WASHINGTON – Retailers replenishing inventories and stocking up for holiday season sales have imports on track for their busiest peak season on record during this year’s summer and fall.

That is according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report from National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

The likely peak season record includes a record 2.11 million twenty-foot-equivalent units 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% higher than August’s previous record of 2.1 million TEUs for the largest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

“Peak season is the super bowl 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.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled an estimated 8.1 million TEUs 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% over last year and would beat the previous record of 7.7 million TEUs set in 2018.

October imports were estimated at 2 million TEUs, up 6.5% 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 TEUs, up 0.2% year-over-year, and December is forecast at 1.58 million TEUs, down 8.2% from last year.

“As we near the end of a difficult year in terms of health, trade and politics, we have witnessed record-breaking statistics that have been virtually unpredictable,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. “Imports hit all-time highs this summer and online shopping did the same. Whether similar patterns will continue in the coming months will be influenced to a large extent by the coronavirus pandemic and whether it will be brought under control by the arrival of expected vaccines next year.”

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

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

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.

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