Lululemon is spending more on air shipments before Trump's tariffs clog up ports - and it's a stark warning for companies that import from China

A Cosco Shipping container ship passes the Golden Gate Bridge Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in San Francisco bound for the Port of Oakland. The United States and China are raising tariffs on tens of billions of dollars' worth of each other's imports, escalating a trade war, spooking financial markets and casting gloom over the prospects for the world economy. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)A Cosco Shipping container ship passes the Golden Gate Bridge Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in San Francisco bound for the Port of Oakland. The United States and China are raising tariffs on tens of billions of dollars' worth of each other's imports, escalating a trade war, spooking financial markets and casting gloom over the prospects for the world economy. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)Associated Press

  • Ports could become congested this summer as companies bring forward shipments from China in anticipation of higher tariffs.
  • Lululemon plans to dodge the problem by flying in more products rather than shipping them by sea.
  • The athletic-apparel retailer expects tariffs and air freight costs to weigh on its gross margin this quarter and its full-year earnings.
  • Watch Lululemon Athletica trade live.

Ports could become clogged this summer as US businesses bring forward shipments from China in anticipation of higher import duties. Lululemon, which posted a robust set of first-quarter results this week, plans to dodge the problem by flying in more products rather than shipping them by sea.

"We are committing to higher air freight usage as the hedge against disruption in ocean shipping lanes as we approach the key dates related to tariff increases," said Lululemon CEO Patrick Guido on the company's earnings call.

"We're anticipating port congestion right around that mid-to-late July time frame, and we think it's prudent and important to deliver new product for our guests and protect the sales associated with those goods," he added.

Lululemon may be right to worry about port congestion. The number of shipping containers at two of America's largest US ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach, surged after the first round of tariffs on Chinese goods were introduced last year, the LA Times reported. And a trade expert told the newspaper that because additional tariffs could take effect as early as July, another such surge could tie up California ports again as firms rush to get in front of them.

Lululemon only imports 6% of its total finished goods from China, limiting its direct exposure to tariffs. However, the combined costs of import duties and air cargo are likely to mean its gross margin will be "flat to modestly up" this quarter, compared with 54.8% a year ago, said Guido.

The athletic-apparel retailer also expects higher costs to reduce its diluted earnings per share by 4 to 5 cents this fiscal year.

The company may be taking extra precautions to avoid a repeat of 2014, when about 1 million of its products were held up due to port congestion in Los Angeles and Seattle, delaying delivery to stores for up to 10 days and forcing it to lower sales forecasts, according to Reuters.

The US-China trade war is taking a wider toll on sea trade. The world's biggest shipping company, Maersk, pegged growth in global container trade at 1.7% in the first quarter of this year, a sharp slowdown from average growth of 3.6% in 2018. It also warned recent escalation - Trump hiked tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China retaliated with tariffs on $60 billion of US goods - could reduce annual growth to the lower end of its 1% to 3% forecast.

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