With retail sales continuing to grow, imports at major US retail container ports are expected to remain strong in September after setting three new records this summer, new figures suggest.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates, total imports at major US retail container ports in the first half of 2018 were 10.3m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), an increase of 5.1% over the first half of 2017. The total for 2018 is expected to reach 21.4m TEU, an increase of 4.4% over last year’s record 20.5m TEU.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.9m TEU in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 2.8% from June and up 5.6% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

August was estimated at 1.92m TEU, up 4.8% year-over-year, while September is forecast at 1.83m TEU, up 2.4% from last year.

Looking further ahead, October is forecast at 1.88m TEU, up 5%; November at 1.79m TEU, up 1.7%; while December is also at 1.79m TEU, up 3.6%. January 2019 is forecast at 1.77m TEU, up 0.4% over January 2018.

August was the third month in a row to set a new record for the number of containers imported during a single month, following July’s 1.9m TEU and June’s 1.85m TEU. The previous record of 1.83m TEU was set in August 2017.

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“More tariffs could come any day, and retailers have been bringing in record amounts of merchandise ahead of that in order to mitigate the impact on their customers,” said NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold. “Retail sales are growing stronger than expected this year thanks to tax cuts and job creation, but tariffs are the wild card that threaten to throw away a significant portion of those benefits.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett added the current boom in shipping can primarily be explained by importers’ response to the US trade war with China.

“Consumers appear to be spending money on goods ahead of the tariff price increases that will eventually come. But there could be a rocky road ahead as the impact of tariffs begins to be more fully felt,” he said.

While cargo numbers do not correlate directly with sales, the record imports mirror strong spring and summer results expected to continue through the remainder of the year. Retail sales as calculated by NRF – excluding automobiles, restaurants and gasoline stations – were up 4.9% year-over-year in July and up 5% on a three-month moving average.

NRF revised its annual spending forecast this summer to say 2018 sales are now expected to be up at least 4.5% over 2017 rather than the 3.8%-4.4% previously forecast.

Click here to see how apparel imports into the US fared during the month of July.