port of long beach

File Photo courtesy Port of Long Beach

U.S. Retail Imports Expected to Surge Into Summer

Mike Schuler
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February 11, 2021

Retail imports at the United States’ largest container ports are expected to set new monthly records into the summer as the nation’s economy continues to recover from the pandemic, according to new forecasts from the National Retail Federation.

U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker are projected to handle 2.08 million TEU, which would be up 14.6 percent over the same month last year and the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

The forecast comes after months of surging consumer demand. In December, the latest month for which final numbers are available, ports handled 2.11 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units, up 0.2 percent from November and up 22.3 percent year-over-year.

Imports were driven by a record $789.4 billion in retail sales during the November-December holiday season, up 8.3 percent from 2019. Preliminary figures released by the NRF show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8 percent year-over-year, bring 2020 to a total of 22 million TEU, up 1.9 percent from 2019 and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018.

“This surge has been going on for months, and retailers are importing merchandise faster than ever,” said NRF Vice NRF President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold.

While February is typically a slow month in the supply chains, a backlog of containerships at the at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is anticipated to buoy imports to 1.91 million TEU, up 26.3 percent year-over-year. Looking at March, the NRF’s forecast is calling for 1.93 million TEU, making for an unprecedented 41 percent increase from last March when pandemic shutdowns started to take hold.

If the forecasts are correct, each month from January through June is expected to set a monthly record, hitting 11.5 million TEU in the first half for a more than 22 percent increase in retail imports, according to the NRF.

“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,” said Gold. “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 have been for a while.

Global Port Tracker is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates and provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of 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.

“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.”

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