2020 U.S.-bound retail container imports pegged to hit lowest level since 2016, says Port Tracker

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · August 10, 2020

The main thesis of the new Port Tracker report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates, confirms what many industry stakeholders largely assumed, in that 2020 United States-bound retailer container import volumes will fall to the lowest levels in four years, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in the report that the economy is recovering, but retailers are being careful not to import more than they can sell.

“Shelves will be stocked, but this is not the year to be left with warehouses full of unsold merchandise,” said Gold. “The more Congress does to put spending money in consumers’ pockets and provide businesses with liquidity, the sooner we can get back to normal.”

Port Tracker reported that for June, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S.-based retail container ports handled 1.61 million Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), which marked a 4.9% improvement over May and was down 10.5% annually.

The report estimated that June would come in at 1.76 million TEU, with August pegged at 1.81 million TEU, for a 7.3% annual decrease. Looking at the balance of 2020, Port Tracker reported the following: September down 9.5%, to 1.69 million TEU; October down 10.4%, to 1.69 million TEU; November down 5.8%, to 1.59 million TEU; and December down 9.6%, to 1.56 million TEU.

Should these estimates come to fruition, the total 2020 tally, which is pegged at 19.6 million TEU, would be off 9.4% compared to 2019. This would represent the lowest volume going back to 2016’s 19.1 million TEU. First half 2020 volume—at 9.5 million TEU—was off 10.1% annually.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett observed in the report that container shipping levels remain altered, due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, with the end result expected to result in the lack of a traditional Peak Season.

“Peak season seems to have been thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic along with just about everything else we consider normal,” he said. “This year, however, we likely already had our busiest month back in January. And with the pandemic taking a hit on the economy ever since then, peak season is likely to be a disappointment by comparison. At this point, we expect August to be the busiest month of peak, although this is anticipated to be the lowest peak for the season since 2016.”

August 10, 2020