Part Two :The ABCs of U.S. Customs Data- Issues & Shortcomings

Buyers beware. Users of U.S. Customs Waterborne Import Manifest (Bill of Lading) data need to be aware of the major shortcomings & pitfalls.  Part 2 of 3.

Although shipping manifests contain valuable information about the trade transactions of the U.S. Importer and Foreign Supplier, they can’t and don’t provide a complete picture.  One of the most predominant shortcomings is that they only document U.S. Waterborne Imports: products and commodities transported by ship, not air, not rail, not truck, not camel.

Therefore Canadian and Mexican cross border trade is all but invisible. Export transactions are not listed.  (Re-exports in some cases are).  Air freight shipments are not available.  And although a majority (around two-thirds) of the products we, in America, import from overseas comes to us by ship, an important minority don’t.  Particularly high value, just-in-time, perishable and fragile components or merchandise are not transported by water.

U.S. Customs BOL Data ONLY looks at Waterborne Imports

So, U.S. Customs Waterborne (BOL) import data is not a great place to look for foreign suppliers of such things.

Furthermore, specific product identification is not easily uncovered within the data.  Yes, sometimes the respective Harmonized Tariff codes will be buried within the product or trademark fields on the BOL, if your particular trade provider has developed the algorithms to accurately parse an HS code from among other numerical data such as invoice numbers, quantities, phone numbers, addresses, reference numbers, etc.

Many times there are no specifics.  Toys, Furniture or Glassware may be the full extent of the product description. Other times there may be extensive descriptions including 10 digit HS codes, trademarks and even SKU numbers.  There is no uniformity.  Your typical TI provider does little to help in this regard. Most simply offer a blunt search tool which plods through the millions of products descriptions contained on individual BOLs.

In order to put an estimated price tag on a shipment, you must first know the specifics of the product, down to at least a 6, preferably 10-digit Harmonized code. Then, using statistical information you can roughly infer an estimated value which is a very crude measuring stick.

Accurate Product Identification is Vital Making Use of the Customs Data

PIERS, who has been at all this the longest, is the only company I know of that has even attempted to attribute an estimated shipment value.  To do such, they first had to assign a specific product identifier (much of this is still done by hand) to each BOL and then attach a gross average based upon aggregated statistical data from U.S. Census.

Many times even the resulting calculations have been flawed.  However, as we say in the data world: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all”.

Note: For those who want to give shipment valuation a spin, greater accuracy can be achieved by disaggregation of the statistic (overlying) data by its respective (foreign & U.S.) port and foreign (source) country.

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