Inside Logistics

U.S. ports see busiest-ever import peak

Handled an estimated 8.1 million TEU from July through October would be 6.1 percent increase over last year


November 10, 2020
by

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Imports likely saw their busiest “peak season” on record this summer and fall as retailers replenished inventories and stocked up for the holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled an estimated 8.1 million TEU from July through October, the peak shipping season when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year. While subject to revision once October numbers become final, that would be an increase of 6.1 percent over last year and would beat the previous record of 7.7 million TEU set in 2018.

The peak season record includes a record 2.11 million TEU imported in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was a 12.5 per year-over-year increase and 0.1 percent higher than August’s previous record of 2.1 million TEU for the largest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

October imports were estimated at 2 million TEU, up 6.5 percent year-over-year and the fourth-highest month on record. With most holiday merchandise already in the country, November is forecast at 1.7 million TEU, up 0.2 percent year-over-year, and December is forecast at 1.58 million TEU, down 8.2 percent from last year.

Despite the new monthly records, 2020 is expected to total 20.9 million TEU, a drop of 3.4 percent from last year and the lowest annual total since 20.5 million TEU in 2017. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.1 percent from last year.

January 2021 is forecast at 1.75 million TEU, down 3.7 percent from January 2020; February at 1.52 million TEU, up 0.9 percent year-over-year, and March at 1.59 million TEU, up 15.7 percent from March 2020 – the month the pandemic first fully hit the United States while factories in China remained closed by the pandemic there.

Superbowl of supply chain

“Peak season is the Superbowl of the supply chain world each year as retailers make sure they have enough merchandise on hand to satisfy demand during the holidays, and this is the busiest we’ve ever seen,” said NRF vice-president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold.

“Part of this surge was fueled by restocking after retail sales rebounded this summer and part could be making sure there aren’t shortages if we see panic buying again. The economic challenges of the pandemic aren’t over yet, but this clearly shows how an industry that has been under stress is fighting back in a positive way. Retailers don’t import merchandise they don’t think they can sell, so this is a good sign for the holiday season.”

NRF is awaiting additional economic data before releasing its annual holiday spending forecast. But consumers surveyed for NRF by Prosper Insights & Analytics plan to spend an average US$997.79. That’s down $50 from 2019 as they focus on gifts rather than purchases for themselves.

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.