containerships anchored off port of los angeles

A record number of cargo container ships wait to unload due to the jammed ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach near Long Beach, California, U.S., September 22, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Retail Imports Remain Near Records, But Could Be Higher Without Port Congestion, NRF Says

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October 8, 2021

Imports through the nation’s top retail containers ports should remain at near-record levels this month, but could be even higher if not for port congestion, the National Retail Federation said this week.

Forecasts for October retail imports are expected to dip slightly this month from last year’s unusually high numbers as congestion slows the movement of backed-up cargo.

“The cargo is there for larger gains at several ports but congestion issues are impacting fluid operations,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy.

U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker handled 2.27 million TEU in August, the latest month for which final numbers are available, which was up 3.5 percent from July and up 7.8 percent from a year earlier. August also tied March as the second-busiest month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. May remains the busiest month on record at 2.33 million TEU.

Ports have not reported September numbers yet, but projections are calling for 2.25 million TEU, which would be up 6.7 percent year-over-year. October is forecast at 2.21 million TEU, down 0.3 percent year-over-year, but still the sixth-busiest month on record as imports remain high. The year-over-year decline would be the first since July 2020.

“Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse with the logistics supply chain, we’ve been proven wrong,” said Ben Hackett, Founder of Hackett Associates which produces the Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “From power outages and port shutdowns in Asia to backed-up ships and shortages of truck drivers in the United States, there are few positive signs that the movement of consumer goods or the supply of inputs needed for industrial production is getting better.”

Hackett said COVID-19 infections in Asia have slowed the loading of U.S.-bound ships, while shortages of equipment, labor and outbound truck and rail capacity have continued to build congestion at U.S. ports. Close to 75 ships were waiting at anchor to enter the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in September, up from around 25 a month earlier, and backups have spread to East Coast ports as well.

The congestion and disruption come in the middle of the “peak season” for shipping when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year, but many retailers began bringing in holiday goods early to be sure sufficient inventory will be available.

“Ships will eventually get unloaded but the pressure is on for everyone to work together to get the containers out as quickly as possible,” said the NRF’s Gold. “Retailers are doing whatever it takes to make sure shelves are well-stocked for the holidays, from bringing in merchandise earlier to chartering their own ships. Consumers should be able to find what they need, but it’s always safer to shop early than wait until the last minute.”

Looking ahead, retail imports are expected to remain elevated until at least February.

November is forecast at 2.16 million TEU, which would be up 2.9 percent year-over-year, and December is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, down 0.2 percent. January 2022 is forecast at 2.17 million TEU, up 5.7 percent from January 2021, and February 2022 is forecast at 1.9 million TEU, up 1.4 percent year-over-year.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 26 million TEU, up 18.1 percent over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

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