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February 12, 2019

US retail imports remain high in rush to beat tariffs

By Beth Wright

Imports at major US retail container ports have dipped from the peaks seen towards the end of last year – but remain at higher-than-usual levels as a potential increase in tariffs on goods from China looms next month.

US tariffs of 10% on US$200bn worth of Chinese goods that took effect last September are scheduled to increase to 25% on 1 March unless ongoing negotiations between the two countries are successful. 

According to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, major US retail container ports handled 1.97m TEU in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 8.8% from November and 13.9% year-over-year. That brought 2018 to a record 21.8m TEU, an increase of 6.2% over 2017’s previous record of 20.5m TEU. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

January was estimated at 1.83m TEU, up 4.1% from January 2018, while February is forecast at 1.78m TEU, up 5.7% year-over-year.

Looking further ahead, March is forecast at 1.6m TEU, up 3.8%; April at 1.76m TEU, up 7.7%; May at 1.89m TEU, up 3.4%, and June at 1.86m TEU, up 0.3%. That would bring the first half of 2019 to 10.7m TEU, up 4.1% over the first half of 2018.

“With trade talks with China still unresolved, retailers appear to be bringing spring merchandise into the country early in case tariffs go up in March,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “We are hopeful that the talks will succeed, but until the trade war is behind us, retailers need to do what they can to mitigate the higher prices that will inevitably come with tariffs.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett concurs. “US containerised imports continue to be robust with retailers and other businesses trying to beat potential tariff increases in March. The problem is that warehouses and storage facilities are running out of space.”

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