Retail imports drop amid coronavirus

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Retail imports drop amid coronavirus

By Marianne Wilson - 02/12/2020

Imports at major U.S. retail container ports are expected to see a sharper-than-usual drop this month.

That’s according to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. The likely slowdown is a result of the coronavirus causing longer Lunar New Year shutdowns of factories in China.

“February is historically a slow month for imports because of Lunar New Year and the lull between retailers’ holiday season and summer, but this is an unusual situation,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy. “Many Chinese factories have already stayed closed longer than usual, and we don’t know how soon they will reopen.  

Gold added that U.S. retailers were already beginning to shift some sourcing to other countries because of the trade war. But he warned if shutdowns continue, there could be an impact on supply chains.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.72 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in December, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 1.8% from November but down 12.4% from unusually high numbers at the end of 2018 ahead of a scheduled tariff increase that was ultimately postponed. A TEU is one 20-ft.-long cargo container or its equivalent.

December’s numbers brought 2019 to a total of 21.6 million TEU, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the ongoing trade war but still the second-highest year on record. Imports during 2018 hit a record of 21.8 million TEU, partly due to frontloading ahead of anticipated 2019 tariffs.

January was estimated at 1.82 million TEU, down 3.8% from January 2019. February is forecast to be down 12.9% year-over-year at 1.41 million TEU and March is expected to down 9.5% year-over-year at 1.46 million TEU. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Global Port Tracker had forecast February at 1.54 million TEU and March at 1.7 million TEU.

“Projecting container volume for the next year has become even more challenging with the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its spread,” said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. “It’s questionable how soon manufacturing will return to normal, and following the extension of the Lunar New Year break all eyes are on what further decisions China will make to control the outbreak.”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, 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.