Tariffs Could ‘Upend’ the Ecommerce Supply Chain

Price, selection and country of origin could shift

Last year, manufacturers in China produced more goods for Americans than any other nation, but potential tariffs on electronics and high-value items in particular could shake up the manufacturing landscape for those sectors. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Despite President Trump’s assurance the trade war with Chinese President Xi is “very bad for China, very good for USA,” it is increasingly likely that manufacturers, retailers and consumers in both countries will feel aftershocks.

Production may shift away from China, third-party sellers may raise prices and consumers may find a more limited selection. Then again, they may not. Here’s how analysts, marketers and sellers see this trade war playing out.

For his part, Oweise Khazi, senior principal at Gartner and lead Amazon analyst, said the new tariffs haven’t affected categories that drive a lot of volume on Amazon, like apparel, consumer electronics and CPG, so he doesn’t see this altering core categories for third-party vendors.

That being said, Khazi noted it will be harder to source products in the categories that fall under the new tariffs, and U.S. importers from China in those sectors will have to move their businesses to other parts of Asia or cut costs by dropping affected products.

According to Jonathan Weber, a private third-party seller focused on outdoor equipment and office supplies, the new tariffs make many private-label products on the lower end of the 30-to-40% profit spectrum not worth sourcing anymore.

“I have already suspended orders of a new product that will be hit by the tariffs until this blows over—the Chinese manufacturers understand,” he said. “My existing products, [which] I have to reorder to stay in stock, are a different story.”

That includes one “small, popular product” manufactured in China that he sells “at very narrow margins.”

“I have a shipment of 5,000 units en route, so this shipment is exempt from the tariffs,” Weber added. “However, if the tariffs are still in force by the time I have to reorder, I will have to raise my prices by 25%—or some number close to that—to avoid taking a loss.”

Khazi agreed low-profit third-party sellers with affected products can raise prices to pass on the incremental cost to consumers.

“Most products will likely experience a mild increase in prices if they are a tariff category,” added Humphrey Ho, managing director of Hylink Group, an agency that helps brands figure out China’s digital landscape. “We’re already seeing this with things such as metal-, steel-, aluminum-based products across the board in terms of average sale price if they come from China. However, we don’t think that it will hurt the competitiveness of seller products.”

However, Deniero Bartolini, a third-party seller with kitchenware, baby products and mobile accessories, said even a small increase in the price of consumer goods will result in far fewer sales. Instead, he plans to add an additional product, which he said will offset rising costs.

Weber isn’t as optimistic.

“It seriously upends our business model, and if it continues for long enough, [it] could put some of us out of business,” he added. “The only consolation is that everyone [who] imports from China is in the same situation, so it will be easier to raise prices to cover the costs of tariffs.”

Last year, manufacturers in China produced more goods for Americans than any other nation, but potential tariffs on electronics and high-value items in particular could shake up the manufacturing landscape for those sectors.

“Similarly priced Korean or Japanese [counterparts] will now be more competitive due to country-of-manufacturer biases amongst consumers and also present a challenge for the manufacturers to increase quality or sell products of higher quality at a [lower] price,” he added. “Over time, there might simply be the effect where low-value items are produced in neighboring countries, or even Taiwan, given the quality of manufacturing can increase and tariffs are not added.”

For his part, John Frigo, a third-party seller focused on home goods, said Chinese manufacturers are becoming less attractive.

“Not only are the middlemen like myself being slowly cut out by China going direct to consumer and selling on Amazon themselves, but even the supply of goods from sites like Alibaba tends to be every Amazon seller—and really every seller in general—importing the same handful of products,” he said.

Frigo is starting to look at domestic manufacturers, as well as those in Mexico, Egypt and “some other countries,” and said the tariffs are more of an incentive to “continue to go down that road.”

In addition, Ho said it’s possible American products will be priced completely out of the market.

“It makes the U.S. product far less competitive [in categories] such as agricultural, food or even [large appliances],” he added. “Thus, their German counterpart might come in with a better value proposition, significantly hurting U.S. exporters in China, who do not have another market to cushion the blow.”

Tariffs will “definitely dampen” Chinese ecommerce platforms in the U.S., such as AliExpress, and sellers may shift their focus away from the U.S. to make up for the potential drop in orders, Ho concluded.

Bartolini said increased competition is worse than high tariffs, because it means he has to spend more on ads and has to lower prices to attract consumers.

Tariffs change the game for third-party sellers.

“To succeed now, sellers need to be aware of many new regulations, tariffs and laws,” Bartolini said. “The golden era of private labeling may be over, and profits are not like they used to be. But those who have expertise in import-export laws and have solid business models will enjoy less competition and may even be able to sell consulting services to sellers who need them.”

@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.