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04/07/2021

Retail Imports to Remain Elevated Through Summer

Elevated retail import levels brought on by the massive surge of e-commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic are expected to last at least through summer 2021, with retailers and workers firing on all cylinders to keep up with consumer demand.
Ports cargo

Elevated retail import levels brought on by the massive surge of e-commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic are expected to last at least through summer 2021, with retailers and workers firing on all cylinders to keep up with consumer demand.

That’s according to the National Retail Federation’s most recent Global Port Tracker report. 

Executive Summary

The report comes after the global import supply chain hit a snag in late March when the cargo ship Ever Given became lodged in the Suez Canal for a week, causing disruptions and delays around the world. While the situation was temporary, it revealed deep vulnerabilities in the global supply chain and trade routes, and retailers were one of the top industries impacted.

Imports have been on the rise since March 2020, which clocked 1.37 million twenty-foot equivalent units--the lowest point in four years. That low point marked the beginning stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, cargo hit its highest point ever by August with 2.1 million TEU before peaking at 2.21 million TEU in October, NRF found.

“We’ve never seen imports at this high a level for such an extended period of time,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Records have been broken multiple times and near-record numbers are happening almost every month. Between federal stimulus checks and money saved by staying home for the better part of a year, consumers have money in their pockets and they’re spending it with retailers as fast as retailers can stock their shelves.”

Prior to 2021, import volume had only topped 2 million TEU once, in October 2018. Import volume levels of 2 million TEU or above are expected to remain at least through August 2021, NRF forecasted. Imports will remain partially elevated due to backlogs in ports around the world as well as labor shortages due to Covid-19 infections and equipment shortages. However, ports do appear to be catching up. For example, there were 17 ships reported waiting off of Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, in recent days, compared to 30 ships a month ago, according to the NRF tracker, which is compiled by international trade consulting services firm Hackett Associates.

“Congestion at U.S. ports is abating as container carriers and terminals adjust to the new normal,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “We saw the busiest February on record as the ports worked to clear the backlog, and the number of ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay waiting to dock at Los Angeles and Long Beach is dropping.”

Import volume is forecasted to reach 11.99 TEU for the first six months of 2021, an increase of nearly 27% from the same time period last year, which saw steep declines from Covid-19 before rebounding. Imports for all of 2020 reached 22 million TEU--a record high, but only slightly above the 21.8 million TEU record reached in 2018.