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Imports set new record as retailers stock up early for holidays

Imports reached an all-time high in August as sales began to recover from the pandemic and retailers replenished inventories and stocked up early for the holiday season.

U.S. ports handled a record 2.1 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in August, according to the Global Port Tracker, which is produced for the National Retail Federation by consulting firm Hackett Associates. It was the highest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, beating 2.04 million TEU seen in October 2018 ahead of a scheduled tariff increase. (A TEU is one 20-ft.-long cargo container or its equivalent.)

“Nothing about this year is predictable, but retailers are making sure their shelves and warehouses are well-stocked for the holidays,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s VP for supply chain and customs policy. “They are also stocking up earlier than usual because they know many consumers will be shopping early this year to avoid crowds and shipping delays. Some holiday merchandise that normally wouldn’t arrive until Halloween is already here.”

The August metric was up 9.7% from July and up 8% year-over-year.
September was estimated at 2.08 million TEU, a 10.9% year-over-year increase. September’s actual total won’t be known until next month but could become the second-highest month on record. October is forecast at 1.86 million TEU, down 1.1% year over year.

Those numbers would amount to a record 7.96 million TEU during the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, topping 7.7 million TEU in 2018. Three-quarters of peak season imports – an estimated 6.1 million TEU – have already arrived, preparing retailers for the early shopping season that NRF expects this year.

November is forecast at 1.61 million TEU, down 5.1% year-over-year, and December at 1.53 million TEU, down 11.2%. That would bring 2020 to 20.5 million TEU, a drop of 4.9% from last year to tie 2017 for the lowest annual total in three years. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1% from last year.

January 2021 is forecast at 1.67 million TEU, down 8.2% from January 2020, while February is forecast at 1.49 million TEU, down 1.5% year-over-year.

The Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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