U.S. container import volumes increased in September, breaking with the traditional Fall decline in that number, according to the October Global Shipping Report from logistics technology firm Descartes Systems Group.
In September 2023, U.S. container import volume increased slightly compared to August 2023, which is counter to the decline that typically occurs in the last third of the year. Specifically, container imports rose 0.3% from the previous month to 2,203,452 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Versus September 2022, TEU volume was lower by 0.6%, but up 8.0% from pre-pandemic September 2019.
One source of that increase was China, which produced a rising number of containers flowing into to the U.S., and actually grew the share of Chinese imports out of total U.S. imports, Descartes said.
Another factor is that an extended drought in Panama that has crimped the number and size of ships passing through the crowded canal has led to slower transit times, but does not appear to be impacting U.S. container import volume overall.
And widespread port congestion seems to be a thing of the past, as port transit times remained close to their lowest levels for the top West Coast ports since Descartes began tracking them, despite the volume increase. The top East and Gulf Coast ports, however, are seeing extended transit times.
“The September increase in U.S. container imports bucked the traditional fall decline that has occurred for the previous six years…and imports from China were a large contributor to the September results,” Chris Jones, EVP Industry Descartes, said in a release. “The drought in Panama does not appear to be affecting Gulf Coast port volumes; however, port transit times are starting to extend.”
Still, looking ahead into coming trends, another report predicts that import cargo volume at the nation’s major container ports has already hit its expected peak for the year and should gradually slow headed into the holiday season, according to the Global Port Tracker report released today by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.
“Cargo volumes will still be strong the rest of the year, but not as high as we expected a month ago,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a release. “Retailers stocked up early this year as a safeguard against supply chain labor issues and are well-situated to meet consumer demand. Shoppers are spending more than they did last year, but the rate of growth we’ve seen the past couple of years has slowed and retailers are working to strike the right balance of supply and demand.”
With consumers worried over the impact of inflation and high interest rates – particularly for groceries, automobiles and mortgages – discretionary spending growth is slowing and retail cargo imports are expected to decline, Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said. Consumer spending grew 1.8% year over year in the second quarter rather than the 2.3% originally estimated, and NRF said last month that retail sales for the year could come in at the low end of its forecast of 4%-6% year-over-year growth.
“We are already seeing this in the operational decisions carriers are making,” Hackett said. “They have slowed down their ships in an attempt to cut capacity without having to take vessels out of service as new, larger ones ordered when demand was higher are delivered. Even so, ships are not sailing fully loaded, and freight rates are declining as a result. That’s a further indication that no cargo growth from current levels is expected on the near-term horizon. Perhaps 2024 will be better.”