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Import growth levels out, but supply chain challenges persist

Retail imports saw year-over-year growth as high as 65% in some months during 2021.

The holiday season is over but supply chain challenges continue.

After a year of unprecedented increases, imports at the nation’s major retail container ports are expected to return to normal growth rates in 2022, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. But volumes remain high,

“The huge increases in imports we’ve seen have leveled out, but volume is still at high levels, “said NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “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.”

According to Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, economic indicators are giving a paradoxical view of the direction of the U.S. and global economies.

“The atmosphere of uncertainty is likely to have an impact on demand going forward,” he said.  “We are already seeing short-term growth rates declining, and we believe trade growth is returning to normal levels reflective of economic factors. We do not expect that double-digit expansion of import volumes will continue in 2022.”

Imports saw year-over-year growth as high as 65% in some months during 2021, which was 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.

Increases returned to single digits by last fall and should remain there this year. Nonetheless, volumes of about 2.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units or more expected during most months in the first half of 2022 will be near-records.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.11 million TEU in November, the latest month for which final numbers are available. (A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.) That was down 4.5% from October but up 0.5% year-over-year. Ports have not reported December numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.18 million TEU, up 3.7% year-over-year.

Those numbers would bring 2021 to a total of 25.9 million TEU, a 17.9% increase over 2020’s record high of 22 million TEU that was set despite the pandemic.

January is forecast at 2.23 million TEU, up 8.6% year-over-year; February at 1.95 million TEU, up 4.2% year-over-year; and March at 2.19 million, down 3.3%. April is forecast at 2.2 million TEU, up 2.5%, and May at 2.32 million TEU, down 0.5%.

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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