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NRF Sees ‘Unprecedented’ Jump in March Cargo Imports

Following a record year in 2020, cargo imports at the largest U.S. container ports for retailers are expected to set new monthly records through the summer, as the nation’s economy continues to recover from the pandemic, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Monday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“The import numbers we’re seeing reflect retailers’ expectations for consumer demand to the point that many factories in Asia that normally close for Chinese New Year this month are remaining open to keep up,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Regardless of whether it’s in-store or on retailers’ websites, the record holiday season and numbers for 2020 show consumers are buying again…and retailers are importing merchandise faster than ever.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million 20-foot containers or equivalent units (TEU) in December. That was up 0.2 percent from November and a 22.3 percent increase year-over-year.

That brought 2020 to a total of 22 million TEU, up 1.9 percent from 2019’s 21.6 million TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018. January container imports are projected to have reached 2.08 million TEU, which would be a 14.6 percent increase over the same month last year and the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 1.89 million TEU from January 2019.

February–historically the slowest month of the year for imports due to the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close for the Chinese New Year holiday–but with 25 to 30 ships waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., because of congestion at the terminals from reported equipment and labor shortages and with many Asian factories remaining open during the holiday to meet demand, this February is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, up 26.3 percent year-over-year, according to Global Port Tracker.

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March cargo imports are forecast to jump an ‘unprecedented’ 41 percent to 1.93 million TEU compared to a March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen as the coronavirus outbreak rapidly exploded into a pandemic. April shipments are expected to increase a year-over-year 13.3 percent to 1.82 million TEU, May container imports are forecast to be up 23.8 percent to 1.9 million TEU and June cargo is projected to rise 18.2 percent to 1.9 million TEU.

Each month from January through June would be a record for the month, and the first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5 million TEU, up 22.1 percent from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of Covid-19, the NRF report said.

“As we continue to struggle with Covid-19 and the ups and downs in the economy, year-over-year increases in the flow of containerized goods have become dramatic,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “It is impressive that the cargo volumes handled by the ports remain as high as they are despite congestion at the docks and the spread of the coronavirus among workers throughout the supply chain.”

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.