Retailers Forecast Plateauing with Smaller US Import Volume Increases

forecast for US retail imports in 2022
Retailers' import volumes are plateauing providing relief for ports (NY/NJ Port file photo)

Published Jan 11, 2022 6:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

After a year of unprecedented increases, retailers’ imports at the U.S.’s major container ports are expected to return to normal growth rates in 2022. The National Retail Federation notes that while 2021 saw record growth and import levels, they are forecasting a leveling off and some declines in monthly volumes which could finally provide some relief for overburdened ports and the short supply of container shipping capacity.

Imports saw year-over-year growth as high as 65 percent in some months during 2021 according to the trade association’s monthly Global Port Tracker report. The NRF says that the record volumes, were the result of increased consumer demand, retailers’ efforts to stock up to mitigate supply chain challenges, and comparisons against periods early in 2020 when many stores were closed because of the pandemic.

With retailers having placed orders earlier in 2021, by the fall volume increases for imports returned to single digits reports the NRF. For the first half of 2022, they are forecasting the volumes will remain at more constant levels of between approximately two and two and a half million TEUs per month. That represents volumes increases of between approximately two and nine percent, with months such as March 2022 forecasted to show more than a three percent year-over-year decline in volumes.

“The huge increases in imports we’ve seen have leveled out, but volume is still at high levels,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy. “We hope the system will find a way to catch up, but there is much that remains to be done to clear out port backlogs and increase capacity throughout the supply chain. Amid all of this, the omicron variant is a wild card that could not only impact the supply chain workforce but once again drive more imports if consumers stay home and spend their money on retail goods rather than going out.”

The Global Port Tracker report estimates that the tally for 2021 when completed will show a 20 percent increase in import volumes from 2020 to 2021. For the U.S.’s largest dozen ports, the NRF projects the total was 25.9 million TEU setting a new record surpassing the 22 million TEU that arrived at the ports in 2020.

In the last months of 2021, however, the NRF believes import volumes were down by 4.5 percent in November recovering to just a 3.7 percent increase in December as retailers made a final push to get holiday season merchandise to the shelves and ports worked to clear backlogs. Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett who oversees the release of the monthly forecast for the NRF notes, “We do not expect that double-digit expansion of import volumes will continue in 2022.”

For the first five months of 2022, the NRF is forecasting that import volumes will increase just two percent over 2021. The numbers call for 10.89 million TEU up from 10.69 million TEU in imports last year. While that means continued heavy volumes at the major U.S. ports, it should be more consistent, providing opportunities for the global supply chain to stabilize compared to the challenges in the last year.