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Container vessel approaching the terminal at the Port of Savannah, Georgia

Container vessel approaching the terminal at the Port of Savannah, Georgia. Photo credit: Ungureanu Catalina Oana /

NRF Says U.S. Container Imports Starting to Wind Down

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 1088
November 8, 2023

Inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to slow during the remainder of 2023 after surpassing the 2 million TEU mark for the first time this year in September, according to the Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

The NRF says the slowdown comes as most imported holiday season merchandise has already arrived ahead of what’s expected to be a record holiday shopping season in the U.S. The world’s largest retail trade organization is forecasting record holiday sales and growth between 3% and 4% over last year, in line with pre-pandemic holiday growth rates. This would push holiday sales to $966 billion, easily topping the current record of $929 billion set last year.

The Global Port Tracker report showed that US ports handled 2.03 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in September, a slight decrease of 0.2% compared to the same period last year. However, it marked a 3.5% increase from August, making it the busiest month of the year so far.

Looking ahead, the report projected a decline in imports for October, with an estimated 1.92 million TEU, down 4.2% year over year. November is forecasted to see a 5.8% increase from the same period last year, reaching 1.88 million TEU, which would be the first year-over-year gain since June 2022. December is expected to have a year-over-year increase of 6.8%, with imports reaching 1.85 million TEU.

The forecast comes as Descartes Systems Group reported yesterday that U.S. container import volumes continued to rise in October contrary to the usual pre-pandemic peak season decline that typically begins in August. In fact, October import volumes were up nearly 5% over September and 4% year-over-year.

Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, is confident in the retail sector’s ability to meet the anticipated demand. “Retailers expect record-setting sales during the holiday sales season this year, and they have their shelves stocked to meet demand whether it’s in stores or at distribution centers to fulfill online orders.”

Despite the expected slowdown in imports for the remainder of 2023, Ben Hackett, Founder of Hackett Associates, highlighted the relatively better economic conditions in the U.S. compared to Europe and Asia.

“U.S. consumers stand out in the global economy as they continue to benefit from job and wage growth and are still able to dip into savings accumulated during the pandemic,” Hackett said. “While U.S. consumers are doing well, a global recession in cargo trade could potentially affect the supply chain.”

The NRF forecast for early 2024 indicates a 3.7% year-over-year increase in imports for January, reaching 1.87 million TEU. February is expected to have a significant year-over-year increase of 11.1%, reaching 1.72 million TEU, despite being historically slow due to Lunar New Year factory shutdowns. March is projected to continue the positive trend with a 6.5% year-over-year increase, reaching 1.73 million TEU.

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