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India's Apparel Exports: Strategic Responses to Slower Growth
published in Issue 135, May-June 2008
Indian apparel exports have proved disappointing in recent years. The deterioration stems partly from weaker overall demand in the two main markets for Indian apparel exporters, the USA and the EU, and partly from the appreciation of the rupee. In 2003-04 experts predicted that India, along with China, would do well from the global elimination of quotas at the end of 2004. Sales to the US market did indeed soar by 34% in 2005 but this was followed by a disappointing 7.1% increase in 2006 and a 0.5% fall in 2007. By contrast, China achieved growth rates of 70%, 22% and 23% respectively. In the EU, India’s success continued into 2006 with a 16% growth rate. But this came after a 27% rise in 2005 and was followed by a minimal 0.8% increase in 2007. Again China did much better than India through most of this period, having achieved growth rates of 44% in 2005, 11% in 2006 and 14% in 2007. In the first four months of 2008, India’s fortunes revived. While US apparel imports as a whole were down by 3.7%, those from India picked up. Furthermore, India did better than its chief competitor, China, whose sales fell by 6.8%. India’s competitiveness has improved since 2007 thanks to a reversal of the rupee’s appreciation against the dollar. Nonetheless, China has continued to make massive gains—and new competitors such as Vietnam have appeared.
Companies have been adopting various strategies to cope with the new business climate. Celebrity Fashions, Orient Craft, Royal Classic Group, SP Apparels and Texport Syndicate have placed more emphasis on India’s fast growing domestic apparel market—where there is scope for achieving higher margins by saving on transportation costs and customs duties, where quality requirements are lower and where it is easier to do business. Gokaldas Exports, India’s largest apparel exporter, has responded to the US slowdown by placing more emphasis on Europe, as well as increasing its sales in India.
For the future, India may be forced to focus on a narrower range of products where it is more competitive. Data for 2007 suggest that such products include: men’s and boys’ cotton knitted shirts; men’s and boys’ cotton trousers; women’s and girls’ cotton trousers; and cotton underwear. However, such a focus could force the Indian government to downgrade its ambitious expansion plans for the apparel sector.