Import cargo volumes at the country’s busiest container ports should rise steadily this summer but remain well below record levels recorded during the pandemic, the National Retail Federation said on Friday.
“Last spring and summer were the busiest ever as consumers splurged and retailers imported goods to meet demand,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF’s vice president of supply chain and customs policy. “This year will not be repeated, but the numbers we expect would have been considered normal before the pandemic.”
NRF’s Global Port Tracker report shows major US container ports handled 1.55 million TEUs of imports in February, down 14.4% from January and down 26.8% year-on-year. February was the last month for which final figures are available.
February is historically the slowest month of the year, but the number was the lowest since May 2020, when many factories in Asia and most US stores were closed due to the pandemic.
Ports have yet to report figures for March, but Global Port Tracker forecast 1.68 million TEUs for the month, down 28.2% year-on-year. The report estimates that April is forecast at 1.86 million TEU, down 18% YoY, May at 1.91 million TEU, down 20.1%, June at 1.99 million TEU, down 11.8%, July at 2.1 million TEU, down 3.9%, and August at 2.13 million TEU, down 5.9%.
Bigger-than-normal year-on-year declines this year will be distorted by unusually high volumes last year, particularly in the first half. As of 2021, a 20-month import streak of over 2 million TEUs compares to average imports of 1.8 million TEUs per month ahead of the pandemic in 2019. US container imports peaked in May 2022 with an all-time monthly record of 2.4 million TEU will fall below 2 million TEU at its peak in November 2022.
Gold said the priority right now is resolving labor negotiations at West Coast ports that could lead to “self-inflicted supply chain challenges.”
The NRF last month sent a letter signed by 238 national, state and local trade associations to President Biden calling for further government engagement in the West Coast talks. NRF President and CEO Matt Shay also met with Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka to get an update on the status of the negotiations. As workers continue their work, many shippers have shifted their cargo elsewhere to avoid potential disruption.
“Compared to last year, the flow of import containers on the West Coast continues to slow along with demand as airlines increasingly shut down Los Angeles-area ports but expand voyages to other ports of call to offset excess capacity,” said Ben Hackett , founder of Hackett Associates, which makes the Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “Meanwhile, freight rates have been impacted by the fall in demand, but new vessels are emerging and more have been ordered – a sign that shippers expect demand to improve pending delivery of the new vessels.”
Global Port Tracker shows that H1 2023 is forecast at 10.8 million TEU, down 20.2% from H1 2022. Imports for the whole of 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.
The Global Port Tracker covers the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the west coast, and New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Houston on the east coast.