Retail Imports Expected to Hit Monthly Records in 2021

forecast for strong retail imports in 2021
(file photo)

Published Feb 10, 2021 8:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Following a record year during 2020, retail imports into the U.S.’s largest container ports are expected to set new monthly records into the summer of 2021 according to a new forecast from the National Retail Federation. The trade association for the retailing industry expects that the continuing economic recovery will continue to fuel strong retail sales in the coming months and strong increases in volume at the major U.S. ports.

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

The NRF reports that retail sales during the November-December 2020 holiday season hit a record $789.4 billion, up 8.3 percent from 2019, and preliminary figures show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8 percent year-over-year. 

The strength of retail sales contributed to a record number of containers moving through the dozen U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker report. Retail imports drove the total number of containers in 2020 to 22 million TEUs, up 1.9 percent from 2019’s 21.6 million TEUs. The previous record was 21.8 million TEUs recorded in 2018.

“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.”



The Global Port Tracker projects that 2021 began with another record number of containers. They are forecasting a 14.6 percent increase to just over two million TEUs in January. That would be the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 1.89 million TEUs in January 2019.

The NRF predicts that the momentum will continue to build through the first half of 2021. February is historically the slowest month of the year for imports because of the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close for the Chinese New Year holiday. However, this year they are forecasting a 26 percent rise over last year to 1.91 million TEUs based on continuing strong demand from consumers and the backlogs at many of the major U.S. ports.

A year ago, Chinese factories delayed reopening due to the spreading coronavirus. The NRF forecasts a 41 percent rise in TEUs for March 2021 and while they expect the growth to moderate versus a year ago, they are forecasting rises of between 13 and 24 percent monthly increases through June. They are projecting a total of 11.5 million TEUs for the first half of 2021, which would be more than 22 percent ahead of last year.