U.S. Customs Data Primer Part 2: “Holes” in the Data & Other Frustrating Anomalies

Once you know where the holes are, many times you can fill some of them. U.S. Census (statistical) data – which is published on a monthly basis – can give you an accurate measure of the value, number of units (and thus by computation the average cost per unit), country of origin and U.S. port for a particular product grouping (arranged within the Harmonized Tariff System) and method of transport (air, water, and again by computation “other” which would typically be rail /truck from Canada or Mexico).

Unfortunately, U.S. Customs data and U.S. Census data are asynchronous in many important ways.  For reasons beyond the scope of this article, it is impossible to take a record of all waterborne shipments for the month of January from U.S. Customs and seamlessly overlay it with the aggregate statistical record of imports provided by U.S. Census.  Further, the HS product categorization system is many times either too specific or too broad to apply.

Another problem is that several thousand U.S. importers and their corresponding foreign suppliers have been “suppressed” from appearing in the U.S. Customs data publications through the “trade secrets” exclusion to the Freedom of Information Act.  This “suppression” results in about 1/7 of all shipment records having blank fields where the “foreign shipper” and “U.S. importer” identification would normally be.

Again, once you know where the holes are, there are ways to work around them.  Wal-Mart is an obvious entity that attempts to mask its supply chain activities and valuable suppliers.  Notwithstanding, in a landmark report done on the “tainted toy” fiasco several years ago, we were able to extract 40,000 imported shipments of toys by Wal-Mart (of the 400,000 we retrieved) over an 18 month period of time.

How? Several methods. Although presumably “suppressed”, tens of thousands of transactions slip through the filtering methods applied by U.S. Customs technologies. Port pairs (matching foreign port with U.S. port) for a particular product also yield significant dividends.  The “product description” and “marks and numbers” fields contained on the shipping manifest sometimes contain references to either Wal-Mart or one of its known suppliers.  Product identification information – SKUs, trademarks, etc.- are also sometimes found.

It’s all a matter of sleuthing: trying to put together a complex puzzle from the resources at hand.  In the end, it’s an imperfect world with incomplete data.  However, with some effort, technological tools, multiple data sources along with intelligence and knowledge, you can discover an amazing amount of very valuable trade /business intelligence.  You just need to increase your awareness in order to align your expectations to what’s real and possible.

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