January 14, 2021
NRF report suggests 2020 retail imports may break records

Imports seen during 2020 appear to be headed toward a new record despite the coronavirus pandemic, and remain at high levels as 2021 begins, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports, but it was clearly an unpredictable year,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy for NRF, said. “Consumers and retailers once again proved their resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. Thanks in part to government stimulus, retail sales saw strong growth during 2020 even with the pandemic, and import numbers show retailers expect the economic recovery will continue during 2021.”

With high import volumes over the past few months, ships carrying goods from Asia have backed up at West Coast ports in particular, and there have been shortages of shipping capacity and equipment including chassis and empty containers.

“With COVID-19 accelerating across the country, the pandemic is causing logistics problems beyond the congestion at the ports,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. “With large numbers of people infected by the virus and unable to report for work, the supply chain is potentially facing challenges to find enough workers for goods distribution.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in November, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 24.5% year-over-year but down 4.9% from October’s 2.21 million TEU, which set the record for the largest number of containers handled during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

December was projected at 2.02 million TEU, up 17.3% year-over-year and one of only six times in nearly 20 years that the monthly total has hit the 2 million TEU mark. If the December number holds up once actual data is available, 2020 will have ended with a total of 21.9 million TEU, up 1.5% from 2019 and breaking the previous annual record of 21.8 million TEU set in 2018.

Imports during the last half of 2020 set a string of new records, including an all-time high of 8.3 million TEU for the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year.

January is forecast at 1.96 million TEU, which would be up 7.7% from a year ago and the busiest January on record; February at 1.6 million TEU, up 6.1% year-over-year, and March at 1.64 million TEU, up 19%t from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen after the Lunar New Year holiday because of the coronavirus. April is forecast at 1.76 million TEU, up 9.6%, and May at 1.86 million TEU, up 21.7%, both year-over-year.

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