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January 9, 2019

US retail imports level off after holiday rush

By Beth Wright

Imports at major US retail container ports have slowed down after a rush to stock up on merchandise for the holiday season and beat a potential increase on tariffs on goods from China.

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, major US retail container ports handled 1.81m TEU in November, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 2.5% year-over-year but down 11.4% from the record of 2.04m TEU set in October. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December was estimated at 1.79m TEU, a 3.7% year-over-year increase. That would bring 2018 to a total of 21.6m TEU, an increase of 5.3% over 2017’s record 20.5m TEU.

January, meanwhile, is forecast at 1.75m TEU, down 0.9% from January 2018; February at 1.67m TEU, also down 0.9% year-over-year; March at 1.55m TEU, up 0.6%; April at 1.69m TEU, up 3.7%, and May at 1.8m TEU, down 1.3%. February and March are typically two of the slowest months of the year for imports, both because of the post-holiday drop in demand and because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia.

“With the holiday season behind us, the immediate pressure to stock up on merchandise has passed but retailers remain concerned about tariffs and their impact on the nation’s economy,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. 

“Retailers have also brought in much of their spring merchandise early to protect consumers against higher prices that will eventually come with tariffs. Our industry is hoping the talks currently underway will bring an end to this ill-advised trade war and result in a more appropriate way of responding to China’s trade abuses that won’t force American consumers, workers, and businesses to pay the price.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett adds there have been record-high levels of imports over the past several months, primarily due to raised inventories ahead of expected tariff increases.

“But we are projecting declining volumes in the coming months and an overall weakness in imports for the first half of the year,” he says.

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