Despite Pandemic, Retail Imports Reached New Highs in 2021

Retail imports reached new heights in 2021.
Cargo imports

By the end of 2021, container ports are expected to report the largest volume and fastest growth on record, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates. 

Supply chain disruptions, a tightening labor market and uncertainty over COVID-19 have remained headlines throughout the year, but imports still managed to deliver higher results than ever. 

“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. For the most part, they have succeeded, and consumers will be able to find what they need for the holidays.”

Imports for 2021 are expected to reach 26 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU, one 20-foot container or its equivalent)—that’s up 18.3% from 2020 and the highest number since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The growth is much higher than pre-pandemic levels, as 2020 was already up 1.9% over 2019, to 22 million TEU. The previous highest growth rate was 16.7% in 2010 as the economy was recovering from the Great Recession.

Imports don’t correlate directly with retail sales, but NRF is also predicting 2021 will be a record sales year. The association previously upped its annual guidance to project retail sales will reach between $4.44 trillion and $4.56 trillion in 2021. Holiday sales during November and December are estimated to grow 11.5% over last year. The association remains steadfast in its rosy outlook despite growing inflation concerns among shoppers and a jobs outlook that looks less than stellar for retail. The sector lost 20,000 jobs during November as shoppers flocked to holiday sales, the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Imports over the last few months have slowed to single-digit growth, and NRF expects that trend to continue into the first few months of 2022. 

“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,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “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.’”