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Cargo Imports Set ‘Peak Season’ Record as Retailers Eye Holiday

Cargo imports experienced their busiest “peak season” on record this summer and fall as retailers replenished inventories and stocked up for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Peak season is the Super Bowl of the supply chain world each year, as retailers make sure they have enough merchandise on hand to satisfy demand during the holidays, and this is the busiest we’ve ever seen,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Part of this surge was fueled by restocking after retail sales rebounded this summer and part could be making sure there aren’t shortages if we see panic buying again. The economic challenges of the pandemic aren’t over yet, but this clearly shows how an industry that has been under stress is fighting back in a positive way. Retailers don’t import merchandise they don’t think they can sell, so this is a good sign for the holiday season.”

Despite the new monthly records, 2020 is expected to total 20.9 million TEU, a drop of 3.4 percent from last year and the lowest annual total since 20.5 million TEU in 2017. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1 percent from last year.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled an estimated 8.1 million 20-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) from July through October, the peak shipping season when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year. That represents an increase of 6.1 percent over last year and beats the previous record of 7.7 million TEU set in 2018.

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The peak season record includes a record 2.11 million TEU imported in September, a 12.5 percent year-over-year increase and 0.1 percent higher than August’s previous record of 2.1 million TEU for the largest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

October imports were estimated at 2 million TEU, up 6.5 percent year-over-year and the fourth-highest month on record. With most holiday merchandise already in the country, November is forecast to be down 0.2 percent to 1.7 million TEU, and December is expected to see a falloff of 8.2 percent to 1.58 million TEU.

January cargo shipments into the country are projected to be down 3.7 percent from a year earlier to 1.75 million TEU, February is forecast to have a 0.9 percent increase to 1.52 million TEU, and March is expected to be up 15.7 percent to 1.59 million TEU from March 2020–the month the pandemic first fully hit the United States, while factories in China remained closed by the coronavirus pandemic there.

“As we near the end of a difficult year in terms of health, trade and politics, we have witnessed record-breaking statistics that have been virtually unpredictable,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Imports hit all-time highs this summer and online shopping did the same. Whether similar patterns will continue in the coming months will be influenced to a large extent by the coronavirus pandemic and whether it will be brought under control by the arrival of expected vaccines next 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, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla., on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.