With tariff increases delayed for the foreseeable future and the busy summer season approaching, imports at US’s major retail container ports are beginning to climb again, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates. NRF is the world’s largest retail trade association.

Imports during 2018 set a new record of 21.8 mn TEU, an increase of 6.2 per cent over 2017’s previous record of 20.5 mn TEU. The first half of 2019 is expected to total 10.7 mn TEU, up 3.7 per cent over the first half of 2018. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

“Retailers are starting to stock up in anticipation of a strong summer,” NRF Vice President for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “Tariff increases are on hold and progress is being reported in talks between the US and China, so the imports we’re seeing now are driven primarily by expectations for consumer demand.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.62 mn twenty-foot equivalent units in February, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 14.3 per cent from January and down 4 per cent year-over-year. February is traditionally the slowest month of the year because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia and the lull between retailers’ holiday and summer seasons.

March was estimated at 1.63 mn TEU, up 5.9 per cent year-over-year. April is forecast at 1.75 mn TEU, up 6.9 per cent; May at 1.9 mn TEU, up 4 per cent; June at 1.89 mn TEU, up 2 per cent; July at 1.96 mn TEU, up 2.9 per cent, and August at 1.97 mn TEU, up 4.3 per cent. The August number would be the highest since the record 2 mn TEU set last October as retailers brought holiday merchandise into the country ahead of expected tariff increases.

“The US consumer, while more cautious, has not stopped spending,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “The inventory-to-sales ratio, however, is on the rise. Part of this can be attributed to the heavy front-loading of imports ahead of expected tariff increases that took place in 2018.”

US tariffs of 10 per cent on $200 bn worth of Chinese goods that took effect last September were scheduled to rise to 25 per cent in March, but the increase was postponed by President Trump, citing progress in talks between Washington and Beijing. The tariff increase has been put on hold indefinitely while the negotiations continue.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, covers the US 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.