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U.S. Retail Imports Rose 18 Percent in 2021, but Leveling Off for 2022

retail imports set rcords for 2021 but expected to slow in the year ahead
Retail imports set new records in 2021 but are expected to slow in the year ahead (file photo)

Published Dec 9, 2021 2:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Retail imports at the U.S.’s major container ports are expected to end 2021 with both the largest volume and fastest growth on record. The National Retail Federation (NRF), forecasts that 2021 saw an increase of better than 18 percent but that the surge in retail imports has peaked and will return to more traditional growth rates in 2021.

The retailing trade group expects when the final tally for 2021 is completed that retail imports will have reached 26 million TEU at U.S. ports, an increase of 18.3 percent over 2020 and the highest number since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The projected total would top last year’s previous record of 22 million, which was up 1.9 percent despite the pandemic. The growth rate would also be the highest on record, according to the group’s Global Port Tracker report topping 16.7 percent in 2010 as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. 

“This has been an unprecedented year,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “We’ve seen more disruption than ever before because of issues along every step of the supply chain and continued strong consumer demand, but we’re also seeing more cargo and faster growth than ever before. There are still ships to be unloaded and containers to be delivered, but everyone in the supply chain has worked overtime this year to try to overcome these challenges.”

The Global Port Tracker forecasts for December that retail imports will reach 2.2 million TEU, which represents an increase of 4.6 percent. That would be largely stable with the forecasted 2.21 million TEU in November, which was up 5.1 percent versus 2020. The NRF points out that while imports do not correlate directly with sales, the record comes as the trade group expects holiday sales during November and December to grow 11.5 percent over last year.

There was a 14-month streak of year-over-year growth that began in August 2020 and continued through September 2021 as retailers first replenished inventories and then worked to keep up with strong consumer demand. October 2021, saw the first year-over-year decline with the Global Port Tracker reporting 2.21 million TEU which was down just slight versus the prior year but still up 3.5 percent versus the prior month. Even with the decline, October was still among the five busiest months on record at U.S. ports.

“After nearly a year of what seemed like runaway growth once the economy reopened from the worst days of the pandemic and unleashed pent-up consumer demand, port data now shows imports settling down,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “As economic activity slows after the holidays, we do not expect to see a resurgence of year-over-year double-digit import growth. Instead, it will be more like ‘steady as she goes.’ ”

For the first four months of 2022, the NRF forecasts that retail imports will remain steady at more than two million TEU per month. January 2022 is forecast at 2.24 million TEU, up 9 percent from January 2021; February at 2 million TEU, up 7.3 percent year-over-year; March at 2.19 million, down 3.3 percent, and April at 2.2 million TEU, up 2.2 percent.