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Retail Cargo Imports on Track for Record-Setting August

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports to hit another record in August as retailers pull in holiday merchandise.

The monthly Global Port Tracker report on Friday by NRF and Hackett Associates indicates that consumer demand continues to stretch supply chains as retailers now shift gears to the peak shipping season for winter holiday merchandise.

“Back-to-school supplies have been hit by the same supply chain disruptions and port congestion that have affected other products this year, but retailers are working hard to ensure that school and college goods are where they need to be,” Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said.

Strong consumer demand outpaced supply chain operations since last year, and is expected to remain a challenge as the holidays approach.

“The continuing lack of labor, equipment and capacity has highlighted systemic issues and the need to create a truly 21st century supply chain to ensure resiliency against the next major disruption. Passage of infrastructure legislation currently pending in Congress is a key step in that direction. We need continued focus by the administration to help address these issues as well,” Gold said.

Cargo imports at the largest U.S. retail container ports have been showing double-digit growth over the past year, and that trend is expected to continue for July and August.

The Global Port Tracker said U.S. ports it tracks handled 2.15 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in June, the latest month final numbers are available. That figure was down 7.8 percent from May, but up 33.7 percent from last year during pandemic-related store closures. Ports have not yet reported July numbers, but the Global Port Tracker is projecting 2.22 million TEU in July, or up 15.7 percent from last year. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

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The Global Port Tracker is forecasting 2.37 million TEU for August, or up 12.6 percent from last year, making it the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The current record is this past May’s 2.33 million TEU. NRF said August marks the month when retailers begin to stock up on holiday merchandise. The retail trade group noted that this year, many retailers are moving up their shipments as a risk mitigation strategy to ensure sufficient inventory levels for the holiday shopping season.

Last year, many retailers began pushing up deliveries of their orders to get merchandise in for the holiday because they expected shipping delays due to the pandemic. Others that were able to remain open during the pandemic front-loaded orders to ensure essential goods were in stock or stored in warehouses due to peaking consumer demand.

Looking ahead, the September forecast is for 2.21 million TEU, up 4.9 percent year-over-year, with October at 2.15 million TEU, down 3 percent for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020. Both November and December projections are for declines, with November at 2.01 million TEU or down 1.5 percent and December at 2.02 million TEU or down 4.1 percent.

For the first half, the Global Port Tracker said the total was 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same year-ago period. At current levels and projections,  2021 is on track to total 25.9 million TEU, or up 17.5 percent over 2020. That would make a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019, despite the pandemic, data showed.

NRF expects 2021 retail sales growth in the range of 10.5 percent and 13.5 percent.