Imports at major US retail container ports are expected to see double-digit year-over-year declines this spring and summer as the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue, despite the reopening of some stores.

“Factories in China are largely back online and stores that closed here in the US are starting to reopen, but volume is far lower than what we would see in a ‘normal’ year,” explains Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF). 

“Shoppers will come back and there is still a need for essential items, but the economic recovery will be gradual and retailers will adjust the amount of merchandise they import to meet demand.”

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the NRF and Hackett Associates shows US ports handled 1.37m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in March, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was the lowest volume since 1.34m TEU in March 2016, down 9.1% from this February and down 14.8% year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

April was estimated at 1.51m TEU, down 13.4% year-over-year, while May is forecast at 1.47m TEU, down 20.4% from last year. Looking further ahead, June is forecast at 1.46m TEU, down 18.6%; July at 1.58m TEU, down 19.3%; August at 1.73m TEU, down 12%, and September at 1.7m TEU, down 9.3%.

Before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports, February through May had been forecast at a total of 6.9m TEU but is now expected to total 5.87m TEU, a drop of 14.9%.

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By GlobalData

The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.15m TEU, down 13% from the same period last year. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47m TEU.

Imports during 2019 totaled 21.6m TEU, a 0.8% decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China but still the second-highest year on record.

“Much will depend on consumers’ willingness to return to spending,” says Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. “Our view is that second-quarter economic growth will be significantly worse than the previous quarter, but we continue to expect recovery to come in the second half of the year, especially the fourth quarter and into 2021. This is based on the big and somewhat tenuous assumption that there is no second wave of the virus.”