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April 8, 2021

US retail import surge expected through summer

The unprecedented surge of imports at major US retail container ports that began last summer is expected to continue at least through the end of this summer as retailers work to meet increased consumer demand.

By Beth Wright

The unprecedented surge of imports at major US retail container ports that began last summer is expected to continue at least through the end of this summer as retailers work to meet increased consumer demand.

“We’ve never seen imports at this high a level for such an extended period of time,” says Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). “Records have been broken multiple times and near-record numbers are happening almost every month. Between federal stimulus checks and money saved by staying home for the better part of a year, consumers have money in their pockets and they’re spending it with retailers as fast as retailers can stock their shelves.”

Imports hit their lowest point in four years last March – 1.37m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – as the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold. But cargo rebounded and hit a then-record 2.1m TEU in August as the economy reopened, eventually peaking at 2.21m TEU in October, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Under the current forecast, volume is expected to remain at or above the 2m TEU mark for 11 out of 13 months by this August. Before 2020, monthly imports had reached 2m TEU only once, in October 2018. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

The surge resulted in months of backups at ports, which have faced labour shortages because of Covid-19 infections and equipment shortages because of the volume. The global supply chain continues to be strained by multiple disruptions, including the recent blockage of the Suez Canal. But Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said ports are beginning to catch up.

“Congestion at US ports is abating as container carriers and terminals adjust to the new normal,” Hackett says. “We saw the busiest February on record as the ports worked to clear the backlog, and the number of ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay waiting to dock at Los Angeles and Long Beach is dropping.”

17 ships were reported waiting off LA/Long Beach – the nation’s busiest port complex – in recent days, compared with about 30 ships a month ago, Hackett adds.

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.87m TEU in February, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 9.1% from January but up 23.7% year-over-year and the busiest February since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. 

March was projected at 2.07m TEU, up 50.7% year-over-year, but Hackett cautions that last year’s swings caused by the pandemic have “played havoc” with percentage comparisons. During March 2020, many Asian factories that should have reopened after February’s Lunar New Year holiday were still closed, and US businesses were starting to close to avoid spreading the virus.

April, meanwhile, is forecast at 1.99m TEU, up 23.4% year-over-year; May at 2m TEU, up 30.6%; June at 2.01m TEU, up 24.9%t; July at 2.04m TEU, up 6.5%, and August at 2.08m TEU, down 1.2%. The August number would be the first year-over-year decline since last July.

The first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.99m TEU, a 26.9% rise from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to Covid-19.

Imports saw a total of 22m TEU in 2020, up 1.9% from 2019’s 21.6m TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8m TEU recorded in 2018.

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