More than a month ago, on 16 May, the Indian Government allowed the exports of cotton, silk, wool and knitted masks (non-medical and non-surgical masks). At that time, leading trade bodies claimed that India can export such products worth US $ 1 billion. But so far, things have not moved as per the expectations of the industry.
One of the leading apparel manufacturers of South India has so far dispatched only three shipments of masks and the overall demand is not up to the expectation of the company. Still, it has not lost hope, as it is trying hard to grab an order of around 9 million pieces from a French customer.
Similarly, many others have exported a few small quantities of boutique buyers. Few exporters are facing difficulties at custom clearance too.
Is it that India has not gained much in the first month after lifting the ban and things will speed up further? Or will the current demand for masks not remain as much in few months from now?
Sharing observations about the ground realities of Tirupur, India’s biggest knitted apparel manufacturing hub, Raja M Shanmugham, President, Tirupur Exporters Association (TEA), believed, “Mask export has got started, but it will take some more time to grow in volume. Currently, samples are going to the brands and they will be converted in orders.”
He further added that after the lockdown was lifted, masks of a few crore worth would have left, as it is a very low-value product. “I believe that when there was ban on exports, the EU procured its emergency requirements from Turkey and Vietnam. But now that the ban has been lifted in India too, brands have begun asking for samples. Since all brands would need this, all companies would get ready to supply. Regarding the usage, mask has become a new normal now, hence it would be there for a reasonable period,” said Raja.
Demand is there, as even on LinkedIn, few buyers are sharing their demands but it seems that other countries have taken an edge in this regard. For example, Novo Textiles, a leading textile giant of Canada, shipped 2 million masks for Canada on 20 June. There are many more examples in other countries also; the majority of them are producing non-medical occupational safety masks. Even a few top buying houses do claim that initially, they completed few good orders, but it is not continued.
“Overall, the industry had some test orders in the last one month and bulk orders are in the process. Mask is a new and evolving product for the buyers also… so new that our vendors are helping buyers to create tech packs which never existed till now. Wearer’s feedback is very important and tests are important before bulk orders, as one mask can be used by one wearer only to give feedback, therefore, a test of 200-300 masks needed to get feedback from adults as well as children, so that based on the feedback, large bulk orders can be placed. In next few weeks, India should get bulk orders,” said Leela Kanuga, an industry leader and she has worked with Li & Fung previously.
Few buyers shared feedback like the need of extenders to give comfort to the wearer, elastic ear loops instead of fabric ear loops to fit all shapes and sizes, use interlining in between two fabric layers to keep little more firmness, keep the upper portion of the mask tighter as compared to the lower part, so that warm breath exhales more from the bottom than from the top, thus minimising chances of glasses getting fogging and misting for people who wear spectacles, and add a little pocket on the backside of the mask where PM 2.5 filter can be fitted in by the customer. There’s been a ban on the export of filters from India, but a pocket can be added and the customer can decide to add a filter.
It is also pertinent to mention here that 2-layer fabric masks were the trend till a few weeks back before the WHO declared that fabric masks should be 3-layer – this started retesting.
Sanjeev Jain of TQM Global Buying, Noida, strongly believes that price is a big challenge for Indian apparel exporters, as they are quoting at least 50 cents for a simple mask, while buyers are not ready to pay 20 to 30 cents. He also agrees that small and big companies across the globe are making various masks which are cost-effective and save time as well as shipping charges, so buyers prefer to procure from local manufacturers. “In South Africa, some Indians and Pakistanis are manufacturing masks in good numbers. Overall, there is much hype about mask exports so far,” he told.
Few companies are doing good value addition in the masks and their average FOB is US $ 4 or even above for the same, as they are selling it to boutique buyers of countries like London and Italy.
“Embroidery and use of elements like crystal make masks very attractive, and due to value addition, these masks have comparatively reasonable margins against other products,” says Nupur Batra of Accessories by Nupur, Noida. She has exported more than 50,000 masks so far in last 1 month.
A large chunk of the industry doesn’t see the mask as a long-term product category, as they feel once coronavirus is eliminated, people will not use it much. Secondly, buying countries are also producing these masks. So, this product category is going to sustain for the next 3-4 months at the max.
On the other side, the Indian domestic market is gaining a lot for masks and renowned brands have created good space for themselves. To mention a few, adidas India and Wildcraft have taken a lead and are capturing the market aggressively. Actively moving forward in this regard, Wildcraft is targeting pharmacies, FMCG, and grocery stores for the sale of its respirators. At the same time, it is targeting overseas markets like the Middle East, Mauritius, Europe and the US also.
Siddharth Sood, Co-founder, Wildcraft, told Apparel Resources “We are offering masks with filtration, not just simple fashion masks. There are a lot of designs in our offerings.” Apart from its manufacturing, the company is also outsourcing masks.
Known apparel manufacturers are also making masks for the domestic market, right from brands to corporate clients. Genus Apparels, Faridabad, is supplying masks to corporates starting from the price of Rs. 20 to Rs. 50 per mask (in bulk order only), depending on 2 or 3 ply, with printed logo or simple. Arpit Tandon, Director, Genus Apparels, told, “Domestic market is placing good orders but as far as export is concerned, we are still facing delay at custom clearance, so as of now export orders are awaited.”
Arpit believes that in the long run, masks will be in routine demand, just like any other fashion accessory.
Digitally printed, customised masks are also in good demand in Indian markets, especially among corporate clients.
Though it is yet to be confirmed, some sources told Apparel Resources that masks with filtration, which are currently banned, are also being exported unethically in the name of fashion masks, as there is no fool-proof checking on this at the custom level.
No doubt, things like overall demand and manufacturing of masks in overseas markets are not in the hands of Indian Government or Indian companies, but it is for sure that delay from the Government’s side in this regard went against the country. Even now, all stakeholders must see how they can take advantage of whatever demand is there.