COVID-19 to weigh on U.S. seaport peak shipping season

FILE PHOTO: Containers are seen on a shipping dock, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in the Port of Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Imports at major U.S. container seaports could hit their lowest level in four years as the novel coronavirus pandemic pummels a U.S. economy that was already grappling with negative effects of the U.S.-China trade war, experts said.

Total container imports could fall 9.4% in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates’ Global Port Tracker report.

That reflects pain in the U.S. retail sector, which is smarting from government-mandated store closures and bracing for fallout from the recent expiration of a supplemental $600 weekly unemployment benefit that put $18 billion into the U.S. economy each week. AMZN.O, Walmart WMT.N and other retailers have begun bringing in inventory for the vital winter holiday season. August is forecast to be the busiest month of the peak ocean shipping season that stretches from July to October.

“Retailers are being careful not to import more than they can sell. ... This is not the year to be left with warehouses full of unsold merchandise,” NRF Vice President Jonathan Gold said.

U.S. seaborne imports dropped 3.9% year-over-year in July, the slowest rate of decline this year. At the same time, month-over-month imports increased 16%, marking the fastest start to the peak shipping season since 2007, according to Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Home furnishing imports were up 12.8% versus July 2019, while home appliances jumped 33.8%, and home/personal care products surged 48.9%, Panjiva’s analysis showed.

“There are signs of prepping for the year-end holiday season,” Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, the No. 1 gateway for sea trade with China, said on Thursday. “The upticks are modest” as some busy retailers restock.”

Port of Los Angeles imports fell 4.3% in July and remain down 15% year-to-date.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler