Major US retail container ports have begun to catch up with the backlog of cargo seen over the past several months but could experience another surge this summer.

The latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates says US ports handled 2.11m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in February, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 2.3% from January but up 13% year-over-year.

“As we entered 2022, the biggest question was when the supply chain would return to normal,” NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, Jonathan Gold says. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have a definitive answer. Congestion at West Coast ports has eased, but congestion at some East Coast ports is growing. Ports aren’t as overwhelmed as they were a year ago, but they are still significantly busy moving near-record volumes of cargo.”

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett adds volumes remained high in February despite factories in parts of Asia closing for the Lunar New Year holiday because US ports were able to handle cargo from ships already waiting for a berth.

“With West Coast ports still congested, there were still plenty of containers to be unloaded,” Hackett notes.

Similarly, the current near-shutdown of Shanghai because of Covid-19 precautions means fewer ships are leaving China and “the wait on that side of the Pacific will help reduce the pressure of vessel arrivals at Los Angeles-area terminals.”

An influx of vessel arrivals following the resumption of normal operations in China could result in renewed congestion at US ports, however.

Ports have not yet reported March numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.27m TEU, unchanged from the same month last year. April is forecast at 2.13m TEU, down 1.1% from last year, and May at 2.21m TEU, down 5.3% year-over-year.

Increases are expected to resume in June, which is forecast at 2.26m TEU, up 5.2% year-over-year. July is forecast at 2.32m TEU, up 5.6%, and August at 2.35m TEU, a 3.3% year-over-year rise that would set a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. The current record is 2.33m TEU in May 2021.

The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.1m TEU, up 2.5% year-over-year. Imports for all of 2021 totalled 25.8m TEU, a 17.4% rise over 2020’s previous annual record of 22m TEU.

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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