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U.S. ports busier than ever as East-West shipping rebounds

Justin Ho Sep 9, 2020
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Containers are offloaded at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest port which was relatively quiet during the early months of the pandemic. Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

U.S. ports busier than ever as East-West shipping rebounds

Justin Ho Sep 9, 2020
Heard on:
Containers are offloaded at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest port which was relatively quiet during the early months of the pandemic. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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The pandemic and trade tensions slowed global trade to a crawl earlier this year. So it may be kind of surprising to learn that in the last few months, imports to the U.S. have been surging. A report out today from the National Retail Federation states import volumes may have hit record levels in August.

This year, the Port of Los Angeles went from handling the lowest container volumes it had seen in over a decade to taking in near-record levels of imports.

“August will be one of the best months we’ve had in our port’s history,” said Gene Seroka, the port’s executive director. “And September, right now, is looking to be looking very strong as well, from our forward indications.”

That’s because supply chains have started to come back. Big-box retailers are restocking shelves. Plus online shopping jumped over 30% in the second quarter.

“So those inventories have to be replenished,” Seroka said.

People have also been buying a lot of bulky items to set up home offices — desks, chairs and computer monitors. And that filled a lot of shipping containers, too.

Jonathan Gold follows supply chain policy for the National Retail Federation. He said this is also the time of year when retailers start preparing for the holiday season, when, during normal times, we buy each other a lot of stuff.

“Whether it’s apparel, consumer electronics, furniture, home goods, toys: all that comes from the Asia market,” Gold said. 

But these are not normal times. 

Dale Rogers, a professor of supply chain management at Arizona State University, said by building up their inventories, stores are betting that the consumer will feel comfortable buying things this holiday season.

“There’s a belief that the consumer is going to be there, ” Rogers said. “But they’re not necessarily there yet.”

Still, consumers have fewer ways to spend their money this year. Travel is still difficult, and restaurants have limited capacity. 

Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University, said for those who have a holiday budget, “people have to spend their money on something.”

Prasad said when we can’t spend much on experiences and other services, we’re likely to spend more on goods.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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