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Cargo Imports Still Far Below Last Year as Retailers React to Soft Demand

With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy showing little sign of abating, cargo imports at major U.S. container ports are projected to stay significantly below last year’s levels into the fall, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Economic indicators show that the recession brought on by the pandemic may be easing, but retailers are being conservative with the amount of merchandise they import this year,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “The outlook for imports is slowly improving, but these are still some of the lowest numbers we’ve seen in years.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.53 million 20-foot equivalent Units (TEU) in May. That was down 4.8 percent from April and 17.2 percent below year-ago figures. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

Cargo imports for June were estimated at 1.69 million TEU, down 5.8 percent year-over-year. July shipments are also forecast to be 1.69 million TEU, which would be a 14.1 percent decline from a year earlier, while August imports are seen falling 13.3 percent to 1.69 million TEU again.

Looking into the fall, when retailers normally push to get merchandise in for the critical holiday selling period, September cargo imports are predicted to be down 12.3 percent to 1.64 million TEU, shipments for October are seen falling 9.9 percent to 1.7 million TEU and November goods reaching U.S. ports are forecast to drop 0.6 percent year-to-year to 1.68 million TEU.

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“We’re starting to go out to eat and buy clothing again, but how sustainable is that?” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett asked. “The danger is that the rising number of virus infections is leading to renewed restrictions, which may cause demand to weaken again.”

With imports usually trailing off in November and December after the bulk of holiday merchandise has arrived, the 1.7 million TEU figure for October is likely to be the busiest month of the traditional July-to-October “peak season” for shipping, the report said. If so, it would be the lowest peak since 1.61 million TEU in September 2014.

Imports for the six-month period from May through October are expected to total 9.94 million TEU, a 0.7 percent improvement from the amount forecast a month ago. The first half of 2020 is forecast to total 9.5 million TEU, down 9.3 percent from the same period last year but better than the 10 percent decline expected last month. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEU.

Imports during 2019 totaled 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.