Box Tops

Anyone watching for U.S. economic growth can only hope the 16 percent increase in containerized shipments from America Chung Nam is more significant than the comparatively meager 1.7 percent growth in Wal-Mart Stores’ import volume.

Wal-Mart is, of course, one of the world’s biggest brand names and the world’s largest retailer.

But it’s likely that more Americans have had America Chung Nam products in their homes in the past year because the company provides the recycled scrap paper and, through its sister company in China, the packing materials that wrap up goods on their way to consumers.

That’s why America Chung Nam’s strong growth atop this year’s list of The Journal of Commerce Top 100 Importers and Exporters provides a bright and open window on confidence in the U.S. economy, and changes in the shipping patterns of those importers and exporters.

Along with more detailed looks at vertical industry, the comprehensive report prepared from PIERS data and a variety of other private and public sources by Journal of Commerce Research Editor Marsha Salisbury is a rich foundation for analysis on the direction of the economy and of supply chain planning.

We’re certainly tempted, for instance, to read something into the 9.3 percent increase in Heineken USA’s containerized imports, which added nearly 11,000 20-foot equivalent units of beverage shipments into the country.

But there’s more to the numbers than that, and, like the outbound shipments in 2010 from America Chung Nam, the shipments by retailers point both to greater confidence in consumer demand and changing distribution strategies.

The fastest-growing retail importer among the top-tier sellers was Lowe’s, which expanded its TEU count, by our measure, 13.3 percent last year over 2009 and jumped from sixth to fourth in the annual importer rankings. Lowe’s did that as it was completing a multiyear overhaul of its North American supply chain that includes the use of 19 facilities the home improvement company calls rapid deployment centers to stage its inventory.

Target expanded its container shipments by only 3.1 percent, but that was 13,700 additional TEUs. Home Depot added 7,800 TEUs, up 2.8 percent.

That Wal-Mart’s container count growth was a slighter 1.7 percent was hardly a negative sign from the retailer. Wal-Mart has very publicly moved to reduce its packaging and has said the effort is paying off in reduced pure shipment volume.

J.C. Penney built up its movements of inventory by 13.7 percent, by our measure of container imports, an upbeat move. The company also said this spring it will restructure its North American supply chain and close five distribution centers, consolidating its inventory into 13 sites.

But the boxes speak to confidence, and the latest reports from the retail world support that view. For instance, a recent survey by retail industry research group BDO shows retailers are less worried about whether consumers will come back than they are about keeping up with buying trends and winning customer loyalty. “Worries about external factors, like economic trends … have subsided,” BDO’s Doug Hart told Marketing Daily in a report on the survey. “They know consumers are spending.”

And the companies themselves certainly are shipping again.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,

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