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Retail Imports Expected to Set a Record in August as Merchants Shift to Peak Holiday Season

Mike Schuler
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August 10, 2021

Imports at the United States’ largest retail container ports should hit yet another record in August as consumer demand continues to stretch supply chains and retailers shift from the back-to-school season to the peak holiday shipping season, according to the National Retail Federation.

U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker handled 2.15 million TEU in June, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 7.8 percent from May’s peak, but up 33.7 percent from the same period last year, when many stores were closed because of the pandemic.

While most ports have not yet July numbers, retail imports are expected to come in at 2.22 million TEU, which would be up over 15 percent from the same time last year.

August retail imports are forecast at 2.37 million TEU, which would be up 12.6 percent year-over-year and top May’s record 2.33 million TEU, the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

August is typically the beginning of the “peak season” when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year, but the NRF notes that many retailers are moving up their shipments this year as part of risk mitigation strategies to ensure that sufficient inventory will be available amid disruptions in the supply chain.

“Back-to-school supplies have been hit by the same supply chain disruptions and port congestion that have affected other products this year, but retailers are working hard to ensure that school and college goods are where they need to be,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Strong consumer demand has outpaced supply chain operations since late last year and could remain a challenge as the holidays approach. The continuing lack of labor, equipment and capacity has highlighted systemic issues and the need to create a truly 21st century supply chain to ensure resiliency against the next major disruption.”

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 25.9 million TEU, up 17.5 percent over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

September is forecast at 2.21 million TEU, up 4.9 percent year-over-year; October at 2.15 million TEU, down 3 percent for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020; November at 2.07 million TEU, down 1.5 percent, and December at 2.02 million TEU, down 4.1 percent.

“The strain of the continuing economic expansion is putting considerable pressure on the logistics supply chain,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates which produces the Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “We’re seeing a lack of shipping capacity combined with port congestion as vessels line up to discharge goods from both Asia and Europe. Delays are stretching to landside as port terminals struggle with space shortages, and labor challenges are affecting ports, railroads and trucking companies alike. This part of the recovery is not a pretty sight.”

Ports included in the Global Port Tracker are Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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