Port Tracker reports November declines, but 2020 could still end up setting a new record

Despite the myriad challenges the ocean cargo has faced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 United States-bound retail container imports may hit a new annual record, according to the most recent edition of the Port Tracker report, which was issued by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates today.

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 observed that as import volumes had been strong in the months leading up to the holiday season, it has resulted in backups at West Coast ports, for ships moving goods out of Asia, which has subsequently led to capacity shortages, as well as equipment, including chassis and empty containers.   

“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports, but it was clearly an unpredictable year,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Consumers and retailers once again proved their resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. Thanks in part to government stimulus, retail sales saw strong growth during 2020 even with the pandemic, and import numbers show retailers expect the economic recovery will continue during 2021.”

Port Tracker reported for November, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S-based retail container ports handled 2.11 million Twenty-Foot Equivalents (TEU), marking a 24.5% annual gain and. 4.9% slide from October’s 2.21 million TEU, the highest-volume month on record since NRF starting tracking imports in 2002.

The report pegged December at 2.02 million TEU, which would mark a 17.3% annual decline, while still being one of only six months on record to top the 2 million TEU mark. And should the December projection come to fruition, the full-year 2020 tally would come in at 21.9 million TEU, for a 1.5% annual increase and also set a new annual record, besting 2018’s 21.8 million TEU.

Looking at the first quarter of 2021, Port Tracker is estimating the following: January to be up 7.7%, to 1.96 million TEU; February to be up 6.1%, to 1.6 million TEU; and March to be up 19%, to 1.64 million TEU. The anticipated March spike is due to an easier annual comparison, due to factories in China not resuming activity in March 2020 after the Lunar New Year, due to the pandemic.

While 2020 volumes ending up “surprisingly better than anyone expected,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that many challenges remain.

“As West Coast ports struggle with a sharp increase in inbound cargo volumes and congestion with ships waiting to dock, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen,” he wrote. “The increasing number of virus cases is resulting in logistics problems as the supply chain struggles to find enough staff for goods distribution and faces probable lockdowns that could force businesses ranging from retailers to manufacturers to shut down again. The pandemic’s impact on the supply chain is causing problems beyond the ports as large numbers of people are infected with the virus and off work as a result.”

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