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Giant containers of plush bathrobes, air fryers, scooters and flat-screen televisions have made their way from Asia to the U.S. in time to fill retailers' shelves for the start of the holiday shopping season.
Retailers also ordered shipping containers and containers of cookware, toys, appliances and mattresses, according to import and shipping data from August through October as tracked by Ocean Audit, a firm that assists companies with freight issues.
Kohl's is betting on shopper demand for ladies' cardigans, cable knit holiday stockings, cook pots and radio-controlled toys, the data show. Amazon ordered 50 containers full of Paw Patrol Ultimate toy fire trucks. Target shipped 32,000 Razor A2 Elite scooters, 24,375 Sunbeam microwave ovens and 30,798 18-quart turkey roasters.
"These are classic doorbusters," said Ocean Audit CEO Steve Ferreira, who analyzed the data for CNBC.
The large shipments, which left Asia in July packed in 40-foot containers on ships bound for the U.S., come amid an escalating trade conflict. China has slapped tariffs on billions of dollars of U.S. goods in retaliation for the duties the Trump administration has applied to $200 billion of its imports.
Source: Ocean Audit
A 40-foot container fits the equivalent of a three-bedroom apartment or 800 flat-screen TVs, according to BoxHub.co. Ocean Audit's data show toy shipments are up 22 percent from last year, with some 64,512 units on order.
The data can be used to forecast what retailers are planning to promote for the year-end holiday rush, Ferreira said. "Retailer's give a 'tell,' like a poker player, on what they are planning and then actually importing. These unusual container surges between August and October mean three things: Black Friday, Christmas merchandise and tariffs."
Amazon loaded up on mattresses, which are subject to the latest U.S. tariffs imposed in September. From August to October, the e-commerce giant imported 4,000 containers of mattresses, a 397 percent increase from last year. That's 1.6 million mattresses, assuming 400 fit on a container.
Amazon's orders shot up the most among the retailers from August to Halloween, with 23,331 containers compared with just 2,429 in the period last year. According to the company's freight bills, over 97 percent of its container shipments originate from China, where Amazon recently started a logistics company that enables it to work with smaller exporters.
"We are starting to see the full effects of their ability to roll up small- and medium-size Chinese exporters into one large shipment," Ferreira said. By reaching smaller sellers, Amazon can cut deals competitors don't have access to, he added. A men's exotic belt might be $400 at Nordstrom but $125 at Amazon as "Amazon is reaching more smaller, boutique type exporters in China, offering arrays of products at price points we've never seen before."
Walmart's shipments appear to be a bet that consumers want comfort. According to the container data, the largest U.S. retailer ordered 120 containers of Secret Treasures Women's Super Mink Plush Sleep Robes, for a total of 70,000 robes. "This robe is the biggest single non-holiday decoration type item I can recall seeing as a large block import for Walmart," said Ferreira. "Seasonal and Black Friday shipments during the same time frame compared to last year increased by 21 percent."
One of the biggest doorbusters for retailers is televisions, and this year will be no different. Over 100 containers of 65 TCL 4K HDR 120HZ ROKU Smart LED for Walmart and 30 containers totaling 34,5000 units of Polaroid's 32-inch Flat Panel for Target came in during August to October. "What's interesting is that as of today, this item is showing out of stock, raising the potential that it might be on reserve for Black Friday or in their seasonal merchandising plans," said Ferreira.
Sears, which recently filed for bankruptcy, has 102 containers filled with 102,000 units of their Craftsman 22-inch Toolbox with Tray-Black/Red. The item is currently listed "out of stock" on Sears' website. "This is laying the groundwork that it's being replenished in time for the holiday season," said Ferreira.
Macy's is banking on consumers' appetite for cooking products. It ordered 17 containers holding Crux 2.6-quart air fryers. "These types of items and vendors get good airplay at Macy's," said Ferreira. "Last year was a waffle maker."
Looking through the data, Ferreira said, one of the biggest surprises this year was the 30 containers holding sofas for Macy's. "The fact that there are not a lot of sofas in each container tends to lean toward a higher-end product of quality," he said. "I don't recall from past years' data seeing them."