With a pandemic-driven surge finally over, monthly import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports has fallen below the 2m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units mark– one 20-foot container or its equivalent – and should remain there through most of this spring, according to the Global Port Tracker report released by The National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Ports have been stretched to their limits and beyond but are getting a break as consumer demand moderates amid continued inflation and high interest rates,” said NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “Consumers are still spending and volumes remain high, but we’re not seeing the congestion at the docks and ships waiting to unload that were widespread this time a year ago. It’s good to escape some of the pressure, but it’s important to use this time to address supply chain challenges that still need to be resolved like finalising the West Coast port labour contract.”

Imports plummeted to a four-year low of 1.37m TEU in March 2020 as the pandemic prompted the temporary shutdown of much of the nation’s economy. But cargo soared after the shutdowns ended and pent-up consumer demand was unleashed that summer, topping 2m TEU by that August and staying there all but one month until this winter.

“After nearly three years of Covid-19’s impact on global trade and consumer demand, import patterns appear to be returning to what was normal prior to 2020,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said. “Nonetheless, as inflation eases and consumer spending returns, we project that growth will slowly return going into the second half of the year.”

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.78m TEU this November, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 11.3% from October and down 15.8% from November 2021. It was the lowest total since 1.87m TEU in February 2021, which had been the only month in over two years to fall below 2m TEU.

Ports have not yet reported December numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.88m TEU, down 10.1% year over year. That would bring 2022 – which repeatedly broke monthly records in the first half of the year but saw significant drops in the second half – to an annual total of 25.7m TEU, down 0.7% from the annual record of 25.8m TEU set in 2021.

Despite the slowdown in cargo, retail sales are on track to meet NRF’s forecast of 6% to 8% growth over 2021 for both the full year and the holiday season when December’s sales numbers are released next week.

January is forecast at 1.91m TEU, down 11.5% year over year. February is forecast at 1.63m TEU, the lowest since 1.61m TEU in June 2020 and a 23% drop from last year, when backed-up cargo kept congested ports busy. March is forecast at 1.75m TEU, down 25.5% year over year; April at 1.94m, down 14.5%, and May at 2m TEU, down 16.2%.