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Cargo Imports Set Record as Retailers Stockpile for Peak Season

Cargo imports reached an all-time high this summer, as retail sales bounced back somewhat from the pandemic and merchants replenished inventories and stocked up early for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Thursday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“After staying at home this spring, consumers are buying again and retail supply chains are working overtime to keep up with demand,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Nothing about this year is predictable, but retailers are making sure their shelves and warehouses are well-stocked for the holidays. They are also stocking up earlier than usual because they know many consumers will be shopping early this year to avoid crowds and shipping delays. Some holiday merchandise that normally wouldn’t arrive until Halloween is already here.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.1 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in August. That was up 9.7 percent from July and 8 percent above year-ago levels. It was also the highest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, beating 2.04 million TEU seen in October 2018 ahead of a scheduled tariff increase.

Container imports for September were estimated at 2.08 million TEU, a 10.9 percent year-over-year increase. September’s actual total won’t be known until next month, but could become the second-highest month on record, NRF said. October cargo shipments reaching U.S. ports are forecast at 1.86 million TEU, down 1.1 percent year over year.

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Those numbers would amount to a record 7.96 million TEU during the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, topping 7.7 million TEU in 2018, NRF noted.

November shipments are forecast to be down 5.1 percent year-over-year to 1.61 million TEU, down, and December is expected to be down 11.2 percent to 1.53 million TEU. That would bring 2020 to 20.5 million TEU, a drop of 4.9 percent from last year to tie 2017 for the lowest annual total in three years. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1 percent from last year.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said the summer import growth reflects retail sales that have seen year-over-year gains each month since June, including 2.6 percent in August.

“Retail sales are a big part of consumer spending, so one would expect to see an increase when the economy improves and consumers are confident,” Hackett said. “But less than six months after the biggest decreases on record this spring, retail sales have bounced back to pre-crisis levels.”

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.