After months of record-setting stockpiling ahead of a rise in tariffs on Chinese goods, retail maritime shipments have finally begun to slow, a trend that is expected to continue until at least the first quarter of 2019, according to the National Retail Federation.
The industry group said in its Jan. 8 monthly "Global Port Tracker" report with maritime consulting firm Hackett Associates that 1.81 million 20-foot equivalent units, or TEU, of retail goods were imported in November, an 11.4% drop-off from a record-setting October but a 2.5% year-over-year rise from November 2017.
A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
A record 2.04 million TEU of retail goods were imported in October, which the groups attributed to last-minute holiday orders as well as stockpiling to beat a scheduled rise in tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200 billion of Chinese imports, including furniture, lamps, fish and mattresses on the consumer side.
That tariff increase, announced in September and originally scheduled to come into effect Jan. 1, was postponed after the two countries agreed to hold 90 days of negotiations toward a resolution of their ongoing trade dispute. The Trump administration has warned, however, that the tariff rate hike, as well as subsequent tariffs on consumer goods, could go into effect should a deal not be reached by March 2.
"There have been record-high levels of imports over the past several months, primarily due to raised inventories ahead of expected tariff increases," Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said in a news release. "But we are projecting declining volumes in the coming months and an overall weakness in imports for the first half of the year."
The NRF and Hackett also forecast 1.79 million TEU for December, which would be a 3.7% year-over-year increase, as well as 1.75 million TEU for January and 1.67 million TEU for February, both of which would mark 0.9% year-over-year decreases.
Although November is the latest month for which concrete import data is available, the groups project that 2018 will be a record-setting maritime import year, with 21.6 million TEU expected to be shipped in through the busiest American ports over that span.
Jonathan Gold, the NRF's vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said the pressure on retailers to stock up on merchandise has now passed with the holiday season in the rearview mirror. However, retailers are still closely monitoring uncertainty regarding tariffs on Chinese goods as talks between the two economic powerhouses intensify this winter.
"Retailers have also brought in much of their spring merchandise early to protect consumers against higher prices that will eventually come with tariffs," Gold said in a news release.
The "Global Port Tracker" report covers 14 U.S. ports, including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Charleston, Miami and Oakland.