Ongoing U.S.-bound import push remains intact, says Port Tracker report

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · October 8, 2020

The theme of higher-than-expected levels in its previous edition went to a new level, with United States-bound retail container imports hitting an all-time high, according to today’s release of the Port Tracker report, which was issued by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

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 consumers are buying again after adhering to shelter-in-place policies implemented earlier this year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Retail supply chains are working overtime to keep up with demand,” said Gold. “Nothing about this year is predictable, but retailers are making sure their shelves and warehouses are well-stocked for the holidays. They are also stocking up earlier than usual because they know many consumers will be shopping early this year to avoid crowds and shipping delays. Some holiday merchandise that normally wouldn’t arrive until Halloween is already here.”

Port Tracker reported for August, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S-based retail container ports handled 2.1 million Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), marking a 9.7% gain over July and an 8% annual increase. The report said that this is the highest tally for containers imported in a single month, going back to when NRF first started tracking imports in 2002. The previous highest monthly reading came in October 2018’s 2.04 million TEU, which was the byproduct of a “pull forward,” related to a scheduled tariff increase at the time. August topped a previous estimate of 2.06 million TEU.

Port Tracker pegged September to come in at 2.08 million TEU, which would mark a 10.9% annual gain, adding that should this figure come to fruition it could end up being the second-highest month recorded. And October is expected to hit 1.86 million TEU, for a 1.1% annual decline. Even if October is down, the report said that the forecasted tally for the July through October Peak Season—at 7.96 million TEU—would be a record, coming in ahead of 2018’s 7.7 million TEU, for the same period. What’s more, the report noted that 75% of peak season imports—at an estimated 6.1 million TEU—are already in the U.S.

Looking ahead, the report said that November is expected to hit 1.61 million TEU (a 5.1% annual decrease), with December at 1.53 million TEU (an 11.2% decrease), with calendar year 2020 pegged at 20.5 million TEU, which would mark a 4.9% annual decline, and would match 2017, for the lowest tally over the last three years.

“Despite still-high unemployment, no federal government support package in place, lack of investment by U.S. companies and over 210,000 COVID- related deaths, the U.S. economy is beating forecasts with consumer consumption up and imports setting new records,” wrote Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett in the report. “Retail sales are a big part of consumer spending, so one would expect to see an increase when the economy improves and consumers are confident. But less than six months after the biggest decreases on record this spring, retail sales have bounced back to pre-crisis levels with year-over-year gains every month since June, including a 2.6 percent increase in August.”

October 8, 2020