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February 10, 2022

Congested US retail imports to see welcome break

Imports at congested US container ports are expected to grow modestly during the first half of 2022, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

By Beth Wright

Continued high volumes at major retail container ports will, however, keep up the pressure that built last year as the economy bounced back from the pandemic.

“We’re not going to see the dramatic growth in imports we saw this time last year, but the fact that volumes aren’t falling is a clear sign of continued consumer demand,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold. “Last year set a new bar for imports, and the numbers remain high as consumers continue to spend despite Covid-19 and inflation. The slowdown in cargo growth will be welcome as the supply chain continues to try to adapt to these elevated volumes. Unfortunately, many experts expect ongoing disruptions throughout 2022 for a variety of reasons.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker are expected to handle 13m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – during the first half of 2022, up 1.5% over the 12.8m TEU handled during the same period in 2021. By contrast, the first half of 2021 saw a record 35.7% increase over the unusually slow first six months of 2020, when many Asian factories and US stores were shut down because of the pandemic. 

The ports handled 2.09m TEU in December 2021, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 1.2% from November and down 1% year-over-year. Imports for all of 2021 totalled 25.8m TEU, a 17.4% rise over 2020’s record high of 22m TEU that was set despite the pandemic.

Ports have not yet reported January numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.15m TEU, up 4.4% year-over-year. February is forecast at 2.04m TEU, up 8.7%.

Looking further ahead, March is forecast at 2.12m TEU, down 6.7%; April at 2.19m TEU, up 2%; May at 2.27m TEU, down 2.6%; and June at 2.26m TEU, up 5.2%.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett says congestion remains on both coasts and the Port of Los Angeles alone has around 40 ships waiting to dock. As more ships arrive each day and delays mean some cargo won’t get unloaded until the following month, shifts in import patterns could be difficult to follow for the next few months.

“With Lunar New Year factory closings in Asia this month and the consequent drop in export production, North American terminals will have an opportunity to reduce existing congestion,” he notes. “Nonetheless, backups cannot be erased quickly as long as terminals continue to face a lack of space brought on by the supply chain’s inability to efficiently transfer cargo out of the terminals to its end destinations. A shortage of equipment, worker availability and storage space at distribution centers and warehouses across the country remains problematic, as does the export of empty containers back to Asia.”

How to build a stronger and more sustainable supply chain will be addressed as retailers, industry experts and technology innovators meet at the NRF Supply Chain 360 conference in Cleveland in June.

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