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Latest Cargo Imports Data Hints at Early Signs of Retail Recovery

The impact of COVID-19 on U.S. retail container imports appears to be easing slightly, according to the Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Projected cargo imports remain well below last year’s levels, but not as much as previously forecast by the Global Port Tracker report and NRF and Hackett analysts.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.61 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in April, down 7.8 percent from a year earlier, but up 17 percent from a four-year low seen in March and significantly better than the 1.51 million TEU previously expected. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

May cargo shipments were estimated at 1.58 million TEU, down 14.6 percent year-over-year, but up from the 1.47 million TEU forecast a month ago.

“The numbers we’re seeing are still below last year, but are better than what we expected a month ago,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “It may still be too soon to say but we’ll take that as a sign that the situation could be slowly starting to improve. Consumers want to get back to shopping, and as more people get back to work, retailers want to be sure their shelves are stocked.”

June retail cargo shipments are forecast to be down 12.9 percent from last year to 1.56 million TEU, but higher than the previous forecast of 1.46 million TEU, while July is forecast at 1.62 million TEU, down 17.4 percent from last year but up from 1.58 million TEU previously expected. The outlook for August is for cargo to reach 1.71 million TEU, just below the 1.73 million TEU expected a month ago and down 12.9 percent from last year, while September shipments are forecast at 1.66 million TEU, slightly lower than the 1.7 million TEU expected a month ago and down 11.3 percent from last year.

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October cargo imports, which were not previously forecast, are expected to total 1.73 million TEU, down 7.9 percent from last year. That would mark the first time since April that the year-over-year decline would drop from double digits to single digits, the report noted.

“Imports are erratic, with one month up and the next down,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Getting 40 million people back to work will take time, especially with many fearful of catching the virus and staying home. That makes a rapid return to an economic boom unlikely.”

Imports for the six-month period from April through September are expected to total 9.74 million TEU, a 3 percent improvement from the 9.46 million TEU expected a month ago. The first half of 2020 is projected at 9.46 million TEU, down 10 percent from the same period last year but better than the 9.15 million TEU expected a month ago. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEU.

Cargo imports during 2019 were 21.6 million TEU, a 0.8 percent decrease from 2018 amid the trade war with China, but still the second-highest year on record.

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.