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Imports down 22% as container shipments return to pre-pandemic levels

Cargo volume has dropped despite increased consumer spending.
Cargo volume has dropped despite increased consumer spending.

Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to be 22% lower during the first half of 2023 than the same time last year.

That’s according to the Global Port Tracker Report  released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. The report comes amid disruptions at West Coast ports as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association have failed to reach a new labor agreement after more than a year of negotiations.  The incidents have not yet been widespread enough to be reflected in nationwide data.

“Retailers are entering the busiest shipping season of the year bringing in holiday merchandise,” stated Jonathan Gold, VP for supply chain and customs policy, NRF.  “The last thing retailers and other shippers need is ongoing disruption at the ports. “

If labor and management can’t reach agreement and operate smoothly and efficiently, retailers will have no choice but to continue to take their cargo to East Coast and Gulf Coast gateways, according to Gold. 

Earlier this week, the NRF called on the the Biden administration to intervene following disruptions at terminals at the Ports of Oakland and Long Beach. 

“We continue to urge the administration to step in and help the parties reach an agreement and end the disruptions so operations can return to normal,” Gold said. “We’ve had enough unavoidable supply chain issues the past two years. This is not the time for one that can be avoided.”

Further, there is lower year-over-year cargo despite increased consumer spending.

“Economists and shipping lines increasingly wonder why the decline in container import demand is so much at odds with continuous growth in consumer demand,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said, noting that spending has been bolstered by strong employment numbers and increases in personal income. “Import container shipments have returned the pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019 and appear likely to stay there for a while.”

The U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.78 million 20-foot equivalent  units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in April, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 9.6% from March but down 21.3% year over year.

Ports have not yet reported May numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.84 million TEU, down 23% year over year. June is forecast at 1.91 million TEU, down 15.3% from the same month last year. That would bring the first half of 2023 to 10.5 million TEU, down 22.3% from the first half of 2022.

July is forecast at 1.99 million TEU, down 8.8% year over year; August at 2.02 million TEU, down 10.5%; September at 1.95 million TEU, down 4%, and October also at 1.95 million TEU, down 2.7%.

Global Port Tracker has not yet forecast the full year, but the third quarter is expected to total 5.97 million TEU, down 7.9% from the same time last year. The first nine months of the year should total 16.48 million TEU, down 17.6% year over year. Imports for all of 2022 totaled 25.5 million TEU, down 1.2% from the annual record of 25.8 million TEU set in 2021.

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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