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Port congestion slowing pace of retail imports

Congestion at the nation’s largest retailer container ports is slowing the movement of backed-up cargo.

That’s according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates. While imports should remain at near-record levels this month, they could see a slight dip from last year’s unusually high numbers due to the congestion.

“The cargo is there for larger gains at several ports but congestion issues are impacting fluid operations,” said NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold. “Ships will eventually get unloaded but the pressure is on for everyone to work together to get the containers out as quickly as possible.”

The congestion and disruption come as retailers are preparing for what is expected to be a very busy holiday season. Many retailers have been placing orders earlier and taking other measures to ensure they have sufficient inventory.

“Retailers are doing whatever it takes to make sure shelves are well-stocked for the holidays, from bringing in merchandise earlier to chartering their own ships,” Gold said.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said that COVID-19 infections in Asia have slowed the loading of U.S.-bound ships, while shortages of equipment, labor and outbound truck and rail capacity have continued to build congestion at U.S. ports.  Close to 75 ships were waiting at anchor to enter the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently, up from around 25 a month earlier, and backups are spreading to East Coast ports as well.

“Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse with the logistics supply chain, we’ve been proven wrong,” Hackett said. “From power outages and port shutdowns in Asia to backed-up ships and shortages of truck drivers in the United States, there are few positive signs that the movement of consumer goods or the supply of inputs needed for industrial production is getting better.”

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.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.27 million twenty-foot equivalent units in August, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 3.5 percent from July and up 7.8 percent from a year earlier and tied March as the second-busiest month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002. May remains the busiest month on record at 2.33 million TEU. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

Ports have not reported September numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.25 million TEU, which would be up 6.7 percent year-over-year.

October is forecast at 2.21 million TEU. That would be down 0.3 percent from the same time last year, when imports surged dramatically as the economy reopened after the first wave of COVID-19 and retailers rushed to meet pent-up consumer demand, but still the sixth-busiest month on record as imports remain high. The year-over-year decline would be the first since July 2020.

November is forecast at 2.16 million TEU, which would be up 2.9 percent year-over-year, and December is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, down 0.2 percent. January 2022 is forecast at 2.17 million TEU, up 5.7 percent from January 2021, and February 2022 is forecast at 1.9 million TEU, up 1.4 percent year-over-year.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6 percent from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 26 million TEU, up 18.1 percent over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9 percent over 2019 despite the pandemic.

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