U.S. ports report record imports in March

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by Emily Atkins

Imports at major U.S. retail container ports set a new record this spring and are expected to see near-record volume in May as retailers bring in merchandise early, to get ahead of rising costs and potential supply chain issues.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report, released by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates, U.S. ports handled 2.34 million TEU in March, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 10.8 percent from February and up 3.2 percent year over year.

It also topped the previous record of 2.33 million TEU set in May 2021 for the number of containers imported in a single month since NRF began tracking imports in 2002.

Retailers trying to get ahead

“Retailers are importing record amounts of merchandise to meet consumer demand, but they also have an incentive to stock up before inflation can drive costs higher,” said Jonathan Gold NRF’s vice-president for supply chain and customs policy.

“Whether it’s freight costs or the wholesale cost of merchandise, money retailers save is money that can be used to hold down prices for their customers during a time of inflation. In addition, retailers are preparing for any potential disruptions because of the West Coast port labour negotiations, which are set to begin next week. NRF has previously encouraged the parties to remain at the table and not engage in disruptions if a new contract is not reached by the time the current agreement expires July 1.”

Ports have not yet reported April numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.27 million TEU, up 5.7 percent from last year. May is forecast at 2.3 million TEU, which would be down 1.4 percent from last year but nonetheless the third-highest level on record.

Consumer spending

“Consumer spending is growing faster than income growth, perhaps as shoppers buy ahead of expected rising prices,” said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett.

“Importers are doing much the same as they continue to replenish their inventories. Doing so will protect them against potentially rising freight costs, further delays in the supply chain and complications in upcoming labor negotiations at U.S. West Coast ports.”

June is forecast at 2.29 million TEU, up 6.6 percent from last year; July at 2.31 million TEU, up 5.3 percent; August at 2.29 million TEU, up 0.9 percent, and September at 2.15 million TEU, up 0.3 percent.

The first six months of 2022 are expected to total 13.5 million TEU, up 5.1 percent year over year. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4 percent increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.

Global Port Tracker 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.