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Retail imports expected to hit repeated monthly records after record 2020

The next six months should set new records for the nation’s largest retailer container ports as retailers import merchandise at a fast pace.

Following a record year during 2020, imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports are expected to set new monthly records from now into the summer as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“The import numbers we’re seeing reflect retailers’ expectations for consumer demand to the point that many factories in Asia that normally close for Chinese New Year this month are remaining open to keep up,” NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “Regardless of whether it’s in-store or on retailers’ websites, the record holiday season and numbers for 2020 show consumers are buying again and have been for a while. This surge has been going on for months, and retailers are importing merchandise faster than ever.”

Retail sales during the November-December holiday season in 2020 hit a record $789.4 billion, up 8.3% from 2019. And preliminary figures show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8% year-over-year.

“As we continue to struggle with COVID-19 and the ups and downs in the economy, year-over-year increases in the flow of containerized goods have become dramatic,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “It is impressive that the cargo volumes handled by the ports remain as high as they are despite congestion at the docks and the spread of the coronavirus among workers throughout the supply chain.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available. (A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.) That was up 0.2% from November and up 22.3% year-over-year and brought 2020 to a total of 22 million TEU, up 1.9% from 2019’s 21.6 million TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018.

January results aren’t available yet but the month was projected at 2.08 million TEU, which would be up 14.6% over the same month last year and the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 1.89 million TEU in January 2019.

February is historically the slowest month of the year for imports, both because of the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close for the Chinese New Year holiday. But with 25-30 ships waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of congestion at the terminals from reported equipment and labor shortages and with many Asian factories remaining open during the holiday to meet demand, this February is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, up 26.3% percent year-over-year, the report stated. 

March is forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up an unprecedented 41% from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen because of the coronavirus. April is forecast at 1.82 million TEU, up 13.3% year-over-year; May at 1.9 million TEU, up 23.8%, and June also at 1.9 million TEU, up 18.2%.

Each month from January through June would be a record for the month, and the first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5 million TEU, up 22.1% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of COVID-19.

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. 

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