Still Waiting For Lower Prices From Asia

American consumers might well be asking, "Where's the cheap?"

The Asian financial crisis, now more than a year old, was supposed to bring them a flood of cheap goods, as desperate Asian economies tried to export their way back to stability.

Goods from running-shoes made in Indonesia to computer keyboards from Taiwan, as well as sweaters, mixing bowls, and jump ropes, should have been cheaper in the United States.

Much cheaper.

But they're not, and probably won't be anytime soon.

While retail analysts say prices already have fallen slightly because of the Asian financial turmoil, they don't expect greater savings until Christmas.

And even then, says Peter Schaeffer, retail analyst with Warburg Dillon Reed investment bankers in New York, "I would not expect reductions to be significant enough to fuel a buying spree of any consequence."

Part of the reason is the amount of time it takes for goods to make their way through the pipeline. And even when lower prices have rolled off the boat, retailers have been reluctant to pass them along to their customers.

Pocket change

For now, say analysts, competition stemming from the Asian financial crisis should at least keep consumer prices in check. Prices likely will drop a bit more by the end of the year, but observers warn the savings won't even buy you a cheap VCR.

When the financial turmoil began in Thailand last July, bargain hunters assumed that currency devaluation in some Asian countries - a prime source of clothing, shoes, toys, electronics, and housewares sold in US stores - would trickle down to consumers.

A 70 percent devaluation in the Indonesian rupiah, for example, means it costs 70 percent less to make something in Indonesia.

There are other costs - such as materials and shipping - but many people assumed that some part of the cost savings would end up in the final price.

It was a fair assumption, since 30 percent of US imports come from the region.

But a year out, the Asian tumult has brought only marginal changes.

Part of that delay comes from the pace of the product cycle. It takes about 12 months for a product to go from words on a contract to goods in a consumer's shopping cart.

Simply because Asian labor, land, and silk, for example, are cheaper now than last July doesn't mean a New York clothier can discount the current selection of ties, which were ordered before devaluation.

"What is coming in now was ordered just as the crisis was beginning to hit," says Rosalind Wells, economist with the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Prices tied to future exports

But consumers can look for prices to edge down at least through next summer as Asian countries increase the number of silk ties and other goods they send to the US, says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York retail consultant.

Analyst Schaeffer says savings will be greater on imports from countries that have seen sharp devaluations in their currencies (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines) rather than on goods from more stable countries such as China and Japan. Because Japan and China ship more to the US than does Indonesia, American consumers will find only limited savings.

Target, the No. 5 US discount-store chain, has seen costs and prices remain steady for the past year, says spokeswoman Denise Workcuff.

"We have sales, but that has nothing to do with the Asian crisis," she says.

Other stores, however, have benefited from the upheaval. May Department Stores Co., the country's second-largest department store chain, operates Lord & Taylor, Filene's, and eight other regional department-store companies. It has seen a 2 percent drop in costs for next spring and will pass those reductions along to consumers, either as lower prices or higher-quality merchandise, says May spokeswoman Rhonda West.

Hardly any labor savings

The skinny savings stem largely from the fact that most of the Asian influence in many price tags comes from labor, which wasn't terribly expensive in the first place, says Diane Swonk, an economist with First Chicago NBD.

With clothes, for example, the fabric might come from Italy, the thread from France, and the buttons from Canada.

No matter how meager the savings, though, competition will eventually force retailers to share them with customers, say analysts. Merchants, however, will postpone the split as long as possible, says Wendy Liebmann, a retail consultant with WSL Strategic Retail in New York.

"Companies that do business and sell products - apparel and footwear - in the US have been so starved for some additional profit that they will try to sit on as much additional profit for as long as they can," she says.

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