Port Tracker report highlights another monthly record and a projected annual 2020 increase

A recent stretch of new monthly records remained intact, for United States-bound retail container imports, according to the most recent edition of the Port Tracker report, which was released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

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.

A key theme of the report was how volumes continue to grow, as retailers built up store and warehouse inventories, in advance of the holidays, while adjusting to a significant surge in online order activity.  

“The pandemic has made the past year one of the most trying the supply chain has ever seen, but retailers have met that challenge,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in the report. “We’ve gone from not knowing whether we would be able to get merchandise from China to having a surplus of goods when stores were closed to having to meet pent-up demand as consumers returned. At this point, retailers have seen a successful holiday season so far and goods are reaching the shelves. We hope 2020 is a one-time experience, but we’ve learned a lot.”

Port Tracker reported for October, the most recent month for which data is available, U.S-based retail container ports handled 2.21 million Twenty-Foot Equivalents (TEU), which set a new record, topping September’s 2.11 million TEU and August’s 2.1 million TEU, which marked the highest tally for containers imported in a single month, at the time, going back to when NRF first started tracking imports in 2002. The previous highest monthly reading, prior to August and September 2020, was October 2018’s 2.04 million TEU, which was the byproduct of a “pull forward,” related to a scheduled tariff increase at the time. October volume was up 17.6% annually and was 5.2% ahead of September.

What’s more, the report observed that volume for the Peak Season period, from July through October, came in at a cumulative 8.3 million TEU, marking an 8.8% annual gain, and surpassing the previous record of 7.7 million TEU in 2018.

The report pegged November volumes at 2.07 million TEU, for a 22.4% annual increase, which would represent the fourth highest-volume month, with December estimated at 1.91 million TEU, for an 11% annual gain. Looking ahead to 2021, the report said January is expected to hit 1.86 million TEU, for a 2.4% annual gain, with February at 1.55 million TEU, for a 2.6% annual increase. A notable expected difference is the projected March tally, at 1.62 million TEU, for a 17.8% increase, due to factories in China not opening after the Lunar New Year holiday in 2020.

The report added that it expects total 2020 volume to hit 21.8 million TEU, which would represent a 0.8% annual increase and match 2018 for the highest-volume year on record, which beats a previous estimate of 20.9 million TEU that would have been the lowest annual tally going back to 2017. The report said the estimate was updated, due to an increase in imports over the last three months.

“We are projecting that fourth-quarter imports will show the strongest annual growth since 2018, with an expected volume increase of 16.6 percent across all ports,” wrote Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett in the report. “The end of year surge brought about by the inventory restocking and dramatic changes in consumer purchasing habits has resulted in an increase to our outlook, with 2020 imports anticipated to now post slight growth over 2019 – a significant improvement on earlier projections of a decline. The first quarter of 2021 is expected to have 6.6 percent growth year-over-year, impacted by the Lunar New Year shutdown in China, Taiwan, and Thailand. As the introduction of vaccination and confidence in the control of the virus takes hold, the expectation is that the economy will see a sharp revival with industrial production, investment, consumption, and service industries all expanding.”

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