Coronavirus Expected to Slow U.S. Imports Through April

New NRF report finds a 'longer and larger impact' than forecast

giant cranes in a shipping port
New estimates say retailers may face challenges until mid-2020. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

Key insights:

The National Retail Federation now expects the coronavirus outbreak will have a “longer and larger impact” than previously estimated on incoming goods at 11 major U.S. ports, as factory shutdowns and travel restrictions in China continue.

Last month, the NRF forecast that imports would be back to normal in April. Now, the trade group says that won’t likely happen until May.

That’s according to a new report from the NRF with data and forecasts for the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland, Calif.; Seattle/Tacoma; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Virginia; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Florida’s Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville.

The report found these U.S. ports handled 1.82 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), or one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent, in January 2020. That was up 5.7% from December 2019, but down 3.8% from a year ago.

February 2020 was estimated to be 1.42 million TEU, which is down 12.6% from 2019 and significantly lower than the 1.54 million TEU forecast before the coronavirus began impacting imports.

March 2020 is estimated to be 1.32 million TEU, which is down 18.3% from 2019—and also down from the 1.7 million TEU forecast before the virus.

April 2020, which the NRF had not previously expected to be affected, is now forecast to come in at 1.68 million TEU, down 3.5% from 2019 and lower than the 1.82 million TEU forecast last month.

In a separate survey of its members, the NRF said 40% of respondents said they are seeing disruptions to their supply chains, and another 26% expect to see disruptions as the situation continues.

“There are still a lot of unknowns to fully determine the impact of the coronavirus on the supply chain,” said NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold in a statement. “As factories in China continue to come back online, products are now flowing again. But there are still issues affecting cargo movement, including the availability of truck drivers to move cargo to Chinese ports. Retailers are working with both their suppliers and transportation providers to find paths forward to minimize disruption.”

Based on current estimates, the NRF said everything should be back to normal by May 2020: According to the report, imports will jump to 2.02 million TEU that month, which marks a 9.3% increase year-over-year, based on the assumption that most factories in China will have resumed production and will be trying to make up for lower volume.

June is forecast to bring in 1.97 million TEU, up 9.6% year-over-year, and July is forecast at 2.03 million TEU, up 3.3% year-over-year.

Last year’s imports totaled 21.6 million TEU, which was a 0.8% decrease from 2018 as a result of the ongoing trade war, but was still the second-highest year on record, according to the NRF.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.