A Decline in Goods

A sharp drop in manufactured goods shipped from China to the United States could be a sign that consumers are becoming more conscious about their purchases.

The actual numbers look reliable. Shipments from China to the United States in October 2022 were down 20–40 percent depending on how you look at them.

The causes are harder to sort out. Some factories were closed because they were in an area of an outbreak of illness, others because of a shortage of parts, resulting in products that were not available to order for weeks at a time. Some U.S. retailers had inventory overhangs from the year before and did not need to resupply. The experience of delays in 2021 led many businesses to order earlier in 2022. Capacity issues at California ports that could cause delays were a deterrent. Order quantities were more cautious because of continuing fears about the state of the U.S. economy. Some consumers have become wary of China-made goods because of that country’s grudging support of Russia’s military adventures intended to colonize large areas of Europe.

What is clear amid all this is that U.S. consumers are buying less across the board, and that this is not the cause of any major adjustments by those consumers. Considering the scale of the change, the reduction in consumer purchases is going relatively unnoticed in the households that are cutting back.

It goes to show how discretionary many of these products are. A hairbrush might be a necessity, but if you already have one, the second one is not so important, and its purchase can be postponed indefinitely without much of a lifestyle impact.

This lack of impact on lifestyle is part of the reason that not all consumers are aware that they have reduced their spending in many categories.

Some, though, say they are planning purchases more carefully to make sure they don’t overspend. There is more thought going into each purchase. This skill and habit, once learned, may persist long after the constraints that prompted the change are gone.

To the extent that these changes take root, some of the reductions in manufacturing, shipping, and retail could be permanent.

This decline in goods seems to parallel the decline in content seen in the 2000s and 2010s. We collectively decided that we didn’t need so much content when we realized it was many times more than a person could possibly consume. In the pandemic period of 20222021, there was a similar skepticism around food, as we stopped the pattern of buying so much food that we would end up throwing most of it away. Now the same kind of healthy skepticism seems to be reaching manufactured goods. Large parts of the binge of purchases during the pandemic went unused, and now we are trying to collectively bring our purchases into a better balance.

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