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March 9, 2022

Near-record US retail import levels expected as congestion continues

Imports at major US retail container ports are expected to be at near-record levels this spring and summer as consumer demand and supply chain challenges continue to result in congestion.

By Beth Wright

“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 says. “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 labour contract negotiations.”

NRF recently sent a letter urging the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association to begin contract negotiations well before their 1 July contract expiration to avoid any delay in reaching a settlement and additional congestion that might result.

“Congestion continues on both coasts, with ships queuing for berths at multiple ports,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett says. “Problems remain with clearing 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.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.16m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in January, the latest month for which final numbers are available, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released yesterday by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.. It was up 3.6% from December and up 5.2% year-over-year.

Ports have not yet reported February numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.07m TEU, up 10.5% year-over-year. March is forecast at 2.17m TEU, down 4.5% year-over-year; April at 2.24m TEU, up 4.25; and May at 2.26m TEU, down 3.2%.

Looking further ahead, June is forecast at 2.23m TEU, up 4%, and July at 2.26m TEU, up 3%.

Many of those monthly totals will come close to the record of 2.33m TEU that was set in May 2021, which was up more than 50% year-over-year because of the shutdown of stores and overseas factories in the spring of 2020.

The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.1m TEU, up 2.4% year-over-year. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8m TEU, a 17.4% increase over 2020’s record high of 22m TEU that was set despite the pandemic.

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