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Dress Import Units Up, Dollars Down So Far This Year

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American women are still saying “yes” to the dress — but only if the price is right.

After increasing 7% in 2012, total U.S. dress imports have declined by 1.9% so far in 2013. The drop in imports of cotton and other natural fiber dresses has been somewhat offset by an increase in those made chiefly of polyester and other manmade fibers.

Import data from the Office of Textiles and Apparel, or OTEXA, show that in the first eight months of 2013, imports of dresses dropped 1.9%, to a total value of $3.3 billion. Total units rose .6% to 455 million, causing the average cost per unit to drop 2.5% to $7.33. If the current trend continues, 2013 will be a fairly strong year for unit dress volume, but one in which significant price pressure results in a decline in total dollars — not at all surprising given the current promotional environment at retail.

A full two-thirds of year-to-date dress imports have been in manmade fiber. There has been a shift (no pun intended) toward lightweight printed polyester and rayon. Cotton has been the second most popular fiber, with 25% of the dress market on a dollar basis. Dresses composed of silk and of wool, the highest cost per unit imports at $35 and $40, respectively, are a small and declining part of the business.

Manmade fiber dresses increased their share of total year-to-date imports by almost 3 percentage points this year, while silk dresses lost almost 2 percentage points. Cotton dresses, though representing the lowest cost at $6.15 per unit, lost almost a percentage point of market share.  The average unit cost of a manmade fiber dress imported in the first eight months of the year was $7.15.

China is by far the largest sources of U.S. dress imports, with over half the total dollar volume. So far this year, however, China has lost share of the dress market, primarily to Vietnam. Other rapidly growing trading partners in dresses are Cambodia, whose dresses are also the cheapest, and Italy, the most expensive. Dress imports from India have fallen by almost 14% so far this year.

Dresses remain one of the top women’s apparel categories in the U.S., and represent approximately 12% of the women’s apparel market. Although retail sales of dresses remain brisk, year-on-year growth has been slowing for the past two years. Between 2010 and 2011, sales grew by a whopping 17%, but between 2011 and 2012 growth was 11%, and are estimated to be flat to slightly down in 2013. Lower-priced fast fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21 are taking share from traditional department and national chain stores. Sales of dresses at high-end department stores and luxury specialty stores, though a very small part of the market, remain healthy as well.

Dresses are a wardrobe staple for all age groups, from little girls to baby boomers. Millennials wearing dresses paired with jackets, tights and boots for casual occasions are driving share gains at specialty chains and e-commerce sites. Although many midmarket women’s apparel brands have reported a difficult and highly competitive environment, the dress import data indicate not so much a slowing of overall dress sales, but a trading down phenomenon, with sales at the fast fashion and value end of the market and, to a lesser extent, at the high end, gaining share at the expense of the middle.

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