Ahead of December Tariffs, Retail Imports Could Hit Their Highest Level

As retailers gear up for the impending tariff hike on consumer goods in December, a new report has found that imports at major retail container ports in the United States are expected to hit their highest level of the year in November.

According to data from the National Retail Federation and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates, ports in the United States are forecasted to handle in November 1.97 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units) — or 20-foot-long cargo containers and their equivalents.

That would be up 8.9% year-over-year and tie August, the latest month for which numbers were recorded, as the second highest container-based volume imported in a single month.

“This is the last chance to bring merchandise into the country before virtually everything the U.S. imports from China comes under tariffs,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy. “The effect on prices will vary by retailer and product during the holiday season, but ultimately these taxes on American businesses and consumers will result in higher prices.”

On Sept. 1, Washington hit Beijing with a 15% levy on $112 billion worth of Chinese products, including footwear, apparel and accessories. Following August’s high, the NRF and Hackett had estimated a dip to 1.9 million imported TEU in September.

Now, ahead of tariffs on the remaining $188 billion worth of Chinese goods to be implemented on Dec. 15, the firms have predicted a drop to 1.78 million imported container volumes in December — down 9.3% year over year. Historically, the month has seen a drop-off in imports due to most holiday merchandise having already arrived before the peak shopping season.

“The strength of retail consumption will push any meaningful slowdown in imports into next year,” added Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, “when the full impact of the tariff wars will be translated into a consumption tax felt by consumers.”

While the first half of the year saw 10.5 million imported containers, the second half is expected to witness a record high of 22 million — a 1.2% gain from the same period in 2018. In January, the NRF and Hackett are expecting 1.86 million container volumes, or a 1.9% decrease year over year.

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