China Apparel Retail Market (updated in December 2014)

According to Fung Group’s latest China apparel market report:

1. China’s apparel retail market remains strong despite slower growth. China’s apparel retail sales reached 1,141billion RMB (or $187 billion USD) in 2013, rose by 11.6 percent from 2012. On average, each urban household in China spent 1,902 RMB (or $306USD) on clothing in 2013, accounting for 10.6 percent of their total annual expenditure. [note: in the US, clothing accounts for around 3 percent of household annual expenditure]. It is estimated that China will replace the United States and become the world’s largest apparel retail market in 2017.

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2. Women’s wear is the largest contributor to China’s total apparel sales. A survey of 100 major retailers in China shows that women’s wear accounted for 32.7 percent of their clothing sales from 2012 to 2013. However, women’s wear is a highly fragmented and competitive market in China. For example, the top ten brands altogether only accounted for 21.43 percent of market share in 2013.

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3. Children’s wear and sportswear are the two growing areas in China’s apparel market. Specifically, retail sales of children’s wear in China reached 6.3 billion RMB (or $1 billion USD) in 2013, registered growth of 12.7 percent. Because Chinese government has relaxed its “one-child policy”, China is estimated to add 1-2 million extra kids over the next few years, suggesting further market expansion possibility. Thanks to Chinese consumers’ increasing interest in sports and outdoor activities, sales of sportswear enjoyed 35 percent growth from 2012 to 2013. Functional products with fashionable designs are the key to win the market. While international brands (such as Nike and Adidas) are mainly concentrated in tier 1 and tier 2 cities, domestic brands are still dominating the lower-tier cities where more growth potential is involved.

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4. Department stores and specialty stores remained the main channels for apparel distribution in China, accounting for 36.3 percent and 29.7 percent of market share respectively in 2013. Specifically, department store remains the main channel for mid to high-end apparel sales in China, although specialty stores are increasingly preferred by apparel brand owners. As a common business practice in China, apparel brand owners manage their self-operated specialty stores in key cities while leaving other locations to franchisees as distributors. On the other hand, hypermarkets and supermarkets are popular retailing channels for lower-priced apparel, many of which are with poor brand recognition or unbranded.

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5. Online retailing is the fastest growing retail channel in China for apparel. According to one source, the total online apparel transaction value in China reached 434.9 billion RMB (or $36.2 billion USD) in 2013, increased by 42.6 percent from 2012. Similar as the emerging of “omni-channel retailing” in the US, apparel companies operating in China are making more efforts to explore“O2O” (online and offline integration). It shall be noted that more and more overseas apparel brands see e-commerce as a strategic means to reach Chinese consumers. For example, even luxury brands such as Burberry and Hugo Boss have opened online store through a B2C platform (like Tmall) in China.

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6Some additional personal thoughts:

  1. Western apparel brands and retailers shall realize that China is a highly fragmented market with diverse market characteristics from region to region (for example, tier 1 v.s. tier 3 &4; urban v.s. rural; north v.s. south).
  2. Chinese consumers are getting more and more sophisticated, yet price is still a key factor to win this market.
  3. Given the size and sophistication of China’s apparel market, western apparel brands and retailers may consider building an independent China operation system (from design to distribution). Also, successful business models at home market may not work in China at all.
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Apparel Industry is Not All about Labor Cost

While most discussions on improving corporate social responsibility practices in the apparel industry still focus on conventional solutions like higher labor standards and more effective monitoring programs, a recent Boston Consulting Group report suggests supply chain innovation also has its role to play.

One key argument of the report is: Although cost still matters in apparel sourcing, lower-cost can be achieved through means other than seeking cheap labor. For example:

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Engendering end-to-end supply chain efficiency through managing raw materials. Apparel companies may work with their suppliers further down the supply chain to optimize fabric selection, which usually account for as much as 60-70 percent of the total cost of a finished garment (v.s. 30-40 percent of labor cost). Some apparel companies have started to use fewer yarns and weight classes so as to reduce fabric count and lower down sourcing cost. Some other companies are realizing significant cost reduction by timing orders so as to level the load over the course of the year. [Note: looks like Uniqlo’s model]

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Building an integrated supply chain. As cited in the report, to balance sourcing cost and speed to market, one major apparel retailer builds 15 to 20 percent of the season’s styles and pre-positions about two-thirds of its raw material before the season (both in-house and from production partners). During the season, the company analyzes sales, staying in constant communication with its stores and with the design team. It resupplies items that are selling well through accelerated production and delivery, usually within three to four days. Designers then create new styles by adapting the best sellers using the pre-positioned material. [Note: looks like Zara’s model]

Innovating ways of production. The report suggests that bonding and gluing technologies (i.e. use bonded adhesive films and processes such as ultrasonic heating and high-frequency radiation to fuse together layers of fabric) can produce an entire small garment in 30 to 40 percent less time than conventional cut-and-sew. Digital technologies such as digital prototyping of textile designs can also significantly help apparel makers reduce waste and boost efficiency in pattern making. The potential application of 3D printing may further allow apparel makers to produce smaller batches, and possibly even allow for made-to-order production of individually designed and sized garments. This would not only allow companies to match the market’s growing need for speed, but also reduce the costs of retail inventory surpluses and associated price reductions.

Two additional thinking based on the report:

First, much attention has been given to the changing business environment of the apparel industry, such as rising labor cost in Asia, shifting market growth towards emerging economies and more sophisticated consumers’ demand in the era of omni-channel retailing. But what if the nature of the apparel industry is also changing: if one day labor cost is no longer a key factor in deciding where to produce and apparel production itself is no longer labor-intensive at all? Although automation of apparel production was not achieved in the 20st century, it may not be something totally impossible in the 21st century. We need to have bold thinking here.

Second, while the apparel industry is innovating its business model (i.e. the way to produce, the way to deliver products and the way to serve its customers), T&A educational programs also need to embrace innovative thinking. For example: are traditional course offerings sufficient enough (or still relevant) to prepare students’ job readiness in the 21st century? How to proactively respond to the changing nature of the apparel industry which has started to adopt more and more new technologies? What if we redefine the meaning of “T&A” majors and redesign the model of preparing the workforce for the apparel industry? (just like the question: for wearable technology, shall IT companies make apparel or apparel companies make IT products?)

US Department of Labor: 28 countries were Found Using Child or Forced Labor in Making Textiles and Apparel

In its updated List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (ILAB) released on December 1, 2014, the U.S. Department Labor said that at least 28 countries are found using child or forced labor in making textiles and apparel. All countries on the list appear to be developing countries. Particularly, the problem of using child labor or forced labor was found most serious in the cotton sector (18 countries), followed by garment manufacturing (9 countries).

Bangladesh, a focus of corporate social responsibilities practices these days, was found using child labor in making garment according to ILAB.

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2(Data compiled by Sheng Lu)

Note: * ILAB maintains a list of goods and their source countries which it has reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced labor in violation of international standards. The List is intended to raise public awareness about child labor and forced labor around the world, and to promote and inform efforts to address them. A starting point for action, the List creates opportunities for ILAB to engage and assist foreign governments. It is also a valuable resource for researchers, advocacy organizations and companies wishing to carry out risk assessments and engage in due diligence on labor rights in their supply chains

Follow up:

After the release of the ILAB report, four House Democrats sent a letter to USTR Michael Forman on December 4th, 2014, asking him to provide details on labor provisions in the TPP. As noted by the lawmakers in the letter: “Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, and Malaysia, one-third of the nations included in the TPP, were all cited for labor abuses in the report…”. “We are following up with you because we believe it is important that you take action to ensure that real, meaningfully enforceable labor protections are in the TPP”.