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Retail import growth slowing amid supply chain disruptions

cargo ship

Double-digit growth in imports at the nation’s largest retail container ports is slipping to single digits as pandemic-related supply chain disruptions around the world continue.

That’s according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

“Supply chain logistics management is facing acute problems as disruptions make it difficult for both importers and exporters to transact their business,” said Ben Hackett, founder, Hackett Associates.  “We are facing shortages in all sectors of the chain: a lack of sufficient shipping capacity, which leads to increases in the cost of shipment; lack of warehousing; lack of truck and rail capacity, and a shortage of labor across the board.”

NRF VP for supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold noted that year-over-year growth isn’t as dramatic as it was earlier because it is now compared against months when most stores closed by the pandemic had reopened and retailers were stocking up again.   But while that was expected, new issues are making things more challenging.

“We’re seeing issues ranging from port closures in Asia to ships lined up waiting to dock at U.S. ports,” he said. “That’s creating continuing challenges as retailers work to supply enough inventory to meet demand.”

The U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.19 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in July, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 2% from June and up 14.2% from a year earlier. A TEU is one 20-foot container or its equivalent.

Ports have not reported August numbers yet, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.27 million TEU, which would be up 7.8% year-over-year.

That would be the busiest August on record. But it would fall short of the 2.37 million TEU forecast for August a month ago, which would have broken May’s record of 2.33 million TEU for the largest number of containers imported during a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

With two dozen ships waiting as long as a week or more at anchor to unload at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently, some cargo anticipated in August may have been delayed into September. And with some sailings from Asia delayed by COVD-19 disruptions there, some cargo could arrive later in the fall than previously expected, the report said.

August is the beginning of the “peak season” when retailers stock up on holiday merchandise each year, and many retailers were trying to move up shipments this year to ensure that sufficient inventory will be available during the holidays.

September is forecast at 2.21 million TEU, which would be up 5.1% year-over-year; October at 2.19 million TEU, down 1.3% for the first year-over-year decline since July 2020; November at 2.13 million TEU, up 1.4%, and December at 2.07 million TEU, down 1.8%. January 2022 is forecast at 2.15 million TEU, up 4.5% from January 2021.

The first half of 2021 totaled 12.8 million TEU, up 35.6% from the same period last year. For the full year, 2021 is on track to total 25.9 million TEU, up 17.6% over 2020 and a new annual record topping last year’s 22 million TEU. Cargo imports during 2020 were up 1.9% over 2019 despite the pandemic.

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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