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Retail Cargo Imports Expected to See Final Tariff-Driven Surge This Month

Cargo imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to see a final surge this month ahead of new tariffs set to take effect in December, according to the Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

President Trump announced a tentative agreement on a partial trade deal with China last month, but officials are still working on the details and have not announced a date or location for the measure to be signed. An October tariff increase was canceled and news reports late last week indicated some tariffs could be removed, but Trump threw cold water on the idea that the new round of tariffs on consumer goods currently scheduled to take effect Dec. 15 could be scrapped or rolled back.

“Retailers are highly competitive, but the ability to compete has been challenging this year because of the uncertainty of the trade war and continued tariff escalation,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.87 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in September, up 0.2 percent year-over-year, but down 4.7 percent from August, when imports saw their second-highest level on record–1.97 million TEU–ahead of tariffs that took effect Sept. 1. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

October cargo imports were estimated to have fallen 5.2 percent to 1.93 million TEU from last year’s record 2 million TEU in the month. November shipments are forecast to rise 8.3 percent year-over-year to 1.96 million TEU, tying last December and this past July for the third-highest number of containers in a single month.

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But imports are expected to fall 9.2 percent to 1.78 million TEU in December from near-record numbers last year ahead of scheduled tariffs that were later postponed. The expected drop from November will come as December’s tariffs take effect, but the month historically sees a falloff in imports because most holiday merchandise has already arrived by that point.

“Industry planning is in a state of confusion with the on-again, off-again tariff increases and the widening of trade disputes,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.

The first half of 2019 totaled 10.5 million TEU, up 2.1 percent over the first half of 2018, and 2019 is expected to see a new annual record of 22 million TEU. That would be up 1 percent from last year’s previous record of 21.8 million TEU, the report noted.

January cargo imports are forecast to fall 2.3 percent to 1.85 million TEU from a year earlier. In February, traditionally the slowest month of the year due to Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia, shipments are projected to experience a 2.1 percent decline to 1.59 million TEU, while March is forecast at 1.76 million TEU, up an unusually high 9.1 percent thanks to fluctuations in the Lunar New Year calendar.

Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York-New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.