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December 9, 2021

2021 US retail imports to show record growth

Imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to end 2021 with both the largest volume and fastest growth on record despite supply chain disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Beth Wright

The latest Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation (NRF)  and Hackett Associates has revealed retail imports for 2021 are expected to total 26m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), an increase of 18.3% over 2020 and the highest number since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

“This has been an unprecedented year,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold says. “We’ve seen more disruption than ever before because of issues along every step of the supply chain and continued strong consumer demand, but we’re also seeing more cargo and faster growth than ever before. There are still ships to be unloaded and containers to be delivered, but everyone in the supply chain has worked overtime this year to try to overcome these challenges. For the most part, they have succeeded, and consumers will be able to find what they need for the holidays.”

The projected 26m TEU total would top last year’s previous record of 22m, which was up 1.9% despite the pandemic. The growth rate would also be the highest on record, topping 16.7% in 2010 as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

While imports do not correlate directly with sales, the record comes as NRF expects holiday sales during November and December to grow 11.5% over last year.

Despite the double-digit import growth for the year, monthly totals have settled to single-digit year-over-year growth, a pattern expected to continue at least through the first quarter of 2022.

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.21m TEU in October, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 3.5% from September but down 0.2% from October 2020, marking the first year-over-year decline since July 2020. The decline ended a 14-month streak of year-over-year growth that began in August 2020 after stores initially closed by the pandemic reopened and retailers worked to meet demand. Even with the decline, October was still among the five busiest months on record.

Ports have not reported November numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.21m TEU, up 5.1% year-over-year. December is forecast at 2.2m TEU, up 4.6%.

January 2022 is forecast at 2.24m TEU, up 9% from January 2021; February at 2m TEU, up 7.3% year-over-year; March at 2.19m, down 3.3%, and April at 2.2m TEU, up 2.2%.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett adds: “After nearly a year of what seemed like runaway growth once the economy reopened from the worst days of the pandemic and unleashed pent-up consumer demand, port data now shows imports settling down. As economic activity slows after the holidays, we do not expect to see a resurgence of year-over-year double-digit import growth. Instead, it will be more like ‘steady as she goes.’ ”

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by 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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