China as an Apparel Importer: A Big Picture View

China is well-known as the single largest apparel exporter in the world. However, with the critical changes of the world economy as well as the evolution of the global textile & apparel sector over the past decade, it is the time to seriously study China as a fast-growing apparel import market.

First and foremost, it is a wrong perception that Chinese consumers only consume clothing “made in China”.  On the contrary, as put it by a 2011 ITC consulting report on the Chinese market for Clothing:  “in Zara’s stores in Shanghai, over 90% of stock-keeping units (SKUs) are imported, with Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and Viet Nam and being the main import sources. Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Indonesia are also important procurement target countries. Shoes made in Viet Nam and Spain account for a high proportion in Zara. New H&M stores in Shanghai attracted thousands of consumers when they opened in April 2007 Of H&M’s SKUs, 75% are imported, with Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Turkey being the main source countries.”

However, like any other countries in the world, the apparel import market in China also has its unique features & patterns. For example, woven men’s wear accounted for almost 1/3 of China’s total apparel imports. Actually, the aggregate import demand for men’s wear was 17%-20% larger than the import demand for women’s wear in China from 2008 to 2012. As another important feature: in 2012, 83% and 13% of China’s apparel imports came from Asia and Europe respectively, leaving only 4% market share for the rest of the world. This pattern implies that China’s apparel import demand could be rather polarized: either extremely price competitive products (even cheaper than “made in China”) or very high-end luxury goods (such as those made in Germany, Italy, UK and France).

Additionally, it should be highly noted that  “China is not a single unified market but a collection of local markets, each with different market demands, consumer behaviors, competition levels, and market access conditions.” (More reading: Understand China’s retail market)  This feature is particularly important for those Western-based apparel retailers interested in entering China’s retail market. In general, Eastern coastline cities are the wealthiest part of China, where a high concentration of apparel stores can be found. Many famous international brands set up mainly in first-tier cities and then establish their presence in affluent second-tier cities. Currently, the tendency is for famous brands to penetrate into more second-tier cities. Among the first-tier cities, Shanghai plays a significant role in setting fashion trends on the mainland. Therefore, many foreign and domestic apparel suppliers choose to first establish a foothold in Shanghai before seeking further expansion.

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Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

20 thoughts on “China as an Apparel Importer: A Big Picture View”

  1. China is known as a large apparel exporter but I did not realize that it has a growing apparel import market as well. It is interesting to me to read that consumers do not buy mostly “made in China” apparel just because Shanghai in particular is looked too for new fashion trends. China itself is known to be fashion forward, so by consumers buying apparel from overseas is really interesting. This one sentence in particular is a good point: “This feature is particularly important for those Western-based apparel retailers interested in entering China’s retail market.” In general, if a Western-based apparel retailer are interested in penetrating China’s retail market, they will have to change multiple things about their business. The main thing is targeting more towards menswear than womenswear, which is the complete opposite in the United States. However, this unique pattern China has, targets imports to be centralized in Asia and Europe which essentially creates a price competitive market or a luxury brands as stated above. Knowing this, and Shanghai being the city to start in for fashion trends–that is the perfect place expand. As related to other articles, fast fashion and innovation stems out of China. So I believe it would be beneficial to import into the first-tier of China’s system to get brands recognized and continue to help and keep the import-export relationship of the global economy.

    1. Many great points! Somehow I feel the importance of China as an emerging retail market hasn’t be given enough emphasis in the T&A academic discipline. Most textbooks still mention China only as a source of apparel imports. Mentality as such is outdated and needs to be changed. The other common misconception is oversimplification–China’s economy is growing, so let’s enter China’s market. Quite the opposite, internalization is much more complicated than expanding the business domestically. China in particular is a very different market compared with the US–the local culture, regulations, political system and most importantly consumer behavior. I hope this posts can raise the awareness among our students. Personally, I also look forward to more studies on this subject.

  2. I also always thought of China as a major exporter, and never the other way around as an importer. I always assumed that because much of our clothing is made in China, most of the rest of the world (China included) had clothing made here as well. The charts depicted above are very eye-opening for me to see, as I mentioned before I didn’t realize that China was receiving such a high number of imports in clothing. This blog post confirms that China is continuing to become a major part of the global economy, and it also confirms that China’s trade industry is thriving. I think in the future, China will no longer only be known for its high percentage of apparel and textile exports, but also for its part in the importing side of trade.
    I think that these facts and figures are proof of how globalization is working and thriving in our world today. I think that these facts and figures also suggest that as a global economy, we can continue to see globalization flourish.

  3. It is very interesting to learn that such a high percentage of China’s imports come from other Asian countries (lower-end apparel products) and European countries (high-end luxury items). Though there are obviously plenty of other consumer classes in-between, it is apparent that the US needs to work harder to meet the needs of this emerging country, as well as India, and other countries with growing, valuable economies. I think that this is a good wake up call for the US, showing that we should possibly consider working harder to produce more higher-end textiles and apparel products, since we cannot afford to make products at such a low cost like the Asian countries competing with us in that sector. It is also great to see that Shanghai is finally being recognized on a global sector as such a fashion-forward city.

  4. I wonder if there is much that North America can do to gain more of China’s import market. It seems that China has a relationship with other Asian countries that parallels the one that the US has with Mexico and NAFTA members. We are very protective of our trade agreements with our closest exporting neighbors, so I do not see why they would behave any differently over their nearest sources.

  5. I agree with what most everyone said that it was interesting to read this article and find out that China is not only a huge exporter of textiles and apparel but also starting to become a huge importer as well. I think it is interesting for us, as American consumers, to hear this because most of the clothes that we wear will either say “made in China” on the tag or in various other European countries. Another point that stood out to me was when the article stated that, “woven men’s wear accounted for almost 1/3 of China’s total apparel imports. Actually, the aggregate import demand for men’s wear was 17%-20% larger than the import demand for women’s wear in China from 2008 to 2012.” I thought this was interesting because it is completely opposite in America. There is never a bigger emphasis on menswear then there is on womenswear so I was almost surprised by this statistic. This article furthered the idea that China is continuing to become one of the major parts of the global economy in not only exports and imports but in terms of trade aswell.

  6. I found this article interesting, it shows hows China is growing as big exporters but also their expansion into imports. Generally when you see “Made in China”, you think of course, everything is made in China. But you don’t know that a lot of their products are imported and put together in China. As shown in the charts above Asia is the biggest imports for China. I thought this was interesting how it showed that each different market had a different amount of imports and how competitive the markets can be.

  7. Like everyone else, I also was surprised by the fact that China imports a lot of their clothing rather than keeping “made in China” apparel for themselves. When you think of an industry as big as Chinas apparel industry, you might assume that since they make so much they must wear it as well but this is not the case. China is on the globalization track just like the rest of us are and they import a good amount of apparel just like the charts show. I also found it interesting that China isn’t just one market but rather a lot of individual, local markets who have different demands depending on their customers. When I think of China and especially when I think of the apparel industry there, I tend to think of it as one big market and that everyone relatively has the same demands. After reading this article I got a much better understanding of how the markets work and realize that they are not all that different from what we do in America. Here you would be better off starting a business or opening up a new store in a highly populated area like New York City or Los Angeles just like in China you would be better off opening a store in Shanghai, a highly populated city, and then expanding to other cities from there. I found this article to be very enlightening and it gave me a different perspective on China than I already had.

  8. After learning about the MFA and all the other precautions taken by the U.S. textile and apparel industry to cushion their competition, it is scary to think that as well as being the single largest apparel exporter in the world, China could also become a well-known apparel importer. Since China is a collection of local markets, each of its markets has different demands, consumer behaviors, competition levels, and market access conditions. In 2012, 83% of China’s apparel imports came from Asia and 13% from Europe, leaving only 4% for the rest of the world. If China is going to continue to import either extremely price competitive products or very high-end luxury goods, the U.S. is going to want to get involved in order to obtain some of the profit and slow down the pace of poorer countries economic development. Among China’s first-tier cities, Shanghai plays a significant role in setting fashion trends among mainlanders. As many foreign and domestic apparel suppliers have done in the past, it might be favorable for the U.S. to establish a foothold in Shanghai and later seek further expansion into China’s retail market.

  9. I find it very interesting that China imports so many apparel products from developing countries around the world. I personally always tend think of China as a main exporter for apparel across the globe due to our class discussions on China’s growing economy. It honestly never crossed my mind to say “hold on, where is China getting their fashionable clothing articles from?” and think of their country as an importer. I always thought China would just produce their own clothing since it would be cheaper for them since they wouldn’t have to pay tariffs for importing and exporting. I find it incredibly interesting that China imports much of its clothing from other Asian markets.

  10. This article is very interesting because it shows that China has expanded into imports form other countries as well as growing as a bigger exporter. Throughout this class it never crossed my mind that China imports some of there textile products from other countries. I would have never thought this because we have learned China making everything and exporting it to other countries. It never crossed my mind that China does not do all of this work on their own. It kind of makes more sense to me now that they are importing things from other Asia markets

  11. I also find this article to be very interesting. For some reason, I have always thought of China as mainly only an exporter, since a majority of products have labels that read “Made in China.” I was blinded by these labels because I have never realized that China is a large importer, too. I feel as though many people share this common misconception, that just because a lot of our clothing is made in China, so is the clothing that Chinese people wear.

    I think it’s great that Shanghai is becoming recognized as a fashion-forward city. I remember earlier this semester, we watched a video on fashion students in their Chinese classrooms. This is when I first learned that not only is production being outsourced to China, but so is design. It will be interesting to watch Shanghai emerge as a fashion city.

  12. I always knew that China was a huge exporter and produced different products to export so I assumed that they had to import products that they needed to produce these items. I did not realized how much China imports even just from other asian countries. I think that this could be beneficial to the US. If we start producing more products we could export it to china. I feel like the Chinese would really appreciate Made in America. It is also cool that Shanghai is recognized as a fashion forward city.

  13. This article is interesting and I agree with what many people have said that I never thought of China being a country to import much of their textiles. But after contemplating how I would respond what I did think about was how fashion forward they are. China is not the only country to produce high-end and fashionable textile and apparel so it truly does make sense why they would have so many imports. This became the most clear to me after looking over the numbers from the pie chart because it showed Europe and Asia as its biggest sections. There are many countries in Asia that produce apparel but when I think about Europe high fashion is the first thing that comes to my mind. From their industrialization many people now have the money to demand fashionable clothing and in a lot of cases they need to go elsewhere to find it and meet their demands.

  14. After reading this article it gave me a clearer understanding were China stands. China is one of the most important countries for the apparel industry. It seems like China has a lot of competitive advantages. Mainly, they are considered on the developing coutries that are labor intensive. This is a great way for China to make mone and profits, although it could have its disadvantage, for example, the case study 1 with Bangladesh. A lot of people in China are treated poorly and are pud poorly. Unfortunately, this world is all about business, politics, and making profit. However, the article also opened my eyes on how big China imports. In the article it said how Chinas import demand could be extremely price competitive or high-end luxuries, which shows how China is not a domestic industry.

  15. It was very interesting to learn that China is such a large importer as well as an exporter. Before reading this article, I would have assumed that China imported around 25% of its apparel. To learn that it is in reality much higher shocks me. However, it is understandable as to why China imports as much as they do. By importing from less developed countries, they have a larger profit than they would if they produced and consumed their own apparel. These profits most likely assist in the development of Shanghai’s high fashion industry. The existence of the high fashion industry in China leads me to believe that the economic gap between the U.S. and China is closing and the gap between China and Vietnam is growing. Perhaps China will no longer produce as many textiles and apparel in the next fifty years with the emergence of the high fashion industry in Shanghai.

  16. I never really thought of China as being an importer. I always just perceived China as such a major exporter since that’s what we mainly focus on in class. I find is very interesting that China receives such a large amount of imports. I just assumed that since the U.S imports a lot of apparel from China that they also made their clothing in China as well. After reading this article I have learned that China has a lot of individual markets and not just one large one. I agree with what everyone else said about this article and this article was a great read because it really made me realize where China stands.

  17. All this information presented does not surprise me. I believe you showed us a video in which we saw that Chine has a growing middle class in which alot of high end products are being bought. We also saw that Shanghai is one of the top growing placed in China and thus it also doesn’t surprise me that stores would first start off opening in Shanghai and then branch out to second tier cities. What does surprise is the amount of men’s clothing that is being imported into China compared to women’s clothing. Being that this is the complete opposite in America I wonder why this is so in China. I know that China and America are not the same but I thought that buying patterns would be the same. But I think I have the answer as to why men’s clothing imports are higher then women’s clothing. Compared to the US Chinese women don’t really have a place in the business world. From what we saw in the video in class, women are expected to stay home and cook and clean. Women are also not seen as equal to men and thus women don’t really need or will go shopping as often as men will. Thus is my assumption. But what in the “Leading Apparel Brands” table I noticed that the brands that women mostly buy are very high end. So maybe women are buying more expensive things just not alot of it.

  18. I had no idea that China received so many imports. Often times when I buy clothing I am used to seeing a “made in china” tag, so it is strange to think that if you were in china you would see many tags made from Europe. I also did not realize that men’s clothing was such a big importer for china. I figured it would be women’s wear since typically women are more into fashion, so I thought that there would be more clothes for women being imported in. It was also interesting to hear about the different types of stores in China such as lower quality wear and higher quality wear. It does make sense though that a lot of their higher quality wear is from Europe since often times the expensive brands that are sold in America are European.

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