The first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5m TEU, up 22.1% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of Covid-19

The first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5m TEU, up 22.1% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of Covid-19

Following a record year during 2020, imports at major US retail container ports are expected to set new monthly records from now into the summer as the nation's economy continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates shows US ports handled 2.11m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 0.2% from November and up 22.3% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

That brought 2020 to a total of 22m TEU, up 1.9% from 2019's 21.6m TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8m TEU recorded in 2018.

January results aren't available yet but the month was projected at 2.08m TEU, which would be up 14.6% over the same month last year and the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 1.89m TEU in January 2019.

February is historically the slowest month of the year for imports, both because of the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close for the Chinese New Year holiday. But with 25-30 ships waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of congestion at the terminals from reported equipment and labor shortages and with many Asian factories remaining open during the holiday to meet demand, this February is forecast at 1.91m TEU, up 26.3% year-over-year.

March is forecast at 1.93m TEU, up an unprecedented 41% from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen because of the coronavirus. April is forecast at 1.82m TEU, up 13.3% year-over-year; May at 1.9m TEU, up 23.8%, and June also at 1.9m TEU, up 18.2%.

Each month from January through June would be a record for the month, and the first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5m TEU, up 22.1% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of Covid-19.

"The import numbers we're seeing reflect retailers' expectations for consumer demand to the point that many factories in Asia that normally close for Chinese New Year this month are remaining open to keep up," says Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). "Regardless of whether it's in-store or on retailers' websites, the record holiday season and numbers for 2020 show consumers are buying again and have been for a while. This surge has been going on for months, and retailers are importing merchandise faster than ever."

Retail sales during the November-December holiday season in 2020 hit a record US$789.4bn, up 8.3% from 2019, and preliminary figures show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8% year-over-year.

"As we continue to struggle with Covid-19 and the ups and downs in the economy, year-over-year increases in the flow of containerised goods have become dramatic," adds Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. "It is impressive that the cargo volumes handled by the ports remain as high as they are despite congestion at the docks and the spread of the coronavirus among workers throughout the supply chain."