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SARS scare sacks sourcing travel

Firms heeding CDC warning; cancel trip plans

New York — As the last buyers and sales representatives packed up and prepared to leave the spring textiles market, fears of a deadly virus came to the fore and began to impact their travel and sourcing plans.

SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — has killed at least 78 people and at least another 2,200 are reported ill with it, according to the World Health Organization. The news of the disease, apparently spreading worldwide from an outbreak in Guandong province, in China, has prompted cancellations of dozens of flights and business travel to and from a host of Asian destinations.

Some companies are videoconferencing their meetings. For others, that solution simply isn't practical. SARS has forced some manufacturers to shut down completely or significantly scale back operations. Surgical masks are being worn by virtually everyone throughout the region.

The economic impact is only beginning to become evident. A.C. Moore stated in its annual report that its sourcing lines may be interrupted, causing price increases for its products. That may be just the tip of the iceberg.

"We have restricted travel to Asia at this time, but we don't expect it to affect sourcing," said Deborah Evans, vp of private brands, home division, JCPenney, Plano, TX. "It will affect the process, but not the final product. We'll just use alternative strategies, like sending more samples via FedEx, video conferencing, and sending e-mails with photo attachments. Fed Ex will be very happy."

And of course, the impact was becoming plainly visible among suppliers doing business in Asia. Ex-Cell Home Fashions had been preparing to move its senior vp of international sourcing to China, but has temporarily suspended the plan — along with all other travel to China — until company executives feel the situation has been brought under control, said president Barry Leonard.

"The virus has not as of yet affected our employees in China at all, but we're keeping a close watch on it," he said. "As far as deliveries, everything is on schedule. We've had no problems."

Although Keeco has a sizable staff working in China, no one there has come down with SARS so far, said Jeff Jacobs, executive vp of sales and marketing for national accounts and mass merchants. And production-wise, the company doesn't currently anticipate any problems.

"In the short term, while SARS is being evaluated, we have no one from the States making trips over there. It hasn't had a direct impact on us because we already had a number of people there in February and March in preparation for market and special projects for customers," he said. "However, we're monitoring the government's reports to see where it goes."

Stateside employees at Sunham Home Fashions had no trips in the works when SARS broke out, so have not had to wrestle with the issue, said Dean Davaros, sales manager.

"Some retailers have told us they've made travel to China optional," he added. "I don't see it affecting prices right now. If it becomes an epidemic, then we'll have to see."

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