NRF: Retail Import Volumes Forecast to Rise in 2021

retail import container volume forecast to rise in 2021
Port of Los Angeles was one of the ports receiving the strong retail import volumes (file photos)

Published Jan 12, 2021 2:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Retail imports, which were a key contributor to the surge in container traffic and port activity in the second half of 2020, are projected to continue their strength through the first half of 2021 according to new data from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. The retail trade organization projects, despite the pandemic, that retail imports will set a new record for 2020 and will continue the momentum for at least the first five months of 2021.

According to the organizations’ monthly Global Port Tracker report, imports during the second half of 2020 set a string of new records, including an all-time high of 8.3 million TEU for the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays. Pending final numbers for December, they are projecting 2020 will have ended with a total of 21.9 million TEU, up 1.5 percent from 2019, and breaking the previous annual record of 21.8 million TEU set in 2018.

December is projected at 2.02 million TEU, which would be down 17.3 percent year-over-year, but still one of only six times in nearly 20 years that the monthly total has hit the 2 million TEU mark. Volume peaked in October at 2.21 million TEU, which set the record for the largest number of containers handled during a single month since the NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports, but it was clearly an unpredictable year,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Consumers and retailers once again proved their resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. Thanks in part to government stimulus, retail sales saw strong growth during 2020 even with the pandemic, and import numbers show retailers expect the economic recovery will continue during 2021.”

The Global Port Tracker is forecasting the busiest January on record with 1.96 million TEU, which would be up 7.7 percent from a year ago. Similarly, they also see a better than 6 percent increase in volumes for February at 1.6 million TEU.

Last year, factories in China failed to reopen after the Lunar New Year holiday because of the coronavirus. This year, retailers and the shipping industry are expecting a steady flow of imports to the U.S. after the Lunar New Year. The Global Port Tracker forecasts a 19 percent increase for retail import volumes to the U.S. in March to 1.64 million TEU.  While they expect the growth to slow in April, the forecast still sees a 9.6 percent increase in TEUs before a strong surge as retailers prepare for the summer. May 2021 retail import volumes are forecast to increase 21.7 percent to 1.86 million TEU.

The Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF and Hackett Associates, forecasts total retail import volumes of the major  the U.S. ports.