“Retail sales are still growing, but the economy is slowing down and that is reflected in cargo imports,” says NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold. “Lower volumes may help ease congestion at some ports, but others are still seeing backups and global supply chain challenges are far from over. Our biggest concern is the potential for disruption because of separate labour negotiations at the West Coast ports and the freight railroads. Concluding both sets of negotiations without disruption is critical as the important holiday season approaches.”

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired 1 July, and many retailers brought in cargo early and shifted to East and Gulf Coast ports to avoid any potential disruptions related to contract negotiations, with early shipments helping drive second-quarter volumes. The freight railroads and their union are now working with a Presidential Emergency Board to resolve their contract discussions, which have been ongoing for two years. In addition, the Port of Oakland was briefly shut down in late July amid protests by independent truckers over a new state law aimed at eliminating independent owner-operators.

“The heady days of growth in imports are quickly receding,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett adds. “The outlook is for a decline in volumes compared with 2021 over the next few months, and the decline is expected to deepen in 2023.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.25m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in June, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 5.9% from May’s 2.4m TEU – the largest number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002 – but up 4.9% year over year.

June’s results brought the first half of the year to 13.5m TEU, a 5.5% increase year over year.

Ports have not yet reported July’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.26m TEU, up 3.2% year over year. August is forecast at 2.2m TEU, down 3%; September at 2.15m TEU, up 0.4%; October at 2.13mTEU, down 3.9%; November at 2.06m TEU, down 2.7%, and December at 2.03m TEU, down 3%.

Those numbers would bring the second half of the year to 12.8m TEU, down 1.5% from the same period last year. But 2022 overall is expected to total 26.3m TEU, up 2% from last year’s annual record of 25.8m TEU.

The cargo data comes as NRF continues to forecast that 2022 retail sales will grow between 6-8% over 2021. Sales were up 7% during the first half of the year.

Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) suggest large-scale suppliers in the wider Asian region are the biggest winners as US fashion companies continue to diversify apparel sourcing away from China.