While retailers anticipate a busy holiday season over the next two months, imports at the nation’s major container ports are expected to continue to slow from records that were set earlier in the year, according to the Global Port Tracker report released this week by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“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,” says Jonathan Gold, NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy. “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.”
Consumers are still buying more, but demand has fallen from peak consumption during the height of the pandemic, notes Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates.
“We expect the flattening of demand that began around the middle of this year to continue into the first half of 2023,” says Hackett. “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.”
U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a record 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, but volume has seen a mostly steady decline since then.
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 Global Port Tracker projects the month 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 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. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 25.86 million TEU, barely changed from last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEU.
January 2023 is forecast 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, the month is expected to be the slowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020. March is forecast at 1.99 million TEU, which would be an improvement from February but down 15.2% year-over-year.
The cargo data comes as NRF forecasts that 2022 holiday retail sales will grow between 6% and 8% over 2021 to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion.