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Imports Headed to Lowest Level Since Early 2021

Imports at the nation’s major container ports are expected to fall to their lowest level in nearly two years by the end of 2022 though retail sales continue to grow, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Jonathan Gold
Jonathan Gold

“The holiday season has already started for some shoppers and, thanks to pre-planning, retailers have plenty of merchandise on hand to meet demand,” said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “Many retailers brought in merchandise early this year to beat rising inflation and ongoing supply chain disruption issues. Despite the lower volumes, retailers are still experiencing challenges along the supply chain, including US ports and intermodal rail yards.”

“The growth in US import volume has run out of steam, especially for cargo from Asia,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett. “Recent cuts in carriers’ shipping capacity reflect falling demand for merchandise from well-stocked retailers even as consumers continue to spend. Meanwhile, the closure of factories during China’s October Golden Week holiday along with the Chinese government’s continuing Zero Covid policy have impacted production, reducing demand for shipping capacity from that side of the Pacific as well.”

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US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.26 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU)—one 20-foot container or its equivalent—in August, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 3.5 percent from July but down 0.4 percent from August 2021.

Ports have not yet reported September’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.07 million TEU, down 3 percent year-over-year. October is forecast at 2 million TEU, down 9.4 percent year-over-year; November at 2.01 million TEU, down 4.9 percent, and December at 1.96 million TEU, down 6.1 percent. The December number would be the lowest since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021, which was the last time the monthly total fell below 2 million TEU.

The first half of the year totaled 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5 percent increase year-over-year. The forecast for the remainder of the year would bring the second half to 12.5 million TEU, down 4 percent year-over-year. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 26 million TEU, up 0.7 percent from last year’s annual record of 25.8 million TEU.

Imports are expected to bounce back briefly in January 2023, which is forecast at 2.06 million TEU, but that would be down 4.9 percent from January 2022. February is forecast at 1.8 million TEU, down 15 percent from last year as the month returns to its usual slowdown because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia. Numbers remained high despite the holiday last year because of backed-up cargo that kept congested ports busy during the month.

The cargo data comes as NRF forecasts that 2022 retail sales will grow between 6 percent and 8 percent over 2021. Sales were up 7.5 percent during the first eight months of the year.

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Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the US ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami, and Jacksonville on the East Coast; and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

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