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2020 US Cargo Imports Will Reach 4-Year Low Due to Covid: NRF

Imports at major U.S. retail container ports during 2020 will hit their lowest total in four years due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consulting firm Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker are anticipated to handle a total of 19.6 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in 2020, a drop of 9.4 percent from last year and the lowest annual total since the 19.1 million TEU handled in 2016. Cargo imports throughout 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.

A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

The ports handled 1.61 million TEUs in June, up 4.9 percent from May but down 10.5 percent year-over-year. May’s numbers saw a drop of 17.2 percent year-over-year, but as stores reopened across the U.S., June’s imports were able to get a boost on a month-over-month basis. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1 percent from last year.

“The economy is recovering but retailers are being careful not to import more than they can sell,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF. “Shelves will be stocked, but this is not the year to be left with warehouses full of unsold merchandise. The more Congress does to put spending money in consumers’ pockets and provide businesses with liquidity, the sooner we can get back to normal.”

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Cargo imports for July are estimated at 1.76 million TEU, down 10.2 percent year-over-year, while the Port Tracker anticipates August will see a relative improvement over July at 1.81 million TEU, down 7.3 percent. The numbers are expected to decline again at 9.5 percent in September to 1.69 million TEU, before bottoming out in October with a 10.4 percent decline to 1.69 million TEU.

According to the Port Tracker, August is expected to be the busiest month of the July to October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays. But with retailers ordering less merchandise, the month’s total would be the lowest peak for the season since 1.73 million TEU in 2016 and falls far short of the 1.96 million TEU peak in 2019. Peak season usually includes the busiest month of the entire year, but this year that was likely January’s 1.82 million TEU, when the pandemic had yet to hit the U.S. and the coronavirus was just beginning to spread in China.

“This year, peak season seems to have been thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic along with just about everything else we consider normal,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “We’ve probably already had our busiest month. And with the pandemic taking a hit on the economy ever since then, peak season is likely to be a disappointment by comparison.”

In November, imports will have their softest decline in the second half at 1.59 million TEU, down 5.8 percent, before December sees a further dip of 9.6 percent to 1.56 million TEU.

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