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U.S. Imports Ramp Up As Retailers Prepare For Holiday Season

Imports through U.S. seaports increased significantly in July, and they are on track for a record-setting August as retailers prepare for the upcoming holiday season, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation.

U.S. seaports handled 1.92 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units in July, the most recent monthly data available. That was down by 2.3% from a year ago, but up by 19.3% from June. A TEU is a 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

Global Port Tracker is produced for NRP by consulting firm Hackett Associates, and provides historical data and forecasts for U.S. seaports along the east, west and Gulf coasts.

Though final numbers won’t be available until September, Hackett Associates estimates that 2.06 million TEU were handled in August, a 6% year-over-year increase. That volume would represent an all-time high, beating the previous record of 2.04 million TEU set in October 2018.

Imports usually experience a “peak season” from July to October, as retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the traditional U.S. winter holiday season. If the forecast 7.58 million TEU are accurate, 2020 will be the third-busiest peak season on record, following 7.7 million TEU in 2018 and 7.66 million TEU in 2019.

NRP and Hackett Associates estimates suggest imports may lose strength as the end of the year approaches. September is forecast at 1.89 million TEU, up 1.1% year-over year; October is forecast at 1.71 million TEU, down 9.2% year-over-year; November at 1.58 million TEU, down 6.8% year-over-year; and December at 1.53 million TEU, down 11% year-over-year.

If accurate, those numbers would bring 2020 to a total of 20.1 million TEU, a drop of 6.7% from last year and the lowest annual total since 19.1 million TEU in 2016.

U.S. seaport activity is tied to the industrial real estate market, as imported goods flow into warehouse and distribution facilities around the country. The disruption of China’s manufacturing industry at the beginning of the year led to a decline in U.S. imports, drastically reducing import-driven leasing and sales activity during the second quarter. 

As the flow of goods has begun to ramp up again, the sector has seen exponential growth in demand for industrial properties, driven by e-commerce, grocery and logistics.