The apparel and household miscellanea that American consumers order online aren’t just coming from warehouses in the U.S. that stockpile bulk shipments.
Increasingly, the fashions, sunglasses, personal-care items and housewares ordered online are coming in through small quantity or order-by-order shipments, which international trade experts said make it hard to spot counterfeits.
Now, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is targeting these smaller shipments by teaming up with online marketplaces and shipping services — including Amazon Inc., Zulily, eBay and FedEx — who have volunteered for its pilot program, the agency said Wednesday.
The program, which the agency said it plans to open up to “all interested and qualified participants” this year, asks companies involved to provide the customs agency with more details about shipments, including what’s in the package, who manufactured it and who will be receiving it.
The move shows the agency responding to an exponential increase in e-commerce in recent years. Adobe’s recent holiday predictions for November and December projected that online holiday shopping in the U.S. will hit $143.7 billion, a roughly 14 percent increase from last year. This phenomenon has created a new front in the battle against counterfeits: small-value express consignment shipments.
“Over the past five years, e-commerce has grown exponentially as consumers are increasingly completing purchases online,” the agency said. “These purchases are typically shipped through international mail.”
Since fiscal-year 2013, the number of express consignment shipments has roughly doubled, according to the agency. International mail shipments have more than tripled in the last five years, from roughly 150 million shipments to nearly 500 million each year, according to customs.
“EBay remains committed to maintaining a safe marketplace for both customers and sellers,” a company representative said in a statement Thursday. “We are collaborating with CBP on a limited pilot that will help ensure that we are securing our site and protecting buyers from potentially unsafe products.”
Representatives for Amazon and Zulily did not comment.
Most products entering the country don’t get inspected by customs, and any inspection is usually conducted based on available information about the importer and exporter in question.
Smaller shipments — where sheer volume and piece-by-piece nature make them hard to scrutinize — pose the risk of containing counterfeits and potentially unsafe products, and can conceal patterns of fakes moving through the supply chain.
“Because of the individual nature of the shipments, it becomes very difficult for the CBP to monitor what’s coming in,” said Linda Weinberg, co-chair of Barnes & Thornburg’s international trade practice group.
“There’s no question that the amount of small package imports and shipments based on online orders has grown exponentially,” she said. “Customs is trying to find a way to keep up with the change.”
There’s a distinction to be made between retailers selling in their own marketplaces, versus third-party marketplaces selling products coming from other providers, which might lack adequate systems to vet individuals selling through those markets, retail experts said.
Nonetheless, retailers also try to work with the agency to fight counterfeits, said Stephen Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the industry group American Apparel & Footwear Association.
“[E-commerce] is an integral part of quickly delivering fashion directly to the consumer,” he said. “CBP is a valued partner in the war on counterfeiting, [and] we’re constantly talking to them about how can we work with them on data sharing.”