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Retail Cargo Imports Set to Slump Through Summer

Cargo imports at U.S. retail container ports are expected to see double-digit, year-over-year declines this spring and summer as the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue, according to the Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Factories in China are largely back online and stores that closed here in the U.S. are starting to reopen, but volume is far lower than what we would see in a ‘normal’ year,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “Shoppers will come back and there is still a need for essential items, but the economic recovery will be gradual and retailers will adjust the amount of merchandise they import to meet demand.”

Major brands and retailers have also stopped or slowed production to match sagging unsdemand and to work off inventory sitting in warehouses.

Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates consultancy, said much will depend on consumers’ willingness to return to spending.

“Our view is that second-quarter economic growth will be significantly worse than the previous quarter, but we continue to expect recovery to come in the second half of the year, especially the fourth quarter and into 2021,” he said. “This is based on the big and somewhat tenuous assumption that there is no second wave of the virus.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.37 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in March. This was down 9.1 percent from February, 14.8 percent below a year earlier and the lowest volume since 1.34 million TEU in March 2016. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

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April cargo imports were estimated to have fallen 13.4 percent to 1.51 million TEU. May shipments are forecast to drop 20.4 percent to 1.47 million TEU, while retail-goods arriving in cargo containers are seen falling 18.6 percent in June to 1.46 million TEU. Looking further down the line, cargo shipments in July are forecast to be down 19.3 percent to 1.58 million, and fall 12 percent in August to 1.73 million TEU and 9.3 percent in September to 1.7 million TEU.

Before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports, February through May had been forecast at a total of 6.9 million TEU, but is now expected to total 5.87 million TEU, a drop of 14.9 percent.

The first half of 2020 is forecast to reach 9.15 million TEU, down 13 percent from the same period last year. Before the extent of the pandemic was known, the first half of the year was forecast at 10.47 million TEU.

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.