The Global Port Tracker from NRF and Hackett Associates notes that while monthly cargo numbers for the US repeatedly broke previous records this spring before hitting a new all-time high of 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, volume has fallen since and Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said current lower imports are the result of retailers balancing inventory built up earlier against slowing consumer demand and expectations for 2023.

“Key indicators point the way to a robust economy,” Hackett said, referring to recent increases in retail sales, employment and gross domestic product despite high inflation and interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. “Yet the volume of imported container cargo at the ports we cover has declined, and the next six months will see further declines to a level not seen for some time.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2 million TEU in October, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 1.3% from September and down 9.3% from October 2021.

Earlier, data from the US Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) revealed apparel imports fell 22% year-on-year during the month of October. While retailers reduce their leverage on China, they are yet to diversify from Asia altogether.

Ports have not yet reported November’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.85 million TEU, down 12.3% year over year. That would be the lowest since 1.87 million TEU in February 2021. December is forecast at 1.94 million TEU, down 7.2% year over year.

Those numbers would bring 2022 to 25.81 million TEU, down just 0.1% from last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEU.

January 2023 is forecast at 1.97 million TEU, down 8.8% from January 2022. February is forecast at 1.67 million TEU, the lowest since 1.61 million TEU in June 2020 and a 20.9% drop from last year, when backed-up cargo kept congested ports busy. March is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, down 18.6% year-over-year, and April is forecast at 1.95 million, down 13.8%.

“Retailers are in the middle of the annual holiday frenzy but ports are headed into their winter lull after one of the busiest and most challenging years we’ve ever seen,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “We’ve dodged a rail strike and the retail supply chain should be able to easily handle the remaining weeks of the holiday season. But it’s time to settle on a labour contract for West Coast ports and address other supply chain issues that remain so the lull doesn’t become the calm before a storm.”