Aerial top view container ship

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U.S. Retail Imports Continue to Slow as Busy Holiday Season Ramps Up

Mike Schuler
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November 8, 2022

Retail imports through the nation’s top container ports have continued to slow from records set earlier this year, with retailers well stocked for what is expected to be a record holiday shopping season, the National Retail Federation said Tuesday.

“Cargo levels that historically peak in the fall peaked in the spring this year as retailers concerned about port congestion, port and rail labor negotiations and other supply chain issues stocked up far in advance of the holidays,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said. “With a rail strike possible this month, there are still challenges in the supply chain, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already on hand and retailers are well prepared to meet demand.”

While consumers are still buying more, demand has fallen from peak consumption during the height of the pandemic, according to Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett.

“We expect the flattening of demand that began around the middle of this year to continue into the first half of 2023,” Hackett said. “This will depress the volume of imports, which has already declined in recent months. Carriers have begun to pull services and are looking at laying up ships.”

The monthly Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates a steady decline continuing after May’s record 2.4 million TEUs.

Ports processed 2.03 million TEU in September, the latest month for which final numbers are available, down 10.2% from August and down 4.9% from September 2021. Ports have not yet reported October’s numbers, but the month is projected at 2.02 million TEU, down 8.5% year over year. November is forecast at 1.92 million TEU, down 9.2% year over year and the lowest number since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021, the last time the monthly total fell below 2 million TEU. December is expected to drop to 1.9 million TEU, down 9% year over year.

The slowdown comes after a busy start to this year as retails brought in cargo earlier to avoid peaking shipping season problems. The first half of 2022 totaled 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5% increase year over year. The forecast for the remainder of the year would bring the second half to 12.3 million TEU, down 5.3% year over year. Look at the full year, 2022 is expected to total 25.86 million TEU, about equal to last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEU.

The new data comes as NRF forecasts that 2022 holiday retail sales will grow between 6% and 8% over 2021’s record, even with recent inflationary challenges, to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion.

It seems the days pandemic growth in imports are firmly in the rear-view. The NRF forecasts January 2023 at 1.98 million TEU, down 8.4% from January 2022. February is forecast at 1.71 million TEU, down 19.1% from unusually high numbers last year, when backed-up cargo kept congested U.S. ports busy despite the annual Lunar New Year shutdown of Asian factories. With most congestion issues continuing to ease, February 2023 is expected to be the slowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020. March 2023 is forecast at 1.99 million TEU, which would be an improvement from February but down 15.2% year-over-year.

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