Photo: Containership in Long Beach, Ca; Source: Unsplash/Cameron Venti

NRF: US Retail Imports Remain Strong ahead of Tariff Increase

Although imports at major retail container ports in the US have slowed down from their pre-holiday peak, they remain at unusually high levels as retailers continue bringing in merchandise before tariffs increase in January.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.87 million TEU in September, down 1.3 percent from August but up 4.6 percent year-over-year, according to the monthly report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

October was estimated at 1.89 million TEU, up 5.5 percent year-over-year. November is forecast at 1.81 million TEU, up 2.8 percent, and December at 1.79 million TEU, up 3.8 percent. January 2019 is forecast at 1.81 million TEU, up 2.8 percent over January 2018; February at 1.7 million TEU, up 0.4 percent year-over-year, and March at 1.59 million TEU, up 3.3 percent.

“Imports have usually dropped off significantly by this time of year but we’re still seeing numbers that could have set records in the past,” Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, said.

“Part of this is driven by consumer demand in the strong economy but retailers also know that tariffs on the latest round of goods are set to more than double in just a few weeks. If there are shipments that can be moved up, it makes sense to do that before the price goes up,” Gold explained.

“President Trump’s trade war with China and the threat of even higher tariffs in 2019 have created a mini-boom in imports and businesses have rushed to bring goods into the country ahead of the tariffs. We are clearly in a politically motivated trade environment,” Ben Hackett, Hackett Associates Founder, commented.

Imports set a monthly record of 1.9 million TEU in July ahead of 10 percent tariffs on USD 200 billion in goods from China that took effect in September and are scheduled to rise to 25 percent in January. While not overall records, October, November and December’s numbers are each the highest on record for those months. Before this year, the highest monthly number on record was 1.83 million TEU set in August 2017.

While cargo numbers do not correlate directly with sales, the imports mirror this year’s strong retail sales. NRF forecast last week that 2018 holiday season retail sales – excluding automobiles, restaurants and gasoline stations – will increase between 4.3 percent and 4.8 percent over last year. Retail sales for all of 2018 are forecast to be up at least 4.5 percent over 2017 .

The first half of 2018 totaled 10.3 million TEU, an increase of 5.1 percent over the first half of 2017. The total for 2018 is expected to reach 21.4 million TEU, an increase of 4.4 percent over last year’s record 20.5 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker covers the US ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.