Port Tracker report points to an expected ongoing surge of U.S.-bound imports

Coming off of its previous edition, which observed that high levels of United States-bound retail container imports remain fully intact, amid the ongoing myriad challenges the ocean cargo market has faced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new edition of the Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates said the U.S.-bound retail container imports are expected to “grow dramatically” over the first half of the year.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

The report explained that optimism for the expected high levels of imports is a result of increased vaccination and continued in-store safety measures enabling additional shopping options.

“NRF is forecasting what could turn out to be record retail sales growth in 2021, and retailers are importing huge amounts of merchandise to meet the demand,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “The supply chain slowdown we usually see after the holiday season never really happened this winter, and imports are already starting to grow again. Consumers haven’t let the pandemic stop them from shopping, and retailers are making sure their customers can find what they want and find it safely.”

Port Tracker reported for January, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S-based retail container ports handled 2.06 million Twenty-Foot Equivalents (TEU), trailing December by 2.3% but seeing a 13% annual gain, driven by a strong holiday shopping season. What’s more, NRF said this represents the highest-volume January going back to when it initially started tracking import data in 2002, as well as the first time January topped the 2 million TEU mark.

Looking to February and March, NRF said that while volumes for each month are expected to be higher than what would typically be expected, it is difficult to gauge annual results, due to the pandemic. It added that while February is usually viewed as the lowest-volume month of the year, due to the Chinese New Year, in 2020, Chinese factories were closed into March, lowering import numbers. The report projected February to hit 1.88 million TEU for, for a 24.4% annual gain, with March expected to be up 44.1%, to 1.98 million TEU.

April is pegged to be up 18.2%, to 1.9 million TEU, with May up 25.2%, to 1.92 million TEU. And June and July are expected to be up 19.6% and 5.3%, respectively, to 1.92 million TEU and 2.02 million TEU.

For the first half of 2021, the Port Tracker report expects import volumes to be up 23.3% annually, to 11.7 million TEU, up against a period that saw significant declines related to the pandemic.

“As COVID-19 ravaged the economy in 2020, it seemed as if any hope of recovery was distant,” wrote Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett in the report. “Then came the rollout of vaccines that appear to be highly effective and are bringing strong signs of a quick recovery of the economy as people return to work and schools open. The successful distribution of vaccinations will help ensure that the economic recovery will be strong and sustainable in the second half of this year and well into the next.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman