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Container imports surging on all three coasts

Cargo volume has dropped despite increased consumer spending.
Cargo volume is surging as U.S. consumers continue to spend on goods.

Inbound cargo volume is surging — with no letup in sight.

Monthly inbound cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports should consistently be above 2 million twenty-foot equivalent units through this summer and into early fall, according to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“We haven’t seen numbers this high for this many months in almost two years,” NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold said. “Regardless of what headlines about the economy might say, consumers are shopping and retailers are making sure they have merchandise on hand to meet demand. The supply chain has adjusted to recent disruptions and retailers will work to keep the flow of goods moving smoothly as the back-to-school and holiday seasons approach.”

Even with a shift in spending to services, U.S. consumers continue to spend on goods, added Ben Hackett, founder, Hackett Associates.

“We are still seeing a strong volume of goods flowing into ports despite global geopolitical turmoil, high interest rates and a slowdown in economic growth,” he said. “There has been a surge of container imports on all three coasts, with the strongest being the Gulf, followed by the Pacific and the East Coast. The issue now is whether this surge will continue or level off.”

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.93 million TEU — one 20-foot container or its equivalent — in March, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 1.4% from February but up 18.7% from March 2023, when Asian exports were slow after Lunar New Year shutdowns.

Ports have not yet reported April’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.96 million TEU, up 10% year over year. May is forecast at 2.06 million TEU, up 6.8% year over year to tie last October for the highest level since 2.26 million TEU in August 2022. 

June is forecast at 2.03 million TEU, up 10.7% from the same month last year; July at 2.02 million TEU, up 5.5%; August at 2.1 million TEU, up 7.1%, and September at 2.04 million TEU, up 0.5%.

Monthly volume has reached the 2 million TEU mark only twice since a 19-month streak that ended in October 2022.

The first half of 2024 is expected to total 11.9 million TEU, up 13% from the same period last year. Imports during 2023 totaled 22.3 million TEU, down 12.8% from 2022.

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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