US Import Data- What are bills of Lading?

This post marks the beginning of our monthly report series, where we break down US container ship imports using Bills of Lading (BOL) data. Our primary objective is to provide electric bike import data, which has been lacking in public discourse due to inconsistent use of the proper Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) codes. But before we delve into the methodology, let’s whet your appetite with a chart showcasing electric and traditional bike imports since 2019.

Initially, the volume of traditional bicycle imports dwarfs that of electric bikes. However, when we examine the import share of units, a trend begins to emerge. The unit share of electric bikes follows a seasonal pattern and is trending upward. The latest peaks in late 2022, reaching 30%, are somewhat surprising but may be slightly misleading, as they coincide with a substantial decline in traditional bike imports in the fourth quarter of 2022. To gain a grounded perspective, it’s important to pay attention to the longer-term trend. Electric bike imports are increasing as a proportion of the overall inflows and are likely to continue doing so in the foreseeable future.

Where does this data come from?

All importers of goods are required to fill out bills of lading (BOL), which document the imported items and the applicable Harmonized System (HS) codes. These bills of lading are consolidated by a vessel into a shipping manifest, which must be transmitted to US officials at least 24 hours prior to loading on the vessel. This shipping manifest data serves as our primary source of information on US imports. Once the shipment arrives in the US, a tariff invoice is compiled for each specific item in the shipment. This invoice is what informs the US ITC Dataweb Service.

However, there are some challenges associated with this data. Firstly, the HS code is not the same as the US government’s HTS codes, and only one code per shipment needs to be applied, even if it is a blended container. As a result, sometimes the codes will be for entirely unrelated products. Secondly, value declarations are not provided with the BOL.

Isn’t this data public?

While this data is technically in the public domain, it is not as readily available as the aggregate invoice data released by the government. US officials make import data available through three methods:
1. Direct sharing with specific partner companies such as S&P Global (Panjiva)
2. Aggregate statistics released through the USITC website.
3. Freedom of Information Act requests.

Is the data accurate?

When we talk about accuracy, we refer to the repeatability of a result. Since we use the same dataset and model for each report, the resulting data is accurate. Even as we adjust the model, we will do so retroactively, ensuring that subsequent posts reflect the newly adjusted figures.

However, it’s important to note that these numbers are NOT precise. For example, the estimated 151,349 bikes delivered in January 2019 is very likely not the exact figure. This discrepancy arises from how this data is loaded into BOL databases. Undercounting may occur when bikes are grouped into larger quantity units, such as pallets or larger boxes, which is particularly common with small balance bikes or children’s bikes. On the other hand, overcounting of units may occur when a bicycle shipment is blended with other items that may not all appear in the “product description” field of the BOL data.

Should we trust this data? Absolutely. It serves as an indicator that was previously unavailable, contributing to a better understanding of emerging trends. Just as with visitors to a brands website, this is just one of many indicators that should be used to inform our perspective.

Where do we go from here?

We aim to establish Bicycle Market Research as a consistent source of this import data by providing aggregate-level information for free on our website. We analyze this data using a model that is still in development. As both the data and model are updated, we will continue to post refined data.

MonthElectricTraditionalElectric Import Share
Jan 20198,975151,3495.6%
Feb 201910,614192,4955.2%
Mar 20197,858133,2345.6%
Apr 20199,303105,7968.1%
May 201913,342178,7776.9%
Jun 201917,021112,52913.1%
Jul 201924,014146,73714.1%
Aug 201923,901143,95914.2%
Sep 201923,251120,16116.2%
Oct 201929,786163,96215.4%
Nov 201922,048142,41413.4%
Dec 201919,676163,13010.8%
Jan 202015,933149,9809.6%
Feb 202012,884124,7149.4%
Mar 20208,72298,6818.1%
Apr 202012,993172,3927.0%
May 202035,511168,87317.4%
Jun 202044,204222,64016.6%
Jul 202063,851311,75617.0%
Aug 202056,629270,86617.3%
Sep 202063,771208,31623.4%
Oct 202048,653251,09216.2%
Nov 202052,477225,83418.9%
Dec 202049,628252,89716.4%
Jan 202133,391277,01810.8%
Feb 202134,277220,58113.4%
Mar 202133,964194,36014.9%
Apr 202141,673223,21015.7%
May 202178,362206,68127.5%
Jun 202149,302246,03116.7%
Jul 202148,316237,92816.9%
Aug 202145,223229,82516.4%
Sep 202153,616199,89221.1%
Oct 202149,844224,81718.1%
Nov 202138,542293,82211.6%
Dec 202138,124290,61911.6%
Jan 202236,290279,83111.5%
Feb 202231,821292,9039.8%
Mar 202247,851229,20917.3%
Apr 202239,750214,29815.6%
May 202240,436197,27817.0%
Jun 202252,056160,55824.5%
Jul 202257,028192,00622.9%
Aug 202270,319182,81827.8%
Sep 202278,600208,27727.4%
Oct 202269,302143,17732.6%
Nov 202250,447144,34125.9%
Dec 202259,252124,03732.3%
Jan 202350,560179,67822.0%
Feb 202346,132205,90718.3%
Mar 202335,999195,36815.6%
Apr 202337,656216,02814.8%

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