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Retail Cargo Imports Stay Robust Ahead of Possible March Tariff Hike

Facing a March 1 deadline for threatened 25 percent tariff hikes on imports from China, cargo shipments arriving at major U.S. container ports remained at higher-than-usual levels in December, according to the Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, released Monday.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.97 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in December, up 8.8 percent from November and 13.9 percent above year-earlier levels. That brought 2018 to a record 21.8 million TEU, an increase of 6.2 percent over 2017’s previous record of 20.5 million TEU.

“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,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “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.”

U.S. tariffs of 10 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods that took effect last September are scheduled to increase to 25 percent on March 1, potentially including apparel and footwear unless negotiations that began in December are successful.

January cargo imports were estimated at 1.83 million TEU, up 4.1 percent from a year earlier. February shipments are forecast to rise 5.7 percent to 1.78 million TEU, March imports are seen increasing 3.8 percent to 1.6 million TEU, and April cargo is forecast to rise 7.7 percent to 1.76 million TEU. To round out the first half, Global Port Tracker forecasts May shipments to be up 3.4 percent to 1.89 million TEU, and June’s to rise 0.3 percent to .86 million TEU. That would bring the first half of 2019 to 10.7 million TEU, up 4.1 percent over the first half of 2018.

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