NAFTA Renegotiations: What’s at Stake for Retailers?
In May, United States Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer began the formal process for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which establishes the rules of trade among Canada, Mexico and the United States. The retail sector has urged USTR to preserve NAFTA’s basic structure, while advocating changes that could help retailers begin sourcing more items from NAFTA countries rather than Asia. As explained below, the outcome of NAFTA renegotiation also will signal the future direction of U.S. trade law and policy.
Summary of NAFTA Renegotiation
The formal initiation of NAFTA’s renegotiation showed that President Trump had approved less drastic action than other potential options. Early in his administration President Trump reportedly was on the verge of withdrawing or terminating NAFTA. Doing so could have raised tariffs on at least some imports into the United States from Canada and Mexico, but Congressional action would be required to undo a complex web of statutory provisions in U.S. law that implemented NAFTA. Notably, although candidate Trump called NAFTA the “worst trade deal” in U.S. history, the Trump administration now talks of “modernization” of an “outdated” NAFTA.
The Trump administration’s focus, therefore, seems to be on improving NAFTA rather than starting from scratch in a redo of the entire agreement. As part of the renegotiation process, the Trump administration has solicited input from the public. The U.S. retail sector has been active in this process.
Retailers Have Urged that NAFTA’s Basic Framework Remain, with Changes
In its comments to the Trump administration, the retail sector has urged that a renegotiated NAFTA should not alter fundamental aspects of the current NAFTA. The Retail Leader’s Industry Association (RILA) and National Retail Federation (NRF) have requested that the administration “do no harm” to the current NAFTA and that the process to a modernized NAFTA be quick and “seamless.” Likewise, the Food Marketing Institute has stated that renegotiations should “maintain and build on the success” of NAFTA. Many others have similarly talked up NAFTA’s current benefits. These positions reflect the importance that retail trade associations attach to NAFTA in its current form.
At the same time, the retail sector is urging that NAFTA address new commercial realities. E-commerce retailers, an industry that did not exist at the time NAFTA was negotiated, note that NAFTA represents an opportunity to limit prohibitions on the free flow of information and to discourage Customs procedures that delay or tax internet transactions.
NAFTA contains complicated and product-specific rules of origin to determine whether an imported product is eligible for duty-free or reduced duties upon import. If a Mexican company imports Chinese-origin inputs and produces a finished product for shipment to the United States, NAFTA determines whether the imported product receives NAFTA (preferential) or Chinese (standard) tariff rates. In the footwear and apparel sector, RILA advocates rules of origin that would preserve existing supply chains while permitting new sourcing from NAFTA countries. This could allow, for example, fabric from southeast Asia to be converted to a finished product in Mexico and then be eligible for NAFTA’s preferential rates upon importation. Efforts to expand preferential rules of origin, however, are opposed by labor interests.
Other contentious areas could affect retailers indirectly. Some of the most controversial issues in NAFTA’s renegotiation include whether the agreement should contain enforceable labor standards, requirements for consumption of domestically-made inputs, stronger intellectual property protections, and sanitary, phytosanitary, and technical product standards among the NAFTA countries.
Fundamental tenants of U.S. trade policy are being reconsidered right now, with NAFTA’s renegotiation representing the fore of this debate. Thus, NAFTA’s renegotiation likely is the best indicator of what’s to come next in U.S. trade. In particular, we see NAFTA’s renegotiation as signaling trends that the business community, and retailers in particular, can expect moving forward under the Trump administration, including the following:
1. The possibility that free trade agreements will become vehicles for encouraging U.S. manufacturing. Retailers rely on preferential tariff rates for many items sold in their stores. NAFTA’s renegotiation could set a precedent for using free trade agreements to encourage more U.S. manufacturing, discourage investment in non-U.S. manufacturing and reorient supply chains to source from the United States and other free trade partners. The extent to which NAFTA renegotiation attempts to encourage U.S. manufacturing will signal the baseline for future free trade agreements. We wager that the outcome will be product or industry specific.
2. Changes accompanying NAFTA’s renegotiation could address antidumping and countervailing duty enforcement: Retailers can face rapid and profound changes in supply chains as the result of new AD/CVD cases. U.S. trade policy over the past 40 years has used free trade agreements to reduce trade barriers while permitting AD/CVD relief to protect domestic industries injured by imports. Domestic manufacturers, the Trump administration and Congress now are urging that AD/CVD enforcement be strengthened, either through NAFTA itself or by legislation that would be enacted along with a revised NAFTA.
3. The speed of renegotiation will show the political will to change the direction of trade: NAFTA implicates broad swathes of the U.S. economy, including retail businesses, agriculture and manufacturing. The Trump administration and Congress will have to balance many competing interests in reaching agreement on a renegotiated NAFTA. How quickly the Trump administration is able to conclude the renegotiation, and perhaps most importantly, Congress’s reaction to renegotiated deal, will demonstrate whether the United States is willing to change fundamental aspects of U.S. trade law and policy.
In short, the outcome of the NAFTA renegotiation will show where U.S. trade law and policy is heading. If finalized quickly, other significant changes are a realistic prospect. If the renegotiation gets bogged down either at the international level, or in Congress, this will signal a limited appetite for fundamental changes and will narrow the universe of potential outcomes over the next four years.
Michael P. House is a partner and firmwide Co-Chair of Perkins Coie’s International Trade Practice, where he advises on U.S. international trade law and policy, including free-trade agreements, trade negotiations, customs compliance and market access. He regularly represents clients before U.S. government trade agencies and federal courts in investigations of unfair import competition and trade remedies.
David J. Townsend is counsel at Perkins Coie, where he focuses on a wide variety of international trade matters affecting supply chains, including customs compliance, export controls, antidumping and countervailing duties, and issues arising under the NAFTA, WTO and other trade agreements. He also is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches on WTO agreements and trade policy.
Department store retailer plans $40 million investment in remodels, new stores
Not all department store retailers are closing stores.
Charlotte, North Carolina-based Belk said it plans to open three new stores, part of a nearly $40 million investment in store remodels, capital improvements and new store openings in 2017.
The first two of the new stores will open on October 11, 2017, at Mullins Colony shopping center, Evans, Georgia, and at Greenwood Mall, Bowling Green, Kentucky. The third store will open in 2018, at Valley Mall Hagerstown, Maryland. The new stores will focus on the customer experience through a variety of ways, including a "buy online, pick up in store" service, phone charging stations and a service desk at the store entrance for quick, convenient access to services such as gift wrapping, returns and Belk Rewards Card payments.
In 2017, Belk also plans to remodel 12 existing stores across its 16-state footprint, an investment of nearly $10 million. An additional $15 million in funding will be used for capital improvements such as parking lots, paint and roofing.
"We've been successful in making a personal connection between our brand and our customers," said Lisa Harper, CEO, Belk, which operates 292 stores. "Our customers truly believe they know us and we are a part of their community; and they feel Belk is their store. We want to provide that level of personal connection in every community we enter."
Harper, the former CEO of Hot Topic and Gymboree Corp., took the reins of privately owned Belk in July 2016, becoming the first one outside the Belk family to run the company. She succeeded the retiring Tim Belk, who had served as CEO of the chain since 2004.
Belk was founded in 1888 by William Henry Belk. The long-time family-owned company was acquired by Sycamore Partners in a $3 billion deal at the end of 2015.
Online giant’s new delivery system targets apartment dwellers
Amazon’s new delivery system makes a play for a customer segment initially targeted by Walmart’s e-commerce arm.
The online giant introduced a new delivery locker designed for apartment blocks and other housing complexes that may not have services to accept or store packages. Called The Hub by Amazon, the modular system features compartments where packages can be stored for pickup.
Depending on the module, the customizable unit can feature between 42 and 55 lockers. There are indoor and outdoor models, which stand 6 ft. high and 7 ft. high, respectively.
To retrieve a package, customers enter the pickup code into the system. Upon authorizing the code, a corresponding door will open, revealing the stored items. The Hub accepts delivery from all carriers, according to Amazon.
The program takes a swing at a similar service recently introduced by jet.com. Walmart’s e-commerce operation is teaming up with Latch, a provider of smart building access technologies, to integrate a reader-style electronic access product in 1,000 buildings in New York City. The installation, which is being paid for by the partners, will give more than 100,000 residents the ability to retrieve orders electronically, according to TechCrunch.
Using their smartphone as a key, participating residents can grant access to delivery companies, dropping off packages even if they are not home. The solution, called the R Access system, also provides a visual audit trail of guests, as well as management tools that enable users to add users and share access, according to Latch’s website.
All 1,000 buildings will be set up to provide access to Jet’s delivery partners. The program could be a catalyst for Jet to streamline deliveries in metro and urban areas, according to the report.