US container imports remain strong, notes NRF’s Port Tracker
US-BOUND retail container imports are expected to reach near-record volumes as retailers strive to meet demand levels and hedge against possible west coast labour disruptions, according to the latest Port Tracker from the National Retail Federation (NRF).
“We’re in for a busy summer at the ports,” said NRF vice president Jonathan Gold. “Back-to-school supplies are already arriving, and holiday merchandise will be right behind.
“The big wild card is what will happen with west coast labour negotiations with the current contract set to expire on July 1. We continue to encourage the parties to remain at the table until a deal is done, but some of the surge we’ve seen may be a safeguard against any problems that might arise,” Mr Gold said.
For April, the most recent month for which data is available, import volume – at 2.26 million TEU – was down 3.6 per cent compared to March’s 2.34 million TEU, the all-time monthly record, usurping March 2021’s 2.33 million TEU. April’s tally was up 5.1 per cent annually.
For the following months, Port Tracker issued the following projections:
May, at 2.31 million TEU, down 0.9 per cent annually (May 2021’s 2.33 million TEU is the second-highest volume month on record); June, at 2.31 million TEU, up 7.5 per cent annually, but would match June as the third-highest month on record; July, at 2.3 million TEU, up 4.8 per cent; August, at 2.28 million TEU, up 0.2 per cent; September, at 2.13 million TEU, down 0.4 per cent year on year and October, at 2.13 million TEU, down 3.8 per cent.
Port Tracker, produced by maritime consultancy Hackett Associates, expected the first six months of 2022 to come in at 13.5 million TEU, up from a previous estimate of 13.1 million TEU, which would represent a 5.3 per cent year-on-year gain.
Mr Gold said consumer demand remains high and continues to drive solid import volumes. “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a US$1 trillion swing, in consumer spending, from services to goods,” he said.
“The consumer is still out there purchasing online or in store as things open up again and will continue to do more and more of that. I think consumers are looking to spend more on services now that all of the mask mandates are gone and things are opening back up. But inflation and gas prices are a factor, too.”
As for Port Tracker data in the coming months, he said that gains are expected but not to the same extent in 2021, which often saw double-digit increases, related to more moderate annual comparisons.
Said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett: “The anticipation is that the manufacturing and transportation sectors will quickly get back to normal with significant support from the government in its attempt to repair the damage caused to the economy by its Covid zero policy.”
What’s more, with first quarter US GDP down to 1.5 per cent in the first quarter, its first decline since the second quarter of 2020, Mr Hackett cited economists indicating 2022 GDP is expected to increase at less than half of 2021’s 5.7 per cent, adding that 2023 could see more of a decrease.
He also said that this has yet to be reflected in trade volumes, due to consumers leveraging higher wages, increases employment, and savings accumulated over the course of the pandemic, with total 2022 import volumes expected to be up 2.6 per cent annually.
“Much of the growth will be in the first half of the year, which is expected to be up nearly five per cent annually,” he said. “Importers continue to re-stock their warehouses in the continuing environment of delays caused by labour shortages in the supply chain.”
Ports surveyed include Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, Houston, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Miami, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglades.