Retail imports at US ports set a new record in October 2020, and continued to remain strong in November as retailers stocked up both stores and warehouses for the holiday season and met new demands for quick delivery of online orders, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“The retail inventory-to-sales ratio soared to 1.68 in April, when most stores were closed, then plummeted more than 25 per cent to 1.22 in June and has remained at about that level since then. That drove record imports as retailers both replenished inventories and prepared for the holidays,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.

“With inventories low but demand growing, we have witnessed a surge in imports as retailers try to keep up,” Hackett said. “The dramatic shift to online shopping coupled with the expectation of next-day delivery is also spurring the growth of imports at warehouses for major online sellers, who need to have enough stock on hand not just to meet demand but to meet it instantly.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.21 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in October, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 17.6 per cent year-over-year and up 5.2 per cent from 2.11 million TEU in September, the previous record for a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. September, in turn, had edged out 2.1 million TEU in August, which had broken the previous record of 2.04 million TEU set in October 2018. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

October’s number brought the total for the “peak season” – the period from July through October when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays each year – to 8.3 million TEU. That was an increase of 8.8 per cent over the same time last year and beat the previous record of 7.7 million TEU set in 2018.

Even with most holiday merchandise already in the country, November imports remained strong at an estimated 2.07 million – a 22.4 per cent jump year-over-year and the fourth-busiest month on record. December is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, up 11 per cent from last year.

As recently as a month ago, 2020 was 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 because of low imports earlier this year. But with the recent string of record months, 2020 is expected to come in at 21.8 million TEU, up 0.8 per cent over 2019. That would tie 2018 as the busiest year on record, the Global Port Tracker report said.

January 2021 is forecast at 1.86 million TEU, up 2.4 per cent from January 2020; February at 1.55 million TEU, up 2.6 per cent year-over-year; March at 1.62 million TEU, up 17.8 per cent from March 2020 – when factories in China failed to reopen after the Lunar New Year holiday – and April at 1.74 million TEU, up 8.3 per cent year-over-year.

With retail sales rebounding strongly due to continued consumer resilience, NRF has forecast that holiday sales during November and December will increase between 3.6 per cent and 5.2 per cent over 2019 to a total between $755.3 billion and $766.7 billion.