Port Tracker report expects high import levels to remain largely intact

United States-bound retail container imports are expected to remain at high, if not record-breaking, levels, driven by the combination of strong consumer demand and ongoing supply chain challenges causing congestion, according to the most recent edition of the Port Tracker report, which was issued today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and maritime consultancy Hackett Associates.

The ports surveyed in the report include: Los Angeles/Long Beach; Oakland; Tacoma; Seattle; Houston; New York/New Jersey; Hampton Roads; Charleston, and Savannah; Miami; Jacksonville; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Port Everglades.

Authors of the report explained that cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them, adding that the amount of merchandise imported provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“Consumers are still spending and the supply chain is still working to keep up,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. “Growth rates have slowed down from the off-the-charts numbers we saw last year, but volume is close to the highest we’ve ever seen. Everyone in the supply chain is trying to reduce congestion, but there is still work to be done. Retailers are also planning for potential additional disruptions this summer from West Coast port labor contract negotiations.”

For January, the most recent month for which data is available, import volume—at 2.16 million TEU (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units)—saw a 3.6% gain over December and was up 5.2% annually.

For the following months, Port Tracker issued the following projections:

  • February, at 2.07 million TEU, for a 10.5% annual increase;
  • March at 2.17 million TEU, for a 4.5% annual decrease;
  • April, at 2.24 million TEU, for a 4.2% annual increase;
  • May, at 2.26 million TEU, for a 3.2% annual decrease;
  • June, at 2.23 million TEU, for a 4% annual increase; and
  • July, at 2.26 million TEU, for a 3% annual increase

Looking at the first half of 2022, Port Tracker expects U.S. ports to handle 13.1 million TEU, which would represent a 2.4% annual increase. Import levels in 2021—at a record 25.8 million TEU—were up 17.4% over the previous records set in 2020, at 22 million TEU.

Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett wrote in the report that there is a good news-bad news scenario playing out as it relates to import levels.

For the former, it is what he called a general sense of optimism in the economy, with consumers dipping in savings accumulated during the pandemic to spend freely, and, for the former, is the ongoing inflation gains that are expected to continue, driven largely by fuel increases. And he also highlighted the ongoing state of port congestion.

“[C]ongestion continues, with ships queuing for berths at multiple ports on both the East and West coasts,” he wrote. “Efforts to alleviate congestion continue, including the development of off-site capacity for containers and Sunday gate hours. The problem remains with the clearance of import containers to their inland destinations while export containers are still being held back due to lack of space at the terminals. Until supply chain problems are sorted out with more drivers, trucks, and inland storage space, we do not expect to see a rapid decline in the backlogs being experienced.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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