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Cargo containers pile up at a marine terminal at the Port of Los Angeles.

Cargo containers piled up at a marine terminal at the Port of Los Angeles in March 2022. Photo courtesy Port of Los Angeles

US Container Imports Climbing But Will Stay Well-Below Pandemic Peaks

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 2233
April 7, 2023

Import cargo volume at the nation’s busiest container ports should climb steadily through this summer, but will remain well-below the record-setting levels seen during the pandemic, the National Retail Federation said Friday.

“Last spring and summer were the busiest ever as consumers spent freely and retailers brought in merchandise to meet demand,” said Jonathan Gold NRF’s Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “This year won’t repeat that, but the numbers we’re expecting would have been considered normal before the pandemic.”

The NRF’s Global Port Tracker report shows major U.S. container ports handled 1.55 million TEUs of imports in February, down 14.4% from January and down 26.8% year over year. February was the latest month for which final numbers 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 U.S. stores were closed due to the pandemic.

Ports have not yet reported March numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.68 million TEUs, down 28.2% year over year. The report estimates that April is forecast at 1.86 million TEUs, down 18% from last year, May at 1.91 million TEUs, down 20.1%, June at 1.99 million TEUs, down 11.8%, July at 2.1 million TEUs, down 3.9%, and August at 2.13 million TEUs, down 5.9%.

Larger-than-normal year over year declines this year are skewed by unusually high volumes last year, particularly in the first half. Starting in 2021, a 20-month streak of imports above 2 million TEUs compares to average imports of 1.8 million TEUs per month pre-pandemic in 2019. U.S. container imports peaked at an all-time monthly record of 2.4 million TEU in May 2022 before falling below 2 million TEUs in November 2022.

Gold said the priority at the moment is resolving labor negotiations at the West Coast ports that could create “self-inflicted supply chain challenges.”

The NRF last month sent a letter signed by 238 national, state, and local trade associations to President Biden encouraging further engagement by the administration in the West Coast talks. NRF President and CEO Matt Shay also met with Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka to hear the latest developments regarding the status of negotiations. While workers remain on the job, many shippers have shifted cargo elsewhere to avoid any potential disruption.

“Compared with last year, the flow of import containers on the West Coast continues to decline along with demand as carriers increasingly drop service to Los Angeles-area ports but stretch voyages to include other ports of call to help absorb excess capacity,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates which produces the Global Port Tracker for the NRF. “Meanwhile, freight rates have been impacted by the fall in demand, but new ships are starting to show up and more have been ordered – a sign that carriers expect demand will improve by the time the new vessels are delivered.”

Global Port Tracker shows the first half of 2023 is forecast at 10.8 million TEUs, down 20.2% from the first half of 2022. Imports for all of 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEUs, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEUs 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.

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