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Cargo import volume at U.S. ports ‘booming’ amid new supply chain challenges

Imports of containerized goods at U.S. ports are booming.

The nation’s major container ports are in for a busy summer. 

Monthly inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to reach its highest level in nearly two years this summer, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

The increase comes as retailers are stocking up to meet demand, especially as they head into peak shipping season, according to NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold.

“Unfortunately, retailers are also facing supply chain challenges again, this time with congestion at overseas ports that are affecting operations and shipping rates,” he added.

Imports of containerized goods at U.S. ports are "booming," with particularly strong growth on the West Coast, said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett. He added that an expected seven-month string of import levels above 2 million twenty-foot equivalent units – a level reached only twice since October 2022 – is partly due to changes in the annual “peak season” for shipping.

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“In the last couple of years, we have witnessed a flattened peak season that has stretched out the volume of imports over extra months versus the strong, consolidated surge seen in the past,” he said. “Reasons range from retailers restocking following strong sales after the pandemic to trying to get ahead of increased tariffs on goods from China set to take effect in August and ensuring sufficient inventories for the holiday season amid strong consumer demand.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.02 million TEU – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in April, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 4.6% from March and up 13.2% year-over-year, and was the highest number since 2.06 million TEU last October.

Ports have not yet reported May’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected that volume rose to 2.09 million TEU, up 8.3% year-over-year for the highest level since 2.26 million in August 2022. June is forecast to go even higher at 2.11 million TEU, up 15.2% year-over-year. 

July is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, up 9.5%; August at 2.17 million TEU, up 10.6%. September is forecast at 2.06 million TEU, up 1.7%, and October at 2.01%, down 2.3% from the same month last year.

The first half of 2024 is expected to total 12.1 million TEU, up 15% from the same period last year. Imports during 2023 totaled 22.3 million TEU, down 12.8% from 2022.

The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2024 retail sales – excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants to focus on core retail – will grow grow between 2.5% and 3.5% over 2023.   

Global Port Tracker, which is produced for NRF by Hackett Associates, provides historical data and forecasts for the U.S. 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. 

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