U.S. retailers and manufacturers are stocking-up their inventories with newfound confidence heading into this year’s peak shipping season, when imports typically tick up ahead of the end-of-year holidays.

American ports took in the equivalent of 1.72 million 20-foot containers in July, just shy of a record, according to preliminary data from the National Retail Federation. Importers and logistics firms attributed July’s blockbuster growth to rising consumer confidence, which hit its second-highest level since 2000, according to the Conference Board. Shipments of auto parts, furniture and back-to-school related goods were among the strongest categories of growth, analysts with Panjiva, a trade data service, said.

Midsummer through early fall is typically the peak season at U.S. ports, as retailers stock up for the holidays. But in recent years the usually-busy months have seen uneven or flat volumes as retailers worked through excess inventories. Many ordered fewer goods from overseas to slim-down their supply chains as more customers shopped online. But import data this year shows retailers are coming to the end of that process, and are now restocking to match rising demand.

“We’ve imported more this year than in many years past,” said Mark Morales, owner of furniture-import business Charles Jacobsen. Mr. Morales said his showroom in Culver City, Calif., is currently “stacked to the rafters” with Asian antiques, the firm’s specialty, for its annual August sale.

Imports surged 15% in July at the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., the nation’s biggest port complex. The Port of Savannah, Ga., the second largest East Coast port, reported its busiest July ever and Houston’s port saw a 13% jump in loaded import containers year-over-year.

Southern California-based supply chain management group Unis Co. is anticipating “another record-breaking Black Friday,” according to chief executive James Lin. Unis handles cargo ranging from flat-screen TVs and electronics to industrial and automotive parts for its customers, who usually begin ramping up imports this time of year, Mr. Lin said.

Container imports to the U.S. come primarily from Asia, where manufacturing costs are generally lower. In past years goods like furniture and toys mainly came from China, but this year has seen a swing toward even cheaper labor markets, said Chris Rogers, with Panjiva. Imports from Vietnam rose 28.4% last month, compared with a 10.2% rise for Chinese-made goods.

Manufacturers are also importing more parts, a sign they could be planning to ramp up production at U.S. factories, Mr. Lin said. Manufacturing growth has been sluggish, with an especially sharp drop recently in auto manufacturing. A pickup in that sector would drive the market for trucking and other freight-hauling businesses.

“Many companies have announced U.S. factories they’re trying to get online” in the fourth quarter, Mr. Lin said. ”It’s [part of] a transition plan into having domestic manufacturing.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal August 23, 2017 | By Erica E. Phillips