The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).
When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance, no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.
When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:
Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders.
In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A fact-checking review of trade statistics in 2017 of a total 167 categories of textile and apparel (T&A) products categorized by the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) suggests that T&A products “Made in China” still have no near competitors in the U.S. import market. Specifically, in 2017:
Of the total 11 categories of yarn, China was the top supplier for 3 categories (or 27.3%);
Of the total 34 categories of fabric, China was the top supplier for 26 categories (or 76.5%);
Of the total 106 categories of apparel, China was the top supplier for 87 categories (or 82.1%);
Of the total 16 categories of made-up textiles, China was the top supplier for 11 categories (or 68.8%);
In comparison, for those Asian T&A suppliers regarded as China’s top competitors:
Vietnam was the top supplier for only 5 categories of apparel (less than 5% of the total);
Bangladesh was the top supplier for only 2 categories of apparel (less than 2% of the total)
India was the top supplier for 1 category of fabric (2.9% of the total), 1 category of apparel (1% of the total) and 5 categories of made-up textiles (41.7% of the total)
Notably, China not only was the top supplier for many T&A products but also held a lion’s market shares. For example, in 2017:
For the 26 categories of fabric that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 40.5%, 22 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories
For the 87 categories of apparel that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 52.4%, 36 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories.
For the 11 categories of made-up textiles that China was the top supplier, China’s average market shares reached 58%, 43 percentage points higher than the 2nd top suppliers for these categories.
Furthermore, T&A “Made in China” are demonstrating even bigger price competitiveness compared to other suppliers in the U.S. market. For example, in 2017, the unit price of apparel “Made China” was only 74% of the price of “Made in Vietnam” (in 2015 was 80%), 86% of “Made in Bangladesh” (in 2015 was 93%), 85% of “Made in Mexico” (in 2015 was 90%) and 86% of products by members of CAFTA-DR (in 2012 was 98%).
Last but not least, the U.S.-China tariff war apparently has NOT affected China’s textile and apparel exports to the United States significantly. From January to August this year, China’s apparel exports to the U.S. declined by 1% in value and 0.3% in quantity from a year earlier, but China’s textile exports to the U.S. increased by 12.3% in value and 7.2% in quantity. China’s market shares in the U.S. market also remains overall stable.
Are the results surprising? How to explain China’s increasing price competitiveness despite its reported rising labor cost? What’s your outlook for the future of China as a sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers? Please feel free to share your views.