were up 25.5 percent to 26 billion SME in 2010, while industry imports from India, the second largest source, rose 19 percent to 3.25 billion SME. Combined industry shipments from number-three Vietnam advanced 31 percent to 2.87 billion SME. Other countries posting major import growth for the year were Honduras, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Mexico.

All the top-10 countries saw increases in combined industry import growth except South Korea, with shipments dropping 7.9 percent to 1.3 billion SME. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the House Ways & Means committee last week that the administration will soon send the South Korean free trade agreement to Congress, which, if approved, is expected to boost two-way trade between the nations.

The nation’s overall trade deficit grew to $497.8 billion in 2010 from $374.8 billion in 2009, according to the Commerce Department.

“Looking forward, strong emerging markets growth and a historically weak dollar should boost U.S. exports and help offset imports growth, thereby keeping a lid on the trade gap,” Daco said.

Congress failed to renew and was poised to let lapse this weekend a trade preference program giving duty free benefits to Colombia and Ecuador and a program that helps retrain workers laid off because of competition from imports.

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