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Retail inventory balloon risk rises; Amazon forwarding shows homeware surge

The U.S. retail sales recovery entered its fourth month in October with growth in sales excluding autos having increased 6.9% year over year, Panjiva's analysis of official data shows. That represented a slower rate than the 8.3% increase seen in the month before and raises questions about whether the hoped-for, earlier-than-normal shopping behavior from consumers has actually arisen.

Among the major store types, there was a slowdown in growth of nonstore (e-commerce) retailers to 26.3% from 29.7% while furniture sales slowed to 5.8% growth from 8.2%. In-store shopping remains depressed, with clothing sales down 11.3% and electricals declining 3.3%.

The moderate recovery may mean that the stakes around Thanksgiving period shopping "black Friday and "cyber Monday" remain high. A continued surge in imports of consumer goods raises the clear risk that retailers across the store and non-store segments have overbuilt their inventories. 

That may have a wider impact on the logistics industry too, given the boom in consumer discretionary product imports has been a major driver of total shipping growth, as outlined in Panjiva's research of Nov. 11.

Panjiva's data shows that U.S. seaborne imports of consumer discretionary products appear to be wildly out of kilter with sales. Shipments of consumer electronics and household appliances jumped 21.1% and 71.6% higher, respectively, in October compared to retail sales for electrical stores, which fell 3.3%. Even in apparel and textiles, where imports only expanded by 10.1% after being largely unchanged in September, there was an imbalance with the 11.3% slide in sales.

The risk of inventory build implied by the retail sales figures for store-types needs to be moderated by the expansion in non-store sales. One proxy for the latter comes from Inc.'s freight forwarding business. While that is far from representative of total activity through the e-commerce platform, it does provide a proxy for the Chinese direct-retailers using the site.

Panjiva's data shows that U.S. seaborne imports linked to Amazon climbed 77.8% higher than a year earlier in October. Home goods provided the fastest rate of growth with a 156.6% jump in imports of plasticware and a 103.6% increase in shipments of home furnishings.

Electrical goods grew both at a slower rate than home goods and at much slower rates than in the third quarter, with consumer electronics and appliances rising by 84.7% and 74.3%, respectively. Amazon's share of leisure goods, including products as diverse as toys and exercise equipment, has also been expanding with growth of 57.6%.

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Christopher Rogers is a senior researcher at Panjiva, which is a business line of S&P Global Market Intelligence, a division of S&P Global Inc. This content does not constitute investment advice, and the views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Links are current at the time of publication. S&P Global Market Intelligence is not responsible if those links are unavailable later.