NRF: Import Cargo Volume Slowing

After two years of strong growth, monthly figures from the National Retail Federation show a decline that is expected to continue through the end of 2022.
Greg Sleter
Associate Publisher/Executive Editor
Greg Sleter profile picture
supply chain shipping

After a record setting pace over the past two years, import traffic at the nation’s major ports is slowing and expected to be below 2021 levels, according to the monthly Global Tracker Report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

Jonathan Gold, vice president for Supply Chain with the NRF, said that while consumers continue to buy products, the cargo surge is slowing.

“Cargo volumes are solidly above pre-pandemic levels, but the rate of growth has slowed and even slid into negative numbers compared with unusually high volumes last year,” he said. “The key now is dealing with ongoing supply chain issues around the globe and with labor negotiations at West Coast ports and freight railroads. Smooth operations at the ports and on the rails is crucial as we enter the busy holiday season.”

Talks continue between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, whose contract expired July 1. Meanwhile, the freight railroads and their union have continued to negotiate after recommendations from the Presidential Emergency Board appointed this summer were released. Both dockworkers and railroad workers remain on the job, but there are concerns about potential disruptions.

While congestion at key West Coast ports has eased, the shift of cargo to the East Coast has increased congestion there, said Ben Hackett, founder of Hackett Associates. 

“The inland supply chain, particularly rail, continues to face difficulties that have resulted in the delay of containers leaving ports, causing terminal congestion that impacts the ability of carriers to discharge their cargo,” he said.

U.S. ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 2.18 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units – one 20-foot container or its equivalent – in July, the latest month for which final numbers are available. That was down 3.1% from June and down 0.4% from July 2021 – only the third year-over-year decline in two years and the first since December 2021.

Ports have not yet reported August’s numbers, but Global Port Tracker projected the month at 2.17 million TEU, down 4.3% year over year. September is forecast at 2.1 million TEU, down 1.8%; October also at 2.1 million TEU, down 4.8%; November at 2.04 million TEU, down 3.3%, and December at 2.01 million TEU, down 4%.

The first half of the year totaled 13.5 million TEU, a 5.5% increase year over year. The forecast for the remainder of the year would bring the second half to 12.6 million TEU, down 3.1% year over year. For the full year, 2022 is expected to total 26.1 million TEU, up 1.2% from last year’s annual record of 25.8 million TEU.

The current decline is expected to continue in January 2023, which is forecast at 2.11 million TEU, down 2.6% from January 2022.