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US Retailers Predict Strong Import Growth Through Q1 2021

With imports continuing to exceed expectations and showing no signs of slowing, US retailers are now predicting year-over-year monthly growth in imports will continue at least through April.


Forces driving that growth include relatively low inventory-to-sales ratios, and the need to rapidly replace inventories due to relentless consumer demand for merchandise purchased online and delivered the next day.


“The dramatic shift to online shopping coupled with the expectations 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,” Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates, said in a statement accompanying the Global Port Tracker. Hackett Associates publishes the Tracker each month with the National Retail Federation (NRF).


Imports needed to fill demand for online shopping added to already strong demand for holiday merchandise this peak season. The Global Port Tracker, released Wednesday, forecasts holiday sales in November and December will increase between 3.6 percent and 5.2 percent over the 2019 holiday season to more than $7.5 billion. This comes as the national inventory-to-sales ratio is 1.22, down from 1.68 in April, the Tracker said.


“Retailers have seen a successful holiday season so far, and goods are reaching the shelves,” Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy, said in the statement.


The explosion of imports this summer that followed the collapse of the import market in the first half of the year amid COVID-19 lock downs has retailers now changing their forecast for imports from negative to positive growth in 2020. The November Global Port Tracker had forecast that imports this year would decline 3.4 percent from 2019, but on Wednesday the forecast was changed to an increase of 0.8 percent over 2019.


Also, Global Port Tracker estimates that imports during the peak shipping season of July through October will increase 8.8 percent from peak season 2019 and beat the previous record set in the 2018 peak season.


Retailers project that year-over-year monthly import growth will continue beyond the Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia that begin Feb. 12. After imports in December increase a projected 11 percent over December 2019, Global Port Tracker forecasts that imports will rise 2.4 percent in January, 2.6 percent in February, 17.8 percent in March, and 8.3 percent in April on a year-over-year basis. The publication did not forecast imports beyond April.


Non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOs) have told the Journal of Commerce (JOC.com) imports will likely remain strong beyond April and possibly through peak season 2021. Jon Monroe, who serves as a consultant to NVOs, said merchandise imports for spring 2021 are already entering US ports, and NVOs are making bookings four weeks out, which is unusual.


“I think this will last at minimum until June, and maybe for all of 2021,” he told JOC.com Tuesday.


Paul Bingham, director of transportation consulting at IHS Markit, parent company of JOC.com, told a virtual conference Tuesday sponsored by the Agriculture Transportation Coalition that US gross domestic product is forecast to grow 4.3 percent in 2021 after declining 3.4 percent this year, and that will result in greater import volumes. GTA Forecasting, part of IHS Markit, predicts US imports from Asia in 2021 will increase 6.4 percent year over year.


Monroe said the more extreme peaks and valleys in the trans-Pacific may be flattening out. The spikes in import volumes during the holiday, pre-Lunar New Year, and back-to-school shipping seasons, and the lulls during the winter and early spring months, may merge into a continuous stream of US imports at elevated levels year-round, Monroe said.

Source: Journal of Commerce