Ports expected to keep breaking records through spring

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

Following a record year during 2020, imports at the largest retail container ports in the United States are expected to set new monthly records from now into the summer as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the pandemic.

Retail sales during the November-December holiday season in 2020 hit a record US$789.4 billion, up 8.3 percent from 2019, and preliminary figures show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8 percent year-over-year.

These results are supplied in the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

Consumer demand

“The import numbers we’re seeing reflect retailers’ expectations for consumer demand to the point that many factories in Asia that normally close for Chinese New Year this month are remaining open to keep up,” said NRF vice-president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold.

“Regardless of whether it’s in-store or on retailers’ websites, the record holiday season and numbers for 2020 show consumers are buying again and have been for a while. This surge has been going on for months, and retailers are importing merchandise faster than ever.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in December, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 0.2 percent from November and up 22.3 percent year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

That brought 2020 to a total of 22 million TEU, up 1.9 percent from 2019’s 21.6 million TEU and beating the previous record of 21.8 million TEU recorded in 2018.

Busiest January since ’02

January results aren’t available yet but the month was projected at 2.08 million TEU, which would be up 14.6 percent over the same month last year and the busiest January since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 1.89 million TEU in January 2019.

February is historically the slowest month of the year for imports, both because of the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close for the Chinese New Year holiday. But with 25-30 ships waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of congestion at the terminals from reported equipment and labour shortages and with many Asian factories remaining open during the holiday to meet demand, this February is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, up 26.3 percent year-over-year.

A year after Covid struck

March is forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up an unprecedented 41 percent from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen because of the coronavirus. April is forecast at 1.82 million TEU, up 13.3 percent year-over-year; May at 1.9 million TEU, up 23.8 percent, and June also at 1.9 million TEU, up 18.2 percent.

Each month from January through June would be a record for the month, and the first half of 2021 is forecast at 11.5 million TEU, up 22.1 percent from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of COVID-19.

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by the consulting firm Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.