Stacked containers are shown as ships unload their cargo at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

U.S. Retail Imports Set Another Record Heading Into Peak Season

Mike Schuler
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July 12, 2022

Retail imports set another record high this spring as the nation’s major container ports worked to reduce congestion and retailers stocked up before dockworkers’ West Coast labor contract expired, the National Retail Federation said in its latest monthly ports report.

“Cargo volume is expected to remain high as we head into the peak shipping season, and it is essential that all ports continue to operate with minimal disruption,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the NRF. “Supply chain challenges will continue throughout the remainder of the year, and it is particularly important that labor and management at West Coast ports remain at the bargaining table and reach an agreement.”

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired July 1, but cargo operations are continuing unimpeded as of now. The NRF and more than 150 groups wrote to President Biden asking the administration to work with both sides to avoid disruption as negotiations continue past the expiry of the current labor contract covering some 22,000 West Coast dockworkers.

Ports saw a surge in activity this spring as a slowdown in cargo from Chinese factories closed by COVID-19 gave them a chance to clear built-up congestion, while retailers bringing in seasonal merchandise and importing other goods early to avoid any problems related to the contract negotiations may have also contributed to volume, according to the NRF.

“Congestion of ships waiting to berth on the West Coast has eased, and we expect to see the same on the East Coast as carriers begin to return to their normal patterns of port calls,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates which produces the Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “After a short period of decline, freight rates are on the rise again as congestion in Europe and idle vessels there take capacity out of circulation.”

U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker handled 2.4 million TEUs in May, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 6 percent from April and up 2.7 percent year over year. It also set a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 2.34 million TEU this March.

Ports should begin reporting June numbers any day now, but Global Port Tracker projects the month at 2.25 million TEU, up 4.8 percent from the same month last year. That would bring the first half of the year to 13.5 million TEU, a 5.4 percent increase year over year.

July is forecast at 2.31 million TEU, up 5.3 percent from last year, and would be the fourth-busiest month on record. August is forecast at 2.26 million TEU, down 0.5 percent year over year; September at 2.12 million TEU, down 0.8 percent; October also at 2.12 million TEU, down 4.1 percent, and November at 2.06 million TEU, down 2.5 percent.

The year-over-year declines during the second half of the year contrast with unusually high numbers during the same period in 2021, but volumes remain high, and the full year is still expected to see a net increase over 2021, according to the NRF. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.

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