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  • Jennifer Marks

All over the map

What the exercise of putting together HTT's Global Report for this issue brought home is how much imports still represent a small portion of the overall product volume in some home textiles categories.

For instance, the top five U.S. suppliers/manufacturers of bath towels sold nearly $1.3 billion in merchandise last year — a monumentally greater share of the pie than the $272 million collectively sold into this country by the top five U.S. importers and the top five exporters of bath towels.

Exporters to the U.S. may not be the 800-lb. gorilla of suppliers' darkest fears and retailers' starry-eyed hopes – not yet, anyway — but it is clear that some are already positioning themselves to break away from the pack. If one were to strip away the importer/exporter distinctions and rank the sourcers on sheer volume alone, the composition of three out of five key category listings in the Global Report would include a non-U.S. company.

The top five suppliers of sourced sheets would also include Bombay Dyeing & Mfg. Co. of India; the ranking for sourced towels would include Abhishek Industries of India; and the list for sourced comforter shells/duvet covers would include Pak Fung of Hong Kong.

Even more telling about the direction of the business are the figures for percentage growth, which indicate that U.S.-based suppliers are boosting their sourced business here at a rate far greater than off-shore manufacturers are cultivating their exports to this country. Just three out of 25 top U.S. importers posted less than double-digit gains in import volume last year. Only one reported a decline in volume, and that company spent the year in bankruptcy.

In contrast, double-digit or better gains in exports were reported by just five off-shore companies — and 10 posted declines in the U.S.-bound business.

While it is impossible to pinpoint the cause of those declines exactly, at least two explanations are credible. The first, as noted above, is the growing volume of off-shore business being done by U.S. companies. Between their long-standing retail ties, their supply line sophistication and their superior grasp of U.S. market needs, it stands to reason that they can and do react more quickly to U.S. opportunities.

The second, of course, is China, where so much business seems to be shifting in the mad dash to a quota-free 2005. Yet Chinese manufacturers made a relatively modest showing in the Global Report. Still home to a textiles industry in transition, the network of Chinese mills appears not yet to have produced a full complement of individual shops capable of handling sustained, large-scale volume on their own. No one doubts that day will come — just as none of us at HTT would wager that there aren't a few other companies out there eligible for a place on the ranking.

The pace of that evolution is what remains in question, not just for producers in the U.S., India, Pakistan, Mexico and elsewhere, but for China, too. Despite the universal rush to China a year ago, by mid-year 2002 quota was already drying up for quilts and sheets — sending production back to other parts of the world and propelling retailers and suppliers back into the arms of U.S. importers.

Clearly, the race has not yet been run.

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