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Uncertainty Around Tariffs Threatens Retail Imports

With more and more tariffs looming, retailers have been rushing to bring in product before more goods end up on the target list.

As such, imports and America’s major container ports are expected to remain strong this month following record growth over the summer, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“More tariffs could come any day, and retailers have been bringing in record amounts of merchandise ahead of that in order to mitigate the impact on their customers,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Retail sales are growing stronger than expected this year thanks to tax cuts and job creation, but tariffs are the wild card that threaten to throw away a significant portion of those benefits.”

Summer 2018 has already been marked by periods of record-setting retail imports into the United States, up 4.9% year over year, excluding automobiles, petroleum or food.

American ports handled an estimated 1.92 million TEU, or Twenty-Foot Container Equivalent Units, in August—a slight increase over July’s 1.9 million TEU record and the previous record of 1.85 million set in June. The entire first half of 2018 saw 10.3 million TEU in retail imports, up 5 percent from last year. Imports for September are expected to reach 1.83 million TEU, up 2.4% over the same period last year.

Import numbers are expected to continue growing through the end of the year, and likely into the early months of 2019.

“The current boom in shipping can primarily be explained by importers’ response to the U.S. trade war with China,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Consumers appear to be spending money on goods ahead of the tariff price increases that will eventually come. But there could be a rocky road ahead as the impact of tariffs begins to be more fully felt.”