Retail Import Constraints Starting to Ease: NRF

By Alan Wolf, YSN

The impact of the global pandemic at major U.S. retail container ports appears to be easing slightly, which is welcome news for inventory-challenged merchants.

According to a new report from the National Retail Federation (NRF), projected imports remain below last year’s levels but not as much as previously reported. “It may still be too soon to say but we’ll take that as a sign that the situation could be slowly starting to improve,” said Jonathan Gold, the NRF’s Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “Consumers want to get back to shopping, and as more people get back to work, retailers want to be sure their shelves are stocked.”

The NRF’s Global Port Tracker report, co-authored by Hackett Associates, shows that U.S. ports handled 1.6 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in April, the most recent month for which data is available. The figure, which reflects the number of 20-foot-long cargo containers unloaded on U.S. shores, is down 7.8 percent from the year-ago period, but up 17 percent from the four-year low seen in March. What’s more, it’s up significantly from the 1.5 million TEU previously projected.

Nevertheless, Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett believes it may be premature to break out the champagne bottles. “Imports are erratic, with one month up and the next down,” he observed. “Getting 40 million people back to work will take time, especially with many fearful of catching the virus and staying home. That makes a rapid return to an economic boom unlikely.”

Indeed, in a recent economic forecast, NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz similarly cautioned that it’s still too early to tell how quickly or smoothly business will bounce back from COVID-related shutdowns.