As the U.S. economy continues to reopen and retailers stock up for the holiday season, imports at the nation’s ports surged to unexpected high levels this summer and may even have hit a new record, according to the the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The numbers were a surprise after the NRF said last month that imports at major U.S. retail container ports during 2020 were expected to see their lowest total in four years, under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, U.S. ports handled 1.92 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in July, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was down 2.3% year-over-year but up 19.3% from June and significantly higher than the 1.76 million TEU forecast a month ago.

The statistics come from the monthly “Global Port Tracker” report generated by the NRF and consulting firm Hackett Associates. The report provides data on the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

“It’s important to be careful how much to read into these numbers after all we’ve seen this year, but retailers are importing far more merchandise for the holidays than we expected even a month ago,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “Some of these imports are helping replenish inventories that started to run low after consumers unleashed pent-up demand when stores reopened. But this is the clearest sign yet that we could be in for a much happier holiday season than many had thought.”

The report now forecasts 7.58 million TEU during the July-October “peak season” when retailers rush to bring in merchandise for the winter holidays, which would make 2020 the third-busiest peak season on record, following 7.7 million TEU in 2018 and 7.66 million TEU last year. If that prediction is born out, the statistics would bring 2020 to a total of 20.1 million TEU, a drop of 6.7% from last year and still the lowest annual total since 19.1 million TEU in 2016. The first half of 2020 totaled 9.5 million TEU, down 10.6% from last year.

In another sign of optimism about the coming peak season, transportation and logistics giant UPS Inc. today said it plans to hire over 100,000 seasonal employees to support the anticipated annual increase in package volume that will begin in October 2020 and continue through January 2021. Despite the economic impact of the pandemic in 2020, that would be about the same number it hired last year for the peak surge.

Other private sector logistics companies have also increased their hiring and technology investments in recent weeks. Last month, third party logistics provider (3PL) DHL Supply Chain said it would hire 7,000 workers through the end of 2020 to meet an anticipated surge in demand in the fourth quarter.

And today, that firm’s sister division, DHL eCommerce Solutions, said it plans to spend $30 million in 2020 to expand and modernize its U.S. operations. The company said it will fill 900 new jobs, invest in automation equipment, and purchase its first fully-owned move-in-ready U.S. DC, as well as temporary DC space in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Avenel, New Jersey.

“It is an extremely proud moment for us to move to our first fully-owned U.S. building located in Atlanta,” DHL eCommerce Solutions Americas CEO Lee Spratt said in a release. “Our expansion plans have been in the works for some time, but with this year’s consistent surge in e-commerce volumes, we understood the urgency of finalizing our plans to have a permanent home in the Atlanta area and additional space in strategic metropolitan U.S. locations.”

Located near Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, the new site will process domestic lightweight parcels, deploying a sorting machine that can handle 20,000-30,000 parcels per hour. “At DHL eCommerce Solutions, we expect to see 30-50% more e-commerce volumes this holiday peak season compared to last season, so we have made the necessary investments in our footprint, machinery, and people to be ready to serve our customers and make this season a success,” Spratt said.


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