Retail Imports to See Lowest Annual Total in Four Years

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WASHINGTON – Imports at major U.S. retail container ports during 2020 are expected to see their lowest total in four years as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. economy continues, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released last week by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“The economy is recovering but retailers are being careful not to import more than they can sell,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said in the NRF announcement. “Shelves will be stocked, but this is not the year to be left with warehouses full of unsold merchandise.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.61 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in June, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 4.9 percent from May, but down 10.5 percent year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

In July, the handle was estimated at 1.76 million TEU, down 10.2 percent year-over-year. August is forecast at 1.81 million TEU, down 7.3 percent; September at 1.69 million TEU, down 9.5 percent; and October also at 1.69 million TEU, down 10.4 percent.

The 2020 projections would bring the full year to a total of 19.6 million TEU, a drop of 9.4 percent from last year and the lowest annual total since 19.1 million TEU in 2016, according to the NRF announcement. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1 percent from last year.

August is expected to be the busiest month of the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays. But with retailers ordering less merchandise, the month’s total would be the lowest peak for the season since 1.73 million TEU in 2016.

“This year, peak season seems to have been thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic along with just about everything else we consider normal,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “We’ve probably already had our busiest month.”