European clothing retailers will not be faced with empty shelves this autumn, now that a deal has been reached between China and the European Union to let through clothing shipments that have been waiting at docks all summer. Retail groups welcomed the agreement, but worried that the EU bureaucracy needed to put it into place would still cause delays. They also warned that buyers might steer clear of China in the coming years to avoid more confusion. 'It's not perfect, but it's certainly something that is a good and balanced solution which all parties [can] live with,' said Ralph Kamphoner, international trade adviser at EuroCommerce, a Brussels-based organisation representing retailers and wholesalers in 28 European countries. Under the quotas imposed in June, 10 kinds of textiles have been restricted including sweaters, trousers, blouses, shirts, bras and flax yarn. By the middle of last month, with the autumn season fast approaching, the British press started printing stories referring to the 'bra wars' and predicting empty shelves in the autumn if the problem was not resolved. The agreement reached this week means those products will be let into countries so retailers can get them to stores. But retail groups said the process would not take effect immediately. The EU head office said yesterday member states had approved the deal struck on Monday between EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai to allow half of the excess garments into the market outside quota rules, and half to be counted against limits for this year and next year. Under EU procedures, the final word to release the goods would come early next week. Alessandro Bedeschi, secretary-general of the 40,000-strong Association of European Textile Retailers, said: 'Our main interest now is that the merchandise is unblocked as soon as possible, because every day that the merchandise is blocked, it's creating huge problems to our members.' Mr Kamphoner feared that the deal may have already come too late for smaller clothing retailers. 'Honestly, I would not like to be a small importer at this moment. We have told the commissioner that the middle of September may be too late for some companies,' he said. Still, one big European clothing chain, Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz, said the agreement did come in time. 'We'll be OK,' said the company's head of investor relations, Paer Darj. Hennes & Mauritz, which sells trendy, affordable clothing, buys about 30 per cent of its stock from the mainland, and had faced the problem of not being able to sell goods it had already ordered. Mr Darj said the Stockholm-based company would continue to outsource to China. Many big clothing chains were already insulated from disruptions in trade between China and Europe anyway, said Kevin Hawkins, director-general of the British Retail Consortium, which represents major British retailers. This is because they had already shifted their sources of production away from the mainland in anticipation of just such a bottleneck. 'A large number of certain bigger retailers in the UK are, shall we say, already well balanced in their arrangements, so their exposure to China is smaller than you would imagine,' he said. There were also the high-end, high-fashion retailers, who would not be affected because their products required a higher level of manufacturing sophistication not easily found in China, he added. 'The Chinese strength in textiles is in standardised, mass-produced products that don't cost very much and that you can produce easily,' Mr Hawkins said. But these days, the trend among many high-fashion chains, such as Spain's Zara, was to change product lines quickly and in small batches. That meant 'you don't have the big standardised product runs, and retailers tend to look at producers other than China', he added. While retailers had solved their immediate problems, there was still much uncertainty over what would happen next year. Under the original agreement, growth in Chinese clothing exports was limited to 8 per cent to 12.5 per cent annually until 2007. The deal signed on Monday would allow half of the excess garments into the market outside quota rules, and half to be counted against limits for this year and next year. But that meant there was still a big question mark over the exact amount of clothing allowed in under quotas next year and in 2007, the retail groups said. 'We also want to be sure for 2006 that this situation will not happen,' said Mr Bedeschi. 'Retailers need predictability and legal certainty.' Mr Kamphoner pointed out, however, that the total amount next year would be higher than this year's amount. Mr Hawkins said European clothing importers may try to diversify their sourcing after this year's lessons. 'Quite plainly, it will encourage those retailers in the EU who have been have exposed to Chinese textile products to look to alternative sources or at least reduce their dependence on China, and one thinks of countries like Sri lanka, Thailand, India and Turkey,' he said. At least one company agreed. 'With the reimposition of quotas, no textile business can do any long-term planning with Chinese factories,' said Grev Leigh of Bristol, on a BBC web forum. 'This will probably mean that in a year or so, products from China will fall well below quota because of lack of confidence,' said Mr Leigh, who added that he bought textiles from Asian factories. 'We and everyone else are now transferring orders to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and Korea - anywhere but Europe, which is too expensive.'