Retail imports drop to annual low with retailers between seasons and tariff hike on hold

"We are hoping that the delay is permanent and, better yet, that tariffs of the past year will be removed entirely."

NRF Vice President Jonathan Gold

WASHINGTON – With the retail industry in its annual lull between seasons and plans for a tariff increase on hold, imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to drop to their lowest level in almost a year this month, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Now that the holiday season is over and summer has yet to crank up, this is the quiet time of year for retail supply chains,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers are also taking a break from the rush to bring merchandise in ahead of tariff hikes now that the increase that was scheduled for March has been delayed. We are hoping that the delay is permanent and, better yet, that tariffs of the past year will be removed entirely. But either way, imports will start to build up again soon as retailers prepare for the summer.”

U.S. tariffs of 10 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods that took effect last September were scheduled to increase to 25 percent on March 2 but the increase was postponed by President Trump, citing progress in talks between Washington and Beijing. The tariff increase is on hold until further notice as the United States and China try to conclude negotiations for a signing summit between Trump and President Xi later this month or in April.  

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.89 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in January, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 3.7 percent from December following the end of the holiday season but up 7.4 percent year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

February was estimated at 1.79 million TEU, up 6.2 percent from February 2018. March is forecast at 1.59 million TEU, up 3.2 percent year-over-year but the lowest level since 1.63 million TEU in April 2018. February and March are historically the two slowest shipping months of the year both because retailers are between major shopping seasons and because of factory shutdowns in Asia during the Lunar New Year holiday.

April is forecast at 1.75 million TEU, up 7 percent year-over-year; May at 1.88 million TEU, up 3.3 percent; June at 1.88 million TEU, up 1.7 percent, and July at 1.96 million TEU, up 2.7 percent.

Imports during 2018 set a new record of 21.8 million TEU, an increase of 6.2 percent over 2017’s previous record of 20.5 million TEU. The first half of 2019 is expected to total 10.8 million TEU, up 4.8 percent over the first half of 2018.

“The trade war with China is turning out not to have the results President Trump expected,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Imports from China did not decline – in fact, they soared to record levels.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast. The report is free to NRF retail members, and subscription information is available at NRF.com/PortTracker or by calling (202) 783-7971. Subscription information for non-members can be found at www.globalporttracker.com.

About NRF
The National Retail Federation is the world’s largest retail trade association. Based in Washington, D.C., NRF represents discount and department stores, home goods and specialty stores, Main Street merchants, grocers, wholesalers, chain restaurants and internet retailers from the United States and more than 45 countries. Retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, supporting one in four U.S. jobs — 42 million working Americans. Contributing $2.6 trillion to annual GDP, retail is a daily barometer for the nation’s economy.

About Hackett Associates
Hackett Associates provides expert consulting, research and advisory services to the international maritime industry, government agencies and international institutions. www.hackettassociates.com