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NRF: Imports peaked in October, volume expected to increase in 2024

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Cargo imports
NRF is forecasting that 2023 holiday sales will increase between 3% and 4% over last year.

Incoming cargo volume at America’s container ports is expected to slow down in the final weeks of the year after peaking later than expected.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates, volume peaked this fall, with ports handling a higher-than-expected 2.05 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in October, the latest month for which final numbers are available. This was an increase of 1.3% from September, and up 2.5% year-over-year (YoY).

“We originally thought peak season would come in August but imports kept growing in September and again in October,” said NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “Whether it was merchandise for retailers or cargo for other businesses, that’s a good sign for the economy and for the holiday shopping season. NRF expects record-setting holiday sales this year and retailers are well-stocked to meet consumer demand.”

NRF is forecasting that 2023 holiday sales will increase between 3% and 4% over last year, in line with pre-pandemic growth rates, and will hit a record-setting total between $957.3 billion and $966.6 billion.

“The U.S. economy appears to be on a sustainable growth path as consumer demand remains buoyant,” Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said, noting solid Black Friday weekend sales, strong corporate profits and continued growth of gross domestic product. “It would be natural to assume that any thought of a recession is behind us, but a significant number of economists and politicians remain skeptical. As always, time will tell.”

By topping September’s 2.03 million TEU, NRF says that October is expected to be the peak of the holiday shipping season. With 1.96 million TEU, August had originally been expected to be the peak month.

Historically, cargo volume peaks came in October, but have occurred in August or sooner for seven of the past 10 years. NRF credits this to a series of port labor disputes that prompted retailers to bring merchandise into the country early to avoid potential disruptions near the holidays. 2020 was the most recent year that shipping peaked in October.

Global Port Tracker projected November to record 1.96 million TEU, up 10.5% year over year. December is forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up 11.5% year over year. If accurate, these numbers would bring import volume in 2023 to 22.4 million TEU, down 12.4% YoY.

Cargo volume growth is expected to continue into 2024. January is forecast at 1.93 million TEU, up 6.6% YoY. February – historically the slowest month because of Lunar New Year factory shutdowns in Asia – is forecast at 1.77 million TEU, up 14.5% YoY.

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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