Import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports is expected to hit its highest level in nearly a year this month as retailers stock up for the winter holidays, according to the Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
That conclusion comes after three major supply chain potholes were paved over through last-minute negotiations with labor groups. First, labor and management at West Coast ports reached a tentative contract agreement in June; second, a 13-day port strike in western Canada that affected some U.S. retailers last month ended with a tentative agreement; and third, United Parcel Service and the Teamsters agreed on a tentative contract that avoided a potential August 1 strike.
The researchers noted that only the Canadian agreement is final—having been ratified Friday—while the others are still going through the process of being approved through votes by union members. But most analysts expect the other two to win approval as well.
“Port and package-delivery labor negotiations that threatened the supply chain at the beginning of the summer have been resolved and retailers are now focused on preparing for the all-important holiday season,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “There are always supply challenges to be faced but holiday merchandise is flowing into the country, and we expect to see a smooth shipping season ahead of the winter holiday shopping season.”
Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said double-digit year-over-year decreases in cargo volume this year have come even though consumer spending and U.S. employment have increased. “Dollar figures for international trade show imports remain in a year-over-year decline and cargo volume shows the same,” Hackett said. “The discrepancy between rising growth in sales and declining cargo volumes is happening because retailers are working their way through inventory built up over the last 12 to 18 months. Cargo growth should resume as inventories are depleted.”
By the numbers, U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.83 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers in June, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 5.2% from May and down 18.7% year over year. That brought the first half of 2023 to 10.5 million TEU, down 22% from the first half of 2022.
Ports have not yet reported July numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 1.91 million TEU, down 12.7% year over year. August is forecast at 2.03 million TEU, down 10.2% year over year but the first month since last October to reach 2 million TEU. September is forecast at 1.97 million TEU, down 3%; October at 1.99 million TEU, down 1%; November at 1.92 million TEU, up 8% for the first year-over-year increase since June 2022, and December also at 1.92 million TEU, up 10.7% year over year.
If the forecasts hold true, those numbers would bring 2023 to 22.3 million TEU, down 12.8% from last 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.