Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON — One day recently, Eddie Bauer Inc.’s import office received five separate telephone calls from Customs Service staffers who all asked the same question.
All of the Customs personnel were in the same port, tending to five different shipments that had arrived for the Seattle-based retailer. Their question was simple: They wanted to know whether Bauer owns any of its suppliers, an issue that would affect duty levels. Answering the questions was easy, but having to provide the same information repeatedly, day after day, is time-consuming and costly for large importers such as Bauer.
Customs is responding to the problem with a new initiative that will assign to large importers a single account manager to handle all Customs-related business. Bauer, Levi Strauss & Co., San Francisco, and Sears, Chicago, are three of the eight companies chosen for a year-long test of the account program, expected to begin soon.
Other participants are AT&T’s consumer products division, auto parts maker Robert Bosch and steel maker Klockner Steel. The two final importers have not yet been confirmed. All of the participants are among the 350 largest domestic importers.
The initiative, called the Service Accounts Program, is part of a Customs reorganization that has been in the works since 1993. The goal of the restructuring is to make the agency more service-oriented; historically it has focused primarily on enforcement.
Customs also expects the program to bring in more revenues because the account managers will be able to help companies catch mistakes that undervalue merchandise, said Chuck Winwood, trade compliance process owner with Customs.
In addition to reducing redundant requests for information, the account program should make the treatment of shipments more consistent across the country, according to importers. Currently, different ports sometimes have different paperwork requirements for incoming shipments.
Also, Customs personnel who are unfamiliar with an importer’s business are more likely to hold up border clearance because of small problems such as clerical errors in entry documents, said Jim Kilgore, director of customs and trade with Levi Strauss and a former industry adviser to Customs.
“The objective [of the account program] from a business standpoint is to get more certainty in how we’re doing business,” Kilgore said. “That way we won’t get surprised when a shipment arrives with a clerical error in the paperwork and it is seized because someone wants to inspect it and it takes weeks.”
Jane O’Dell, Eddie Bauer’s import manager and a current industry adviser to the agency, said she hopes participants in the account program “may be excused from some routine reviews because you’ve already demonstrated that you’re abiding by the rules. And if textiles at some point are allowed to be part of the electronic [visa filing] programs, the companies who are allowed to participate will be those that have demonstrated good compliance.”
Another benefit is that the program should allow Customs to spend more time detecting illegal shipments that compete with legitimate goods. “If you’re a national account selected for this program, they should know enough about you to treat you differently than someone who is not partnering with Customs,” O’Dell said. “Therefore they can devote more enforcement resources to the 20 percent of shipments that cause 80 percent of the problems.”
Kilgore is hopeful that the partnership eventually will translate into more business-friendly regulations because Customs will have a better understanding of how importers do business.
Companies will participate in the pilot project for one year. However, the program is not yet up and running because the participant companies are undergoing reviews of their Customs practices to make certain they are complying with all Customs regulations. The reviews can take up to three months, Winwood said. — Fairchild News Service

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