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NRF Says Retail Imports are on Track to Beat Record 2020 Levels

forecast record retail import levels
Retail imports are on track to beat 2020's record levels (file photo)

Published May 10, 2021 6:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Retail imports set a new record this spring contributing to the continuing surge in volumes at the primary U.S. container ports. Driven by continuing consumer demand for goods, the volumes are on track to exceed the records achieved in 2020 despite the pandemic according to new forecasts from the National Retail Federation.

The retail trade association reported that container import volumes at the major U.S. container ports were the highest monthly total since the NRF began tracking imports in 2002. While the year-over-year comparison for March 2021 was artificially high due to the pandemic beginning to impact volumes a year ago, the NRF’s Global Port Tracker reports that in March this year 2.27 million TEUs came into the U.S. ports it tracks, a three percent increase over the previous highest month, which was October 2020. 

The first half of 2021 is forecast to be up 33.9 percent from the same period in 2020. As with March, the year-over-year growth figures are skewed because of the sharp decline in imports during the first half of last year. The six-month total of 12.7 million TEU, however, puts 2021 on track to beat 2020’s full-year total of 22 million TEU. Last year was up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic and this year is on track to exceed those increases.

“Despite the continuing pandemic, most consumers are in good financial health and aren’t hesitating to spend,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “More spending translates into more merchandise arriving at our ports as retailers continue to meet increasing demand. The cargo surge that began last fall doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Unfortunately, disruption and congestion issues are also continuing.”

The Global Port Tracker is forecasting the strong monthly year-over-year gains will continue through June 2021 at levels of 30 to 45 percent ahead of last year. The recovery in volumes began in July 2020, yet the NRF forecasts a 12 percent gain for July and a further six percent gain for August. Monthly container volumes for imports at the major ports are expected to run between approximately 2.1 and 2.2 million TEU per month. The NRF has not yet released forecasts for October and November which are typically peak import months as retailers prepare for holiday season sales.

The ongoing high cargo volume and retailing import levels reflect the recovering U.S. economy, according to the NRF. They highlighted that gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 6.4 percent in the first quarter and some economists are predicting 13 percent in the second quarter.

“Growth that fast is a clear indication that U.S. economic output has almost recovered to its level before the pandemic struck,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “Retail sales numbers show consumers are spending a large portion of their stimulus checks as well as savings that accumulated while staying home rather than going out and income from new jobs. This is turning out to be a year of super growth that will act as the driver of the global economy.”

Retailers, like all importers, continue to face challenges due to strong volumes at the major ports. Congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s largest ports, has begun to ease as carriers have shifted vessels to the Pacific Northwest or the East Coast via the Panama Canal, Hackett said. But some ships are still facing delays unloading as ports work at capacity and COVID-19 infections impact workers. Shortages of containers and other equipment and operational issues also continue to slow down the supply chain.

Executives at the Port of Los Angeles and other major ports have said they were working to reduce bottlenecks and backlogs by the summer. They are also working to prepare their ports for the expected new surge for import volumes as the U.S. enters the fall months and retailers begin to stock up for holiday season sales.