2020 Retail Imports May Break Record Despite Pandemic

Imports seen during 2020 appear to be headed toward a new record despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and remain at high levels as 2021 begins, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released Friday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Nobody would have thought last spring that 2020 would be a record year for imports, but it was clearly an unpredictable year,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “Consumers and retailers once again proved their resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. Thanks in part to government stimulus, retail sales saw strong growth during 2020 even with the pandemic, and import numbers show retailers expect the economic recovery will continue during 2021.”

With high import volumes over the past few months, ships carrying goods from Asia have backed up at West Coast ports, and there have been shortages of shipping capacity and equipment including chassis and empty containers.

“With COVID-19 accelerating across the country, the pandemic is causing logistics problems beyond the congestion at the ports,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “With large numbers of people infected by the virus and unable to report for work, the supply chain is potentially facing challenges to find enough workers for goods distribution.”

Imports during the last half of 2020 set a string of new records, including an all-time high of 8.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) for the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year.

January is forecast at 1.96 million TEU, which would be up 7.7 percent from a year ago and the busiest January on record; February at 1.6 million TEU, up 6.1 percent year-over-year, and March at 1.64 million TEU, up 19 percent from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen after the Lunar New Year holiday because of the coronavirus. April is forecast at 1.76 million TEU, up 9.6 percent, and May at 1.86 million TEU, up 21.7 percent, both year-over-year.