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YIWU, China (Reuters) - Christmas comes but once a year. For Leo Ho, who runs a factory that makes plastic Christmas trees in Yiwu, China's export capital for novelty knick-knacks, it comes in July, when tree orders start rolling in.
But early signs point to a lean Christmas for low-cost exporters like Ho, who told Reuters his sales were down 20 percent year-on-year in 2012.
Ho's pain reflects broader conditions in China's export sector. Amid a faltering global economy, Chinese vice premier Wang Qishan on Friday said that China would have trouble meeting its 10 percent trade growth target this year.
Yiwu, located 300 km (185 miles) south of Shanghai in eastern China's prosperous Zhejiang province, is considered a bellwether for China's low-cost exports, especially to emerging markets.
"It's representative of the price-sensitive, labor-intensive trade," said Ben Simpfendorfer, managing director of consultancy Silk Road Associates, explaining how conditions in Yiwu reflect China's broader export economy.
The Yiwu "Prosperity Index," which China's commerce ministry publishes based on data collected from Yiwu wholesalers, dipped below the level separating expansion from contraction for the first time since its launch in 2006.
Even when China's exports cratered during the global financial crisis in 2009, the index remained above its current level.
China's leaders have said the country's export sector needs to move up the value chain towards higher value-added products - including capital goods such as telecommunications equipment and industrial machinery - and away from low-end exports like toys and apparel. But this transition will take time.
June trade data due out on Tuesday will reflect China's progress toward this goal, but also the ability of traditional exporters like Ho to fight a rearguard action against structural change in the world's second-largest economy.
"Right now we're just trying to consolidate our client base," he said.
Chinese exports increased 9 percent year-to-date through May, down sharply from 20 percent growth for full-year 2011 and 31 percent growth in 2010.
The human mind has conceived of very few products that are not available in wholesale quantities at China Commodity City, the massive trinket bazaar in Yiwu that Silk Road Associates' Simpfendorfer calls "Wal-Mart on steroids".
A tiny sample takes in souvenir refrigerator magnets for every world city, fake marble sculptures of a cheetah crouching on the back of a crocodile and a selection of clocks shaped like a ship's helm. There's even a vending machine that sells men's dress shirts.
But on a Thursday afternoon last week, few foreign buyers could be seen plying the corridors of the market. Experienced shopkeepers said that in good times the halls were teeming with foreigners, especially from the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.
In contrast to pure exporters like Ho, producers who have been able to shift their business towards domestic demand are faring better.
Guo Lili's stall in the Yiwu market displays painted ceramic tea sets and kitchenware produced in her nearby factory. In addition to retail supermarkets and wholesale distributors, Guo's company, Lida Colored Ceramics, makes custom engraved tea sets directly for corporate clients.
"Banks like to have their name engraved on the side and give them to clients as gifts," she said.
Ten years ago exports accounted for 70 percent of total sales. Today, domestic sales account for 60 percent, Guo told Reuters.
Beyond the anecdotes, data also suggests that Yiwu is struggling.
The "Prosperity Index," which is based on data on sales volume, turnover, and gross profit margins, among other measures, reached 986 in June, down from its recent high of 1,126 in September last year and well off its all-time high of 1,250 in September 2006. A reading below 1,000 indicates contraction.
"These are exporters that really can't hike prices. At the same time they are affected by currency appreciation more than most because they don't have the margins to cushion the losses," said Simpfendorfer, who conducted in-depth research on the Yiwu market for his book 'The New Silk Road'.
Margins for low-cost manufacturers are getting squeezed by rapidly rising labor costs.
"Workers that I used to get for 2,000 yuan ($310) a month now want 3,000 yuan," said Ho, who told Reuters his net profit margin has fallen from 10 percent a few years ago to 5-6 percent today.
Despite the difficulties, Ho remains defiantly optimistic. He has seen plenty of Yiwu factories go bankrupt in recent years, but he moved his own operation to a larger factory earlier this year.
"Business is cyclical," he said. "There are good times and there are bad times. But Christmas comes every year." ($1 = 6.3644 Chinese yuan)
Editing by Alex Richardson