Retailers Expect Summer Import Wave to Arrive at U.S. Ports
After a leveling off of import volumes early in 2022, retailers are expected to spur a new wave of growth for container volumes at the major U.S. ports that will extend through the summer months. There are fears that the new wave, compounded by an influx expected after the current shutdowns in China and coming just as U.S. West Coast ports face the expiration of labor contracts for their dockworkers, could lead to renewed congestion forming at the major ports.
New forecasts from the National Retail Federation in its monthly Global Port Tracker show a short-term slowing of imports having begun in March 2022 and predicted to continue till June. The trade group expects that retailers will begin to build inventories for the traditional fall and holiday selling seasons including bringing some merchandise shipments earlier to avoid potential delays at the container ports.
“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 said. “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.”
When the numbers are finalized for March, the Global Port Tracker projects retail import volumes will have been flat compared to the year earlier. It will mark the first decline for 2022 after positive numbers in January and February as U.S. ports continued to clear the backlogs and importers rushed to get merchandise out of Asia before factories began closing for the Lunar New Year holiday.
The decline that began in March is expected to carry over into both April and May. While volumes will remain strong at over two million TEU per month, the NRF is forecasting a one percent year-over-year decline for April and a stronger five percent decline in volumes during May.
“With West Coast ports still congested, there were still plenty of containers to be unloaded,” said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates which prepares the monthly tracker for the NRF. “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.”
Increases are expected to resume in June with the NRF predicting retail imports increasing better than five percent in both June and July versus the already strong volumes in 2021. They forecast total volumes of 2.26 million TEU for June and 2.32 million TEU in July. August could set a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports twenty years ago. They are forecasting August’s total will reach 2.35 million TEU, a 3.3 percent year-over-year increase, that would also surpass the previous high of 2.33 million TEU in May 2021.
The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.1 million TEU, up 2.5 percent year-over-year. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.