Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 proved to be a record year for retail imports, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates. The NRF expects imports to set new monthly records through June as the retail sector seeks to recover.
Hackett pegs retail imports to total 11.5 million containers – 21-foot units – for the first half of 2021, a gain of 22.1% from the same period in 2020, which experienced a major decline in imports due to the impact of COVID-19.
“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 Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain for the National Retail Federation. “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.”
NRF reports retail sales during the November-December holiday season in 2020 were a record $789.4 billion, up 8.3% from 2019, and preliminary figures show retail sales for all of 2020 were up 6.8% year-over-year.
“As we continue to struggle with COVID-19 and the ups and downs in the economy, year-over-year increases in the flow of containerized goods have become dramatic,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “It is impressive that the cargo volumes handled by the ports remain as high as they are despite congestion at the docks and the spread of the coronavirus among workers throughout the supply chain.”
Hackett said port congestion continues with at least two dozen ships waiting to dock amid labor and equipment shortages at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Hackett reports U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracer handled 2.11 containers – 21-foot units – in December, the last month for which final numbers are available. December volume was up just 0.2% from November but it was 22.3% higher than in the previous year. The total imports for 2020 were up 1.9% from the prior year at 22 million containers.
While the final January numbers are not yet available, Hackett projects 2.08 million containers were imported, up 14.6% from the same month last year. Hackett said it was the busiest January on record since the firm began tracking imports in 2002. The previous January record was 1.89 million containers in January 2019.
Gold said February is historically the slowest month for imports because of the lull between the holiday season and spring and because factories in Asia close the Chinese New Year Holiday. But this year many of the factories stayed open during the Chinese holiday to meet the uptick in demand.
Hackett forecasts February imports at 1.91 million, containers, up 26.3% year-over-year. March is forecast at 1.93 million containers, up an unprecedented 41% from March 2020, when factories in China failed to reopen because of the virus. By April, the forecast is 1.82 million containers up 13.3%, while May is predicted to see a 23.8% increase with 1.9 million containers. The June forecast is 1.9 million containers, up 18.2%, from a year ago.
Since the 2008/2009 recession retail container imports have grown 66.6% through 2020. Over the past five years imports grew 15% with 2019 being the first year since the 2009 recession that container volume dipped from the previous year. This likely relates to tariffs and trade disputes with China and revamping of U.S. trade agreements by the former White House administration. Following are recent years of retail imports of 21-foot containers, according to Hackett Associates.
2020: 22 million
2019: 21.6 million
2018: 21.8 million
2017: 20.5 million
2016: 19.1 million
2015: 18.5 million
2014: 17.5 million
2013: 16.4 million
2012: 16 million
2011: 15.6 million
2010: 15.8 million
2009: 13.2 million