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Retailers Stocking Up for Holiday Spike Cargo Imports

Cargo imports surged to unexpected heights this summer and may have hit a new record as the U.S. economy continues to reopen and retailers stock up for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Wednesday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.92 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in July. That was down 2.3 percent year-over-year, but up 19.3 percent from June and significantly higher than the 1.76 million TEU forecast last month.

August containers imports were estimated at 2.06 million TEU, a 6 percent year-over-year increase. Actual August numbers won’t be known until next month, but that would be an all-time high, beating the previous record of 2.04 million TEU set in October 2018, the Global Port Track report said.

“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,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Some of these imports are helping replenish inventories that started to run low after consumers unleashed pent-up demand when stores reopened.”

Cargo imports for September are forecast at 1.89 million TEU, up 1.1 percent year over year. October shipments are expected to be down 9.2 percent to 1.71 million TEU, while November imports are forecast to decline 6.8 percent to 1.58 million TEU and December shipments are seen dropping 11 percent to 1.53 million TEU.

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Those numbers would bring 2020 to a total of 20.1 million TEU, a drop of 6.7 percent from last year, still the lowest annual total since 19.1 million TEU in 2016. The forecast numbers call for 7.58 million 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 7.7 million TEU in 2018 and 7.66 million TEU last year.

“The previous yo-yo pattern of import levels reached a peak in July that appears to have extended into August,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “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…A lot of uncertainty is in play.”

Global Port Tracker provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey; Port of Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.