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The Limited Issues Call to 'Buy American'

August 24, 1987|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It had all the trappings of a patriotic pep rally, right down to astronaut-turned-Senator John Glenn, the Middle America setting and the red, white and blue jelly beans in the box lunch.

The Limited, the leading women's apparel retailer and a company noted for its reliance on imports, opened its doors last week to about 500 U.S. manufacturers for a buy-American trade fair. It was, to paraphrase globe-trotting Chairman Leslie H. Wexner, Columbus setting out to discover America.

The idea of bringing manufacturers en masse under a retailer's roof is highly unusual and underscores the importance the industry attaches to reducing its dependence on imported goods--at a time when quotas, currency fluctuations, protectionist sentiment and fast-changing fashion trends make onshore production more attractive.

"I'd much rather fly two hours to Tennessee than 40 hours to India," Wexner, sporting a "Let's Make It in America" sweat shirt, told 400 at the opening breakfast Thursday. "I'm not saying that as a great patriot. It's just economics."

But to many of the U.S. apparel makers at the splashy event, it also smacked of a publicity stunt. After all, they said, the Limited, with more than $3 billion in revenue, has long seemed to view offshore production as a panacea (although Wexner was quick to point out that the company buys about 50% of its garments from U.S. manufacturers). The garment labels at its Limited, Lerner and other divisions offer a geography lesson in exotic places like Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Even so, once meetings between the Limited's buyers and the 700 or so manufacturers' representatives got rolling in scores of tiny booths set up in the headquarters office, most of the participants turned upbeat. Although few came away with orders, most were convinced that the company wants--and needs--support from U.S. apparel makers as it fuels its growth and grapples with the global marketplace.

"The Limited clearly put the ball in our court," said Lila Ryan, president of SA2 Aron, a knitwear company that manufactures exclusively in Los Angeles.

Sen. Glenn, an Ohio Democrat who is a close friend and skiing companion of Wexner, laid down the gauntlet in a keynote speech, challenging participants to regain their competitive edge. "Leslie Wexner wants to expand his buying in the U.S. but has trouble finding U.S. manufacturers to match (offshore producers in) quality, price and delivery dates," he said.

Such sentiments about competitiveness and buying American are hardly new to retailing. Wal-Mart, the enormously profitable and highly regarded small-town merchant based in Bentonville, Ark., began a buy-American program in 1985 after Chairman Sam M. Walton decided to battle the nation's growing trade deficit.

Since then, spokeswoman Stacey Duncan said, Wal-Mart has given more than $713 million (wholesale) in orders, mostly for apparel, to U.S. manufacturers that otherwise would have gone offshore. "This is the way he's helping out," she added. The policy plays quite well in the small Southern and Midwestern towns that are the company's mainstays.

Shunning Role of 'Pawn'

Other import-oriented retailers, such as the Gap, have made noises about looking for more domestic sources. But the Limited's clout--the company has nearly 3,000 stores and anticipates adding 500 a year for the next three years--lent credibility to the carefully orchestrated trade fair.

Anthony Baran, whose Model Garment Co. makes skirts under the Ruff Hewn label as well as private-label garments, saw the fair as a chance to build long-term relationships with the Limited's divisions so that "we won't be a pawn in the international game, subject to currency fluctuations and quotas."

At his plant in Frackville, Pa., he has already seen a big pickup in orders from retailers since installing a "quick response" manufacturing system that can turn out a pair of pants, for example, in three days instead of the typical 12 to 15.

It "becomes a consumer pull-through system, where consumer demand is what stimulates production," Baran said. "What we're seeing is partnerships developing between piece-good mills and apparel manufacturers and retailers interconnected by computers (that) shorten the pipeline from fiber through fabric through finished apparel and into the retailer."

More such speedy turnarounds are needed if U.S. companies are to compete with offshore manufacturers, according to Crafted With Pride in U.S.A. Council, a New York-based coalition of apparel makers and unions that is spending $45 million over three years to promote American-made products. Its ads have featured such celebrities as Bob Hope and Loretta Swit.

Lead Time Shortened

"Ability to turn inventory is the key," Robert E. Swift, the group's executive director, said at the Limited event.

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