Demystify the “Made in the USA” Apparel Sourcing Strategy

While the majority of apparel consumed in the United States come from overseas, “Made in the USA” is growing in popularity. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in July 2018, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume.  Likewise, the State of Fashion 2019 report published by Business of Fashion (BOF) and McKinsey & Company in November also forecasts that over 20 percent of U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing volume could be from nearshore by 2025, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market.

However, the detailed practice of the “Made in the USA” apparel sourcing strategy–including who is sourcing, what products are sourced, and what the typical price range of these products remain largely unknown.

To answer these questions, we recently analyzed the pricing, product assortment and inventory information of over 90,000 fashion retailers and 300,000,000 fashion apparel products at the Stock-Keeping Unit (SKU) level based on EDITED, a big data and business analytics tool developed for the fashion industry. For the research purpose, we selected apparel products newly launched to the U.S. market in the past twelve months (i.e., between 1 December 2017 and 30 November 2018) with “Made in the USA” explicitly mentioned in the product description. Below are the key findings:

First, “Made in the USA” apparel overall are treated as a niche product in U.S. fashion brands and retailers’ sourcing portfolio.

During the 12 months we examined (1 December 2017-30 November 2018), 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market. The top 10 sellers list includes BOTH retailers that focus on the value market such as Walmart and relatively high-end department stores such as Bloomingdale and Saks Fifth Avenue. However, even for these top sellers, “Made in the USA” apparel accounted for less than 8 percent of their total product offers on average.

Second, U.S. fashion brands and retailers are most likely to source“Made in the USA” apparel for relatively fashion-oriented items, particularly bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets.

The competitive edge for these product categories in the retail market, in general, increasingly depends on unique designs, high product quality, and speed to market, which makes sourcing from the United States commercially beneficial. In comparison, imported products are more concentrated on basic fashion items often competing on price in the U.S. retail market, including tops (such as T-shirt and polo shirt), underwear, and nightwear.

It is also interesting to note that “Made in the USA” apparel were predominately women’s wear (92 percent), whereas imported clothing adopted a more balanced gender combination (63 percent women’s wear and 37 percent men’s wear). Because the fashion trends for women’s wear usually are shorter-lived and harder to predict, this result once again indicates that seeking quick response and shorter lead time for stylish and trendy items could be an important incentive for local sourcing by U.S. fashion brands and retailers.

Third, consistent with the common perception, “Made in the USA” apparel overall are pricier than imported ones in the U.S. retail market.

Taking the U.S. apparel retail market as a whole, close to 40 percent of “Made in the USA” offering in the past 12 months targeted the premium or luxury market, compared with only 20 percent of imported products.  In contrast, as few as 18 percent of “Made in the USA” offering were in the value market, which, however, accounted for approximately 60 percent of all imported apparel sold in the U.S. market. In totality, it seems U.S. fashion brands and retailers are purposefully targeting “Made in the USA” apparel for less price-sensitive segments of the market to balance the high domestic production cost.

On the other hand, when examining U.S. fashion brands and retailers’ pricing strategy at the product level, “Made in the USA” clothing was still priced much higher than imported ones for almost all major apparel categories, except hosiery. Notably, in the past 12 months, the average unit retail price of “Made in the USA” clothing was 99.2 percent higher than imported ones in the value and mass market and 36.0 percent higher in the premium and luxury market. This interesting phenomenon supports the arguments that U.S. consumers somehow are willing to pay a premium price for products with the “Made in the USA” label.  

Additionally, during the past 12 months, around 46.3 percent of “Made in the USA” apparel were sold at a discount compared with more than 54.6 percent of imported ones. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, is an important factor behind the more successful control of markdowns for “Made in the USA” products. For example, data shows that U.S. fashion brands and retailers replenished approximately 12.7 percent of their “Made in the USA” offering in the past 12 months but only 2.8 percent of imported clothing.

In conclusion, the findings of this study concur with the view that “Made in the USA” apparel are still relevant today. Meanwhile, it does not seem to be the case that “Made in the USA” apparel and imported ones are necessarily competing with each other in the U.S. retail market. With apparel sourcing increasingly requiring striking a balance among various factors ranging from cost, flexibility, compliance to speed to market, it is hopeful that “Made in the USA” apparel will continue to have its unique role to play in U.S. fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.

By Sheng Lu

Outlook 2019: Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead

In January 2019, Just-Style consulted a panel of industry leaders and scholars in its Outlook 2019–Apparel Industry Issues in the Year Ahead management briefing. Below is my contribution to the report. Any comments and suggestions are more than welcome!

1: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – facing the apparel industry in 2019, and why?

In my view, uncertainty will remain the single biggest challenge facing the apparel industry in 2019, ranging from a more volatile global economy, the unpredictable outlook of the U.S.-China trade talks to the various possible scenarios of Brexit. While uncertainty creates exciting new research opportunities for scholars like me, it could be a big headache for companies seeking a foreseeable market environment to guide their future business plan and investments. 

Meanwhile, the increasing digitalization of the apparel supply chain based on big-data tools and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies means a huge opportunity for fashion companies. Indeed, the apparel industry is quickly changing in nature—becoming ever more globalized, supply-chain based, technology-intensive and data-driven. Take talent recruitment as an example. In the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), as much as 68 percent of surveyed leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers say they plan to increase hiring of data scientists in the next five years. Googling “apparel industry” together with terms such as “big data” and “data science” also returns much more results than in the past. It is hopeful that the advancement of digital technologies and the smarter use of data will enable apparel companies to overcome market uncertainties better and improve many aspects of their businesses such as speed to market, operational efficiency and even sustainability.

2: What’s happening with sourcing? How is the sourcing landscape likely to shift in 2019, and what can apparel firms and their suppliers do to stay ahead?

Based on my research, I have three observations regarding apparel companies’ sourcing trends and the overall sourcing landscape in 2019:

First, apparel companies overall will continue to maintain a diverse sourcing base. For example, in a recent study, we examined the detailed sourcing portfolios of the 50 largest U.S.-based apparel companies ranked by the Apparel Magazine. Notably, on average these companies sourced from over 20 different countries or regions using more than 200 vendors in 2017. Similarly, in the 2018 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, which I conducted in collaboration with the US Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), we also found companies with more than 1,000 employees typically source from more than ten different countries and regions. Since no sourcing destination is perfect, maintaining a relatively diverse sourcing base allows apparel companies to strike a balance among various sourcing factors ranging from cost, speed, flexibility, to risk management.

Second, while apparel companies are actively seeking new sourcing bases, many of them are reducing either the number of countries they source from or the number of vendors they work with. According to our study, some apparel companies have been strategically reducing the number of sourcing facilities with the purpose of ensuring closer collaborations with their suppliers on social and environmental compliance issues. Some other companies are consolidating their sourcing base within certain regions to improve efficiency and maximize productivity in the supply chain. Related to this trend, it is interesting to note that approximately half of the 50 largest U.S. apparel companies report allocating more sourcing orders to their largest vendor in 2017 than three years ago.

Third, nearshoring or onshoring will become more visible. Take “Made in the USA” apparel for example. According to the 2018 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, around 46 percent of surveyed U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers report currently sourcing “Made in the USA” products, even though local sourcing typically only account for less than 10 percent of these companies’ total sourcing value or volume. In a recent study, we find that 94 out of the total 348 retailers (or 27 percent) sold “Made in the USA” apparel in the U.S. market between December 2017 and November 2018. These “Made in the USA” apparel items, in general, focus on fashion-oriented women’s wear, particularly in the categories of bottoms (such as skirts, jeans, and trousers), dresses, all-in-ones (such as playsuits and dungarees), swimwear and suits-sets. The advantage of proximity to the market, which makes speedy replenishment for in-season items possible, also allows retailers to price “Made in the USA” apparel substantially higher than imported ones and avoid offering deep discounts. Looking ahead, thanks to automation technology and consumers’ increasing demand for speed to market, I think nearshoring or onshoring, including ”Made in the USA” apparel, will continue to have its unique role to play in fashion brands and retailers’ merchandising and sourcing strategies.

3: What should apparel firms and their suppliers be doing now if they want to remain competitive further into the future? What will separate the winners from the losers?

2019 will be a year to test apparel companies’ resources, particularly in the sourcing area. For example, winners will be those companies that have built a sophisticated but nimble global sourcing network that can handle market uncertainties effectively. Likewise, companies that understand and leverage the evolving “rules of the game”, such as the apparel-specific rules of origin and tariff phase-out schedules of existing or newly-reached free trade agreements, will be able to control sourcing cost better and achieve higher profit margins. Given the heavy involvement of trade policy in apparel sourcing this year, companies with solid government relations should also enjoy unique competitive advantages. 

On the other hand, as apparel business is changing in nature, to stay competitive, apparel companies need to start investing the future. This includes but not limited to exploring new sourcing destinations, studying the changing consumer demographics, recruiting new talents with expertise in emerging areas, and adopting new technologies fitting for the digital age. 

4: What keeps you awake at night? Is there anything else you think the apparel industry should be keeping a close eye on in the year ahead? Do you expect 2019 to be better than 2018, and why?

Two things are at the top of my watchlist:

First, what is the future of China as an apparel sourcing base? While external factors such as the U.S.-China tariff war have attracted most of the public attention, the genuine evolution of China’s textile and apparel industry is something even more critical to watch in the long run. From my observation, China is playing an increasingly important role as a textile supplier for apparel-exporting countries in Asia. For example, measured by value, 47 percent of Bangladesh’s textile imports came from China in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2005. Similar trends are seen in Cambodia (up from 30 percent to 65 percent), Vietnam (up from 23 percent to 50 percent), Pakistan (up from 32 percent to 71 percent), Malaysia (up from 25 percent to 54 percent), Indonesia (up from 28 percent to 46 percent), Philippines (up from 19 percent to 41 percent) and Sri Lanka (up from 15 percent to 39 percent) over the same time frame. A key question in my mind is how quickly China’s textile and apparel industry will continue to evolve and upgrade by following the paths of most other advanced economies in history.

Second, how will the implementation of several newly-reached free trade agreements (FTAs) affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the existing regional apparel supply chains? For example:

  • The newly-reached U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA or commonly called NAFTA2.0) includes several interesting changes to the textile and apparel specific rules of origin provisions, such as the adjustment of the tariff-preference level (TPL) mechanism. Whether these changes will boost textile and apparel production in the Western-Hemisphere and attract more sourcing from the region will be something interesting to watch.
  • The implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) will allow Vietnam to get access to nearly 40% of the world apparel import market (i.e., EU + Japan) duty-free. However, restrained by the country’s relatively small population, the apparel industry is increasingly facing the challenge of competing for labor with other export-oriented sectors in Vietnam. Realistically, what is the growth potential of apparel “Made in Vietnam” after the implementation of CPTPP and EVFTA?
  • In 2017, close to 80% of Asian countries’ textile imports came from other Asian countries, up from around 70% in the 2000s. Similarly, in 2017, 85.6% of Asian countries’ apparel imports also came from within the region. The negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) is likely to conclude in 2019, whose membership includes member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other six economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). Will RCEP result in an ever more integrated Asia-based textile and apparel supply chain and make the Asia region even more competitive as an apparel sourcing destination?  

Market Size of the Global Textile and Apparel Industry: 2016 to 2021/2022

Textile Mills

The textile mills market primarily includes yarns and fabrics. The market size is estimated based on the value of domestic production plus imports minus exports, all valued at manufacturer prices.

The value of the global textile mills market totaled $748.1 billion in 2016 (around 83.7% were fabrics and 16.3% were yarns), up 3.5% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 2.7% between 2012 and 2015. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 59.6% of the global textile mills market value in 2016 (up from 54.6% in 2015), Europe and the United States accounted for a further 19.1% and 10.8 of the market respectively.

The global textile mills market is forecast to reach $961.0 billion in value in 2021, an increase of 28.5% since 2016. The compound annual growth rate of the market between 2016 and 2021 is forecast to be 5.1%.

Apparel manufacturing market

The apparel manufacturing market covers all clothing except leather, footwear and knitted items as well as other technical, household, and made-up products. The market size is estimated based on the value of domestic production plus imports minus exports, all valued at manufacturer prices.

The value of the global apparel manufacturing market totaled $785.9 billion in 2016, up 3.3% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 4.4% between 2012 and 2016. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 61% of the market value in 2016 and Europe accounted for a further 15.2% of the market.

The global apparel manufacturing market is forecast to reach $992 billion in value in 2021, an increase of 26.2% since 2016. The compound annual growth rate of the market during the period of 2016 and 2021 is forecast to be 4.8%.

Apparel retail market

The apparel retail industry consists of the sale of all menswear, womenswear and childrenswear. The market value is calculated at retail selling price (RSP), and includes all taxes and duties.

The value of the global apparel retail market totaled $1,414.1 billion in 2017 (52.6% womenswear, 31.3% menswear and 16.1% childrenswear), up 4.9% from a year earlier. The compound annual growth rate of the market was 4.4% between 2013 and 2017. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 37.1% of the global apparel retail market in 2017 (up from 36.8% in 2015), followed by followed by Europe (28.5%) and the United States (23.6%).

The global apparel retail market is forecast to reach $1,834 billion in value in 2022, an increase of 29.7% since 2017. The compound annual growth rate of the market between 2017 and 2022 is forecast to be 5.3%.

Data source: MarketLine (2018)

The Section 301 Investigation against China Divides the U.S. Textile Industry and U.S. Fashion Brands and Retailers

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On April 3, 2018, the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) released the proposed list of Chinese products to be subject to the retaliatory tariff under the Section 301 action. The proposed list covers approximately 1,300 separate tariff lines, including textile machinery. However, textile and apparel (HS chapters 50 to 63) were not on the list.

USTR says it will make a final decision on whether to implement the proposed tariff action after a public hearing process scheduled at around May 15, 2018. Most U.S.-based textile and apparel industry associated have submitted their public comments regarding the section 301 investigation. Because of their respective commercial interests, not surprisingly, the U.S. textile industry favors the retaliatory tariffs on imports from China whereas U.S. fashion brands and retailers oppose the action strongly. Specifically:

National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO)

  • NCTO applauds the Trump Administration’s formal initiation of a Section 301 case designed to address China’s persistent and highly damaging actions in the area of intellectual property theft. NCTO argues that illegal activity on the part of the government of China has gone on for far too long, at the direct expense of U.S. manufacturers and the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
  • The U.S. textile industry is severely disappointed that the retaliation list published by USTR on April 3 does not contain a single textile or apparel product.
  • NCTO argues that China’s illegal IPR activities have damaged the U.S. textile industry and recommend that textile and apparel products be added to the retaliation list.

The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA)

  • USFIA opposes adding apparel (items classifiable under chapters 61 and 62 of the HTSUS) and other fashion products (such as footwear, handbags, and luggage) to the retaliation list against China.
  • USFIA argues that tariffs are NOT the appropriate mechanism to redress the activities outlined in USTR’s report to the White House. Imposing tariffs on imports of fashion products would do nothing to solve the concerns about China’s IP policies and practices outlined in USTR’s Section 301 report.
  • USFIA believes that the best way to address concerns about China’s IPR practices is action at the multilateral level that includes other US trading partners.

American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)

  • AAFA strongly opposes the proposed imposition of tariffs on textile, apparel, and footwear equipment and machinery as this will result in increased costs for AAFA members who are making yarns, fabrics, clothes, and shoes in the United States.
  • AAFA believes that a tariff on textile and apparel products would be a hidden tax on U.S. consumers, particularly since China represents such a large source of U.S. imports of these products.
  • AAFA strongly supports the Trump Administration’s efforts to improve the protection of intellectual property rights in China.

Global Value Chain for Apparel Sold at Target

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A global view in mind means more career opportunities: except material production and cut and sew, other well-paid jobs in the apparel value chain stay in the United States.

Source: Moongate Association (2017). Analyzing the Value Chain for Apparel Designed in the United States and Manufactured Overseas