COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: March 2020)

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Jointly affected by the U.S.-China tariff war and the spread of the coronavirus, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China see a significant drop in January 2020.

Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports from China went down by as much as 36.1% month over month in January 2020. As a result, China’s market shares also dropped from nearly 30% in 2019 to a new record low of 23.9% in January 2020. However, it is important to note that such a downward trend started in October 2019, as U.S. fashion brands and retailers were eager to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China.

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China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam and Bangladesh. However, there is no evidence showing that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In January 2020, only 8.1% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 3.7% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019). Recent studies show that there’s more divergence in the products imported into the US  from Asian countries and the western hemisphere.

Meanwhile, according to the latest statistics from China’s Customs, the value of China’s apparel exports in the first two months of 2020 dropped by nearly 20% from a year earlier.

U.S.-China Tariff War Escalates–Impact on Apparel and Footwear

Background: In response to China’s decision to impose 5%–10% retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion U.S. products, on August 23, 2019, the Trump administration announced to raise the Section 301 tariffs from 25% to 30% for around $250 billion Chinese products (tranche 1, 2 and 3), effective October 1, 2019. The scheduled Section 301 tariffs on $300 billion Chinese products (tranche 4) to take into effect on September 1, 2019 and December 15, 2019 will also be increased from 10% to 15%.

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Trump lashes out at China, sending markets reeling

U.S. fashion brands and retailers are deeply concerned about the negative impacts of the tariff war on their businesses. According to the 2019 U.S. Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study released by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, even without considering the upcoming 10-15% tariffs to be imposed on around $35.7 billion Chinese textiles and apparel covered by tranche 4:

  • The trade diversion effect of Section 301 has accelerated U.S. fashion companies’ pace of reducing sourcing from China. About 83 percent of respondents expect to decrease sourcing from China over the next two years, up further from 67 percent in 2018.
  • The Section 301 action is pushing up the price of U.S. apparel imports across the board, making “increasing production and sourcing cost” the top business challenge for respondents in 2019. As much as 63 percent of respondents explicitly say the U.S. Section 301 tariff action against China “increased my companies’ sourcing cost” in 2019. As companies are moving sourcing orders to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India, the average price of U.S. apparel imports from these countries – the main alternatives to China — have all gone up very quickly.
  • No evidence shows that Section 301 has benefited near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere and reshoring from the United States significantly. Instead, respondents say Section 301 has increased the production costs of textiles and apparel “Made in the USA.”
  • Respondents say they are reluctant but may have to increase their retail prices, should the U.S.-China tariff war escalate further.

Related reading:

U.S. Apparel Retailers’ Shifting Sourcing Strategy for “Made in China” under the Shadow of the Tariff War

The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, U.S. fashion brands and retailers are sourcing less from China, particularly in quantity. Notably, the number of “Made in China” apparel newly launched to the market had significantly dropped from 26,758 SKUs in the first quarter of 2018 to only 8,352 SKUs in the first quarter of 2019 . Nevertheless, consistent with the macro-level trade statistics, China remains the single largest apparel supplier to the U.S. retail market.

Second, apparel “Made in China” are becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market, yet remain price-competitive overall. Notably, apparel “Made in Vietnam” is becoming more expensive in the U.S. retail market too—an indication that as more production is moving from China to Vietnam, apparel producers and exporters in Vietnam are facing growing cost pressures.

Third, U.S. fashion retailers are shifting what apparel products they source from China. U.S. apparel retailers have been sourcing less lower value-added basic fashion items (such as tops, and underwear), but more sophisticated and higher value-added apparel categories (such as dresses and outerwear) from China since 2018. The shifting product structure could also be a factor that contributed to the rising average retail price of “Made in China” in the U.S. market.

On the other hand, U.S. retailers adopt a very different product assortment strategy for apparel sourced from China versus other regions of the world. There seems to be much fewer alternative sourcing destinations for more sophisticated product categories, such as accessories and outerwear. Somehow ironically, moving to source more sophisticated and higher value-added products from China could make U.S. fashion brands and retailers even MORE vulnerable to the tariff war because of fewer alternative sourcing destinations.

In conclusion, the results imply that China will remain a critical sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers in the near future, regardless of the scenario of the U.S.-China tariff war. Meanwhile, we should expect U.S. fashion companies continue to adjust their sourcing strategy for apparel “Made in China” in response to the escalation of the tariff war.

Related reading: Trade war to hit high-end US fashion brands dependent on specialized Chinese manufacturing