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Posted Date: 11/1/2003

Get Ready for Tomorrow

By  Susan Black, Apparel

When I took on my first writing assignments for Apparel (then Bobbin) nearly 17 years ago, it would have been unseemly to imagine some of today's market realities. Levi Strauss & Co. shutting down all of its North American plants? Mexico's labor being called too expensive? Burlington Corp. in bankruptcy and mighty Milliken & Co. shutting down plants? Designer brands being sold by mass merchandisers/discounters and Wal-Mart selling more apparel than any other retailer? China becoming the No. 1 foreign supplier by volume of textile and apparel imports to the U.S. import market?

For many, these realities are hard ones. You only have to look at the haunting image of a mammoth, now empty, Levi Strauss facility as featured in a recent issue of Fortune to be reminded of how much we've lost in terms of production jobs, and to some extent, spirit.

Undoubtedly, the pace at which these changes have occurred is hard to take in. There is both uncertainty and fear as to what the future holds. As China "blossoms," a number of major retailers and brands are charging full force to reap the benefits of this rapidly escalating economy. Others blame China for our job losses, and predict that without major restraints on China's trade, the United States will see all of its jobs in most industries - both manufacturing and service - migrate offshore, leaving our economy and standard of living in shambles. Who, they question, will be able to afford our goods in this country?

Is China a nation to be feared - from an economic or national security standpoint? Or is China to be embraced - as a new market for our brands? And what of the rest of the world? Those who support the passage of CAFTA, for example, argue it makes sense to strengthen an apparel-producing region in our own backyard - one which ideally should be able to support quick-turn fulfillment to increase sales and profits throughout the entire supply chain in this hemisphere. There's plenty of sourcing action in other countries, too, though, from India to Vietnam to Turkey, all of which plays into the big picture. And lest we forget, there are companies producing successfully in the United States.

Beyond sourcing, we have to get at the heart of what sells. Depending on the market, it could be product, price, lifestyle, fit, quality, fashion, service, you name it. In terms of selling apparel in the United States, yes, it's still a huge viable market with abounding opportunity. That fact was validated by some major brands at Apparel's recent Executive Forum. But others at the event cautioned that if you're selling as most people are at the mid- to low-price levels, you will likely have to adjust to the fact that Americans will have less discretionary income in the future.

In this annual sourcing issue, we update you on the statistical state of sourcing, as well as give you a peek into the future by examining the emerging exporters to the United States. Would you have guessed Namibia's exports to the United States are up more than 2,000 percent in the past year (granted from a tiny base)? We also bring you a range of opinions about what's driving sourcing decisions as discussed during a recent Apparel roundtable, and profile what's happening in Honduras, the No. 3 apparel exporter to the U.S. market, behind Mexico and China.

We don't profess to have all the answers. Every company has to find its own way. But we hope to ease your journey by continuing to bring you facts, perspectives and insights that will help you make the right decisions for your business. One thing is certain: The changes happening today are only a precursor of what's to come. And tomorrow won't have much resemblance to yesterday. Get ready. 

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