Pressing on: US President Donald Trump, prepares to sign a memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on goods from China on March 22. Picture: REUTERS
Pressing on: US President Donald Trump, prepares to sign a memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on goods from China on March 22. Picture: REUTERS

New York — The Trump administration’s trade dispute with Beijing could hit US retailers if tariffs are implemented and lead to higher prices or a shortage of merchandise.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump said he was considering penalties on $100bn in Chinese goods, without specifying which goods he would target. That would be in addition to the proposed tariffs on $50bn of imports from China that Washington unveiled last week. Trump’s first round of $50bn in tariffs mostly targeted industrial goods and electronics.

The proposed US tariffs could be little more than a negotiating tactic aimed at forcing China to tackle its intellectual property policies. But some retailers and apparel companies are sounding the alarm bells.

The two biggest categories of US imports from China in 2017 were communications and computer equipment, totalling $137bn, according to US census data. Cellphones and computers were spared from the initial tariffs list. Apparel and footwear, both labour-intensive industries in China, made up a combined $39bn in US imports.

Our concern is that the new set of tariffs will turn to more consumer products not on the list and will now include things like apparel, home goods, shoes — all of those basic retail goods coming in from China
Robert D’Loren
CE of Xcel Brands

"It’s this rhetoric around another $100bn in tariffs that concerns us because certainly within that next pool of categories it would be hard to exclude apparel and footwear," said Robert D’Loren, CE of Xcel Brands, a clothing supplier.

"If tariffs were to be introduced on apparel, the very next day I will be on a plane to China and I will be working with my factories, trim suppliers and mills to have each of us assess how much tighter we can work to deal with this," he said.

Jonathan Gold, the National Retail Federation’s vice- president for supply chain and customs policy, also expressed concern over what the new set of tariffs might entail.

"Our concern is that the new set of tariffs will turn to more consumer products not on the list and will now include things like apparel, home goods, shoes — all of those basic retail goods coming in from China.

"As companies make their buying decisions, especially for the holiday season, which they do six, nine to 12 months in advance, they are trying to figure out how they will do this going forward," he said.

Should a trade war ensue, retailers with vast global supply chains may suffer less than others. Costco Wholesale, Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s Companies, for example, have the ability to acquire products in multiple markets and could move to tap alternative markets such as Vietnam, Bangladesh or Colombia for merchandise.

"Many retailers will do just fine, but you have to have other markets where your products can go," Sanford C Bernstein analyst Brandon Fletcher said. "Let’s say you pre-committed six months ago to buying a whole bunch of TVs from China. Now, the tariffs might force that to be a 25% higher price.

"And so you say, ‘OK, I don’t want to sell these in the US because I have to pay the tariff.’ Well, is there a tariff for China on selling televisions to Mexico? Nope," Fletcher said.

Walmart has reduced its supply chain exposure to China "quite a bit" over the years as lower-cost goods became available out of Vietnam, while Costco had sourcing offices in a number of core markets beyond China, he said.

In contrast, Best Buy depends heavily on China to source smaller TV sets and other low-priced merchandise, and there are no easy alternative supply countries, he said. Best Buy declined to comment on how the tariffs might affect the company’s supply chain.

At Dollar General Corporation, a substantial amount of imported merchandise comes from China, according to a company filing dated March 23. A spokesman for Dollar General declined to comment.

At Target Corporation, China is its single largest source of merchandise. It said the imposition of additional tariffs or duties on imported products could adversely affect its business. "Like all firms, we are monitoring the situation very closely," a Target spokeswoman said.

As the cost to make goods in China has gone up over the past decade, many retail and apparel companies have moved some production to Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

For instance, Gap bought 28% of its apparel in China in financial 2013, according to Christopher Svezia, a senior vice-president of research at investment services company Wedbush. By financial 2017, the apparel chain bought 22% of its merchandise in China and 25% in Vietnam, he said.

"There’s definitely been some movement out of China across the board," Svezia said.

Gap did not respond to a request for comment.

"You can’t just say let’s go to Pakistan or North Africa. It’s not so easy," said D’Loren.

"It will take years to build out the supply chain. Even if you have the capital you won’t be able to find the factories.

"Production lines are booked months or years in advance," he said.

Reuters

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