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Retail Cargo Imports May Break Record for 2020 Despite Pandemic

U.S. cargo container imports appear headed toward a new record for 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic and remain at high levels as 2021 begins, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports, but it was clearly an unpredictable year,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Consumers and retailers once again proved their resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. Thanks in part to government stimulus, retail sales saw strong growth during 2020 even with the pandemic, and import numbers show retailers expect the economic recovery will continue during 2021.”

With high import volumes over the past few months, ships carrying goods from Asia have backed up at West Coast ports in particular, and there have been shortages of shipping capacity and equipment including chassis and empty containers, the report noted.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in November. That was up 24.5 percent year-over-year, but down 4.9 percent from October’s 2.21 million TEU, which set the record for the largest number of containers handled during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

December cargo imports were projected at 2.02 million TEU, down 17.3 percent year-over-year, but still one of only six times in nearly 20 years that the monthly total has hit the 2 million TEU mark, according to Global Port Tracker. If the December number holds up once actual data is available, 2020 will have ended with a total of 21.9 million TEU, up 1.5 percent from last year and breaking the previous annual record of 21.8 million TEU set in 2018.

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Container shipments arriving at U.S. ports during the second half of 2020 set a string of new records, including an all-time high of 8.3 million TEU for the July-to-October “peak season,” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year.

January shipments are forecast at 1.96 million TEU, which would be up 7.7 percent from a year ago and the busiest January on record, while February is projected to be up 6.1 percent to 1.6 million TEU, and March at 1.64 million TEU, up 19 percent from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen after the Lunar New Year holiday because of the coronavirus. April imports are expected to reach 1.76 million TEU, up 9.6 percent, and May to grow 21.7 percent to 1.86 million TEU year-over-year.

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; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.