Import Traffic Remains at Record High Levels

Figures from the National Retail Federation through May reveal continued strong movement of goods through major U.S. ports.
Greg Sleter
Associate Publisher/Executive Editor
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U.S. Ports

Imports set another record this spring as the nation’s major container ports worked to reduce congestion and retailers stocked up as the fourth quarter holiday shopping season approaches.

In addition, retailers also made preparations ahead of the expiring west coast dockworkers labor contract.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), ports saw a surge in activity this spring as a slowdown in cargo from Chinese factories closed by COVID-19 gave them a chance to clear built-up congestion. Retailers bringing in seasonal merchandise and importing other goods early to avoid any problems related to the contract negotiations may have also contributed to volume.

“Cargo volume is expected to remain high as we head into the peak shipping season, and it is essential that all ports continue to operate with minimal disruption,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for Supply Chain and Customs Policy with the NRF. “Supply chain challenges will continue throughout the remainder of the year, and it is particularly important that labor and management at west coast ports remain at the bargaining table and reach an agreement.”

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired July 1, but cargo operations are continuing. NRF and more than 150 groups wrote to President Biden last week asking the administration to work with both sides to avoid disruption.

U.S. ports covered by the NRF’s Global Port Tracker report from Hackett Associates handled 2.4 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in May, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was up 6% from April and up 2.7% year over year. The volume in May also set a new record for the number of containers imported in a single month since the NRF began tracking imports in 2002, topping 2.34 million TEU in March of 2022.

Ports have not yet reported June numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.25 million TEU, up 4.8% from the same month last year. That would bring the first half of the year to 13.5 million TEU, a 5.4% increase year over year.

July is forecast at 2.31 million TEU, up 5.3% from last year, and would be the fourth-busiest month on record. August is forecast at 2.26 million TEU, down 0.5% year over year; September at 2.12 million TEU, down 0.8%; October also at 2.12 million TEU, down 4.1%, and November at 2.06 million TEU, down 2.5%.

The year-over-year declines during the second half of the year contrast with unusually high numbers during the same period in 2021, but volumes remain high, and the full year is still expected to see a net increase over 2021, NRF officials said. Imports for all of 2021 totaled 25.8 million TEU, a 17.4% increase over 2020’s previous annual record of 22 million TEU.