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Retail Imports Improving Slightly, But Retailers Still Cautious

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U.S. container import volumes are expected to remain significantly below last year's levels into this fall due to the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation or NRF and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

According to the Global Part Tracker, the U.S. ports surveyed in the report handled 1.53 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units or TEU in May, the latest month for which figures are available.

The May number represents a 4.8 percent decrease from the preceding month of April and represents a 17.2 percent decrease year-over-year.

"Economic indicators show that the recession brought on by the pandemic may be easing, but retailers are being conservative with the amount of merchandise they import this year," said Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy.

Gold added that while the outlook for imports was slowly improving, the figures are still some of the lowest numbers seen in years.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett noted that renewed restrictions due to the rising number of virus infections might cause demand to weaken again.

For June, the container import volumes are estimated by the report to be 1.69 million TEU, down 5.8 percent year-over-year. The projected number for U.S. retail imports in July, August and September are down in double-digits from the prior-year period.

The estimated number for October is 1.7 million TEU, down 9.9 percent from last year.

The report noted that while October is likely to be the busiest month of the traditional July-to-October 'peak season' for shipping, that month's projected figure would be the lowest peak since the 1.61 million TEU in September 2014.

Imports to the U.S. usually trail off in November and December after the bulk of holiday merchandise has arrived in October.

For the first half of 2020, container import volumes are now projected by the report to decline 9.3 percent from the year-ago period to 9.5 million TEU. However, the figure represents an improvement over the 10 percent decline expected a month ago.

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Port Tracker had estimated imports for the first half of the year to be 10.47 million TEU.

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