LOS ANGELES, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Imports at major U.S. container ports are leveling off after retailers' months-long rush to bring in Chinese merchandise before higher tariffs hit, according to a retail trade report issued on Tuesday.
U.S. ports covered by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates' Global Port Tracker handled 1.81 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in November, the latest available data. That was up 2.5 percent year-over-year but down 11.4 percent from the record of 2.04 million TEU set in October. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container.
The report landed as the United States and China hold talks aimed at ending a bitter trade war that is roiling global financial markets. U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in December to a 90-day truce on tariffs.
Warehouses throughout the United States are packed to the rafters with Chinese goods - ranging from air conditioners and microwaves to footwear and furniture.
"There have been record-high levels of imports over the past several months, primarily due to raised inventories ahead of expected tariff increases," Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.
Apparel sellers were among the retailers who stepped up purchases as tariffs loomed.
The value of China clothing exports to the United States jumped 7.9 percent to $494.83 billion for the January through October period, according to an analysis of customs data from logistics technology firm Descartes Systems Group Inc.
Top consignees for those Chinese products included JC Penney Purchasing Corp, Forever 21 Logistics LLC, Walmart Stores Inc and Uniqlo USA LLC.
Retailers have "brought in much of their spring merchandise early to protect consumers against higher prices that will eventually come with tariffs," said Jonathan Gold, NRF's vice president for supply chain and customs policy.
The Global Port Tracker forecasts that 2018 imports will have risen 5.3 percent to a record 21.6 million TEU before cooling in the early months of the new year, when imports typically soften due to the post-holiday drop in demand and Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia.
The deceleration is expected to continue into 2019 as the standoff between the world's two largest economies ripples through the global economy. FedEx Corp slashed its fiscal 2019 forecasts citing a slowdowns in China and Europe, while grains trader Cargill Inc said the trade tensions hit its bottom line.
"We are projecting ... an overall weakness in imports for the first half of the year," Hackett said.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles Editing by Phil Berlowitz