NRF: Retail Imports Peaking, Expect to Stabilize for Record Year

retail imports peaking for record in 2021
(Port of Los Angeles file photo)

Published Aug 9, 2021 8:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

After months of dramatic increases in the level of retail imports, the volumes are now expected to level off and decline from a peak projected to arrive at the major U.S. containers ports in August. According to new forecasts from the National Retail Federation, retail imports measured by container volumes will reach a new high for 2021, but are peaking and should remain at more consistent levels going forward for the remainder of 2021.

Imports at the nation’s 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 shipping season for winter holiday merchandise, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report prepared by Hackett Associates released by the National Retail Federation. The retail trade organization forecasts that August will be the peak, up 13 percent over 2020 and a more modest six percent versus July. Further, it is forecast to be the last month-over-month gain for 2021.

“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,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “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.”

For the full year, the NRF forecasts that 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 TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

“The strain of the continuing economic expansion is putting considerable pressure on the logistics supply chain,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “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.”

The slowing pace of increase was demonstrated in June when the month-over-month numbers declined by nearly eight percent. In part, the numbers might have been impacted by the disruption at China’s Yantian port, but the NRF also sees a leveling off of the rate of imports near these current volumes. When the July numbers are finalized, the NRF projects just over a three percent month-over-month gain to 2.22 TEU.

August should represent the peak at 2.37 million TEU, which would be up 12.6 percent year-over-year and top May’s 2.33 million TEU for the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. August, the NRF says is the beginning of the “peak season” when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise. Many retailers they also noted are moving up their shipments this year as part of their risk mitigation strategies to ensure that sufficient inventory will be available during the holidays.

After the August peak, the NRF projects month declines between September and the end of the year. They expect the levels to fall from 2.22 million TEU to a year-end level of just over two million TEU.