US retail imports remain strong but Covid disruptions continue - Just Style
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US retail imports remain strong but Covid disruptions continue

10 Sep 2021

Double-digit growth in imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports is slipping to single digits as pandemic-related supply chain disruptions around the world continue.

US retail imports remain strong but Covid disruptions continue

US ports covered by the monthly Global Port Tracker report, released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, handled 2.19m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in July, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 2% from June and up 14.2% from a year earlier. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

“Year-over-year growth isn’t as dramatic as it was earlier because we’re now comparing against months when most stores closed by the pandemic last year had reopened and retailers were stocking up again,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “We expected that. But we’re seeing issues ranging from port closures in Asia to ships lined up waiting to dock at US ports. That’s creating continuing challenges as retailers work to supply enough inventory to meet demand. The administration’s recent appointment of a supply chain task force and a port envoy are major steps forward, and we look forward to working with officials to find solutions.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett adds: “Supply chain logistics management is facing acute problems as disruptions make it difficult for both importers and exporters to transact their business. We are facing shortages in all sectors of the chain: a lack of sufficient shipping capacity, which leads to increases in the cost of shipment; lack of warehousing; lack of truck and rail capacity, and a shortage of labour across the board.”

Ports have not reported August numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.27m TEU, which would be up 7.8% year-over-year.

That would be the busiest August on record. But it would fall short of the 2.37m TEU forecast for August a month ago, which would have broken May’s record of 2.33m TEU for the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. With two dozen ships waiting as long as a week or more at anchor to unload at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently, some cargo anticipated in August may have been delayed into September. And with some sailings from Asia delayed by Covid-19 disruptions there, some cargo could arrive later in the fall than previously expected.

August is the beginning of the “peak season” when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year, and many retailers were trying to move up shipments this year to ensure that sufficient inventory will be available during the holidays.

September is forecast at 2.21m TEU, which would be up 5.1% year-over-year; October at 2.19m TEU, down 1.3% for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020; November at 2.13m TEU, up 1.4%, and December at 2.07m TEU, down 1.8%.

Looking to next year, January 2022 is forecast at 2.15m TEU, up 4.5% from January 2021.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8m TEU, up 35.6% from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 25.9m TEU, up 17.6% over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22m TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9% over 2019 despite the pandemic.