The forecast numbers call for 7.58m TEU during the July-October peak season when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, making 2020 the third-busiest peak season on record

The forecast numbers call for 7.58m TEU during the July-October peak season when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, making 2020 the third-busiest peak season on record

Imports at major US retail container ports surged to unexpected high levels this summer and may have hit a new record as the US economy continues to reopen and retailers stock up for the holiday season.

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates shows US ports handled 1.92m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 2.3% year-over-year but up 19.3% from June and significantly higher than the 1.76mn TEU forecast a month ago. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

August was estimated at 2.06m TEU, a 6% year-over-year increase. Actual August numbers will not be known until next month, but that would be an all-time high, beating the previous record of 2.04m TEU set in October 2018.

September is forecast at 1.89m TEU, up 1.1% year over year; October at 1.71mn TEU, down 9.2%; November at 1.58m TEU, down 6.8%, and December at 1.53m TEU, down 11%.

Those numbers would bring 2020 to a total of 20.1m TEU, a drop of 6.7% from last year, still the lowest annual total since 19.1m TEU in 2016. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5m TEU, down 10.6% from last year.

The forecast numbers call for 7.58m TEU during the July-October peak season when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, making 2020 the third-busiest peak season on record following 7.7m TEU in 2018 and 7.66m TEU last year.

"It's important to be careful how much to read into these numbers after all we've seen this year, but retailers are importing far more merchandise for the holidays than we expected even a month ago," explains Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). "Some of these imports are helping replenish inventories that started to run low after consumers unleashed pent-up demand when stores reopened. But this is the clearest sign yet that we could be in for a much happier holiday season than many had thought."

Looking further ahead, January 2021 is forecast at 1.6m TEU, down 12% from January 2020.

"The economy has come into sharp focus, and for good cause," adds Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. "The previous yo-yo pattern of import levels reached a peak in July that appears to have extended into August. Nonetheless, data from around the globe is a mix, with a weak recovery as Europe struggles with rising Covid-19 numbers but China's exports remain solid. Will this last? A lot of uncertainty is in play."