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Cargo Imports Seen Rising 23.3% in First Half as Demand Surges

Cargo imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports are expected to increase significantly during the first half of 2021, as increased vaccination and continued in-store safety measures spur higher consumer demand, the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates said.

“NRF is forecasting what could turn out to be record retail sales growth in 2021 and retailers are importing huge amounts of merchandise to meet the demand,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “The supply chain slowdown we usually see after the holiday season never really happened this winter and imports are already starting to grow again.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.06 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) in January, a decline of 2.3 percent from December as the busy holiday season came to an end. But with a 13 percent year-over-year increase, it was the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002 and the first time the month has ever topped the 2 million TEU mark.

While import numbers for both February and March are forecast to be significantly higher than normal, year-over-year comparisons are difficult because of the pandemic, the Global Port Tracker report noted. February is traditionally the slowest month of the year as Asian factories close for Chinese New Year, but last year most remained closed into March due to the coronavirus, further reducing numbers.

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This year, however, some remained open during the holiday to fill a surge in orders and ships arriving at U.S. ports faced a backlog to unload. February results aren’t available yet, but the month was projected at 1.88 million TEU, up 24.4 percent over last year, while March is forecast at 1.98 million TEU, a 44.1 percent increase.

As reported, backlogs at west coast ports are currently at unprecedented levels, significantly increasing the cost of global shipping, and experts don’t see the situation improving in the near term.

Cargo container imports for April are forecast to hit 1.9 million TEU, up 18.2 percent year-over-year, while May shipments are projected to jump 25.2 percent to 1.92 million. June imports are expected to also be 1.92 million TEU, up 19.6 percent, and July shipments are seen rising 5.3 percent to 2.02 million TEU.

The first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.7 million TEU, up 23.3 percent from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to COVID-19. Imports saw a total of 22 million TEU in 2020, up 1.9 percent from 2019’s 21.6 million TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018.

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.