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Made in China: US can't afford high cost of low-priced Christmas gifts

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The domination of imports was nearly total – between 95 and 99 percent – in such popular gift categories as games and toys other than dolls or stuffed animals; gloves and mittens; shirts for men and boys other than work shirts; and suits, coats, jackets, and skirts for women and girls. In a broad men and boys’ apparel sector encompassing everything from athletic clothing of all sorts to raincoats to down jackets to swimwear, 98 percent were imports. And all but 3 percent of women’s non-athletic shoes are imported. China was the biggest single country supplier in most of these and other individual sectors as well.

Import penetration is lower, but still extensive (ranging from 84 to 87 percent), in sectors like men and boys’ suits and coats; women and girls’ dresses; fine jewelry; and men’s non-athletic shoes except for sneakers. Imports account for 69 percent of neckties and scarves for men and boys and 76 percent of power-driven hand-tools.

The 2011 figures won’t be available for another year, but all the signs point to even greater import domination in this year’s Christmas shopping. Output in the US economy, for all its troubles, generally remains much stronger than the import-swamped Christmas gift industries. It is up 3.94 percent over the last 12 months, according to the latest year-on-year data. However, imports in the Christmas goods sectors are up by 5.8 percent during virtually the same period. So Christmas gift imports are on track to outpace any gains in America’s output in this sector.

Because penny-wage countries like China have major competitive advantages in manufacturing labor-intensive goods, imports’ prevalence in holiday shopping bags and carts has become taken for granted. But American policies can make or break the fortunes of domestic US producers of these items as well.

Consider the situation in 1997, the first year in which detailed import penetration figures can be calculated. Americans then still made more than 57 percent of the men’s and boys’ suits and coats they bought, a third of the men’s dress and sport shirts, more than 70 percent of the women’s dresses, nearly 40 percent of women’s blouses and skirts, nearly half the fine jewelry, nearly two-thirds of the power hand tools, and more than 27 percent of the toys and games.

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