Imports slow as holiday season intensifies

Imports at U.S. container ports continue to slow from records set earlier in 2022, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker* report published by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“Freight levels that historically peaked in the fall peaked in the spring of this year, as retailers concerned about port congestion, port and rail labor negotiations and other supply chain issues ‘supply stocked up well ahead of the holidays,’ said NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, Jonathan Gold said. “With a possible rail strike this month, there are still challenges in the supply chain, but the majority of holiday merchandise is already available and retailers are well prepared to meet demand.”

As consumers continue to spend, Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said demand has fallen from peak consumption at the height of the pandemic.

“We expect the flattening of demand that started around the middle of this year to continue into the first half of 2023,” Hackett said. “This will depress the volume of imports, which has already declined in recent months. Carriers have started withdrawing services and are considering laying up ships.

US ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled a record 2.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units, a 20-foot container or its equivalent, in May, but the volume has been steadily declining.

Ports handled 2.03 million TEUs in September, the latest month for which final figures are available, down 10.2% from August and 4.9% from September 2021.

U.S. ports did not report October numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.02 million TEUs, down 8.5% year-over-year. November is forecast at 1.92 million TEUs, down 9.2% year-on-year and the lowest number since 1.87 million TEUs in February 2021, the last time the monthly total fell below 2 million TEUs. December is expected to fall to 1.9 million TEUs, down 9% year-on-year.
The first half of 2022 totaled 13.5 million TEUs, a 5.5% year-over-year increase. Forecasts for the rest of 2022 would put the second half at 12.3 million TEUs, down 5.3% year-on-year. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 25.86 million TEUs, barely changing from last year’s annual record of 25.84 million TEUs.

January 2023 is forecast at 1.98 million TEUs, down 8.4% from January 2022. February is forecast at 1.71 million TEUs, down 19.1% from unusually highs of 2021, when freight clogged U.S. ports despite the closure of Asian factories for the Lunar New Year. With most congestion issues easing, the month is expected to be the slowest since 1.61m TEUs in June 2020. March is forecast at 1.99m TEUs, an improvement from February but down 15.2% year-on-year.

The freight data comes as NRF forecast the 2022 holiday retail season would rise between 6% and 8% from 2021 to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion.

*Global Port Tracker, produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical and forecast data for the US ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Port of Virginia, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.

Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle, WA

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